Flutist on mission to collect nat’l treasure

Published: 29/05/2009 05:00



Flutes are said to be close to the hearts of the Vietnamese, and none more so than artist Duc Lien, who has the biggest collection in the nation.

Lien has not only spent time collecting flutes, but he has also taken pains to learn how to play them.

Flutes are said to be close to the hearts of the Vietnamese, and none more so than artist Duc Lien, who has the biggest collection in the nation.

Artist Duc Lien has nurtured his passion for the flute since childhood, performing for soldiers during the war in his youth and collecting instruments from ethnic groups all over Viet Nam.

His collection of flutes – more than 100 from 43 ethnic groups across Viet Nam – is the largest in Viet Nam. He doesn’t collect them merely to display on a dusty shelf. Instead he writes music specific to each instrument and performs his original compositions for the public.

Lien has performed with eight of his flutes at the Perform to the World show, organised by Tuoi Tre (Youth) Theatre, which introduces a wide range of Vietnamese arts to foreign audiences.

“I liked Lien’s flutes the most. Someone said that they belong to Vietnamese ethnic groups. The sound is unique and quite pretty,” said one American in the audience.

National identity

The image of a young shepherd playing his flute on the back of a buffalo is a reoccurring theme in Vietnamese folk paintings. It’s said that the flute in particular is very close to Vietnamese people’s hearts. The flute has been a major part of Lien’s life since childhood.

Lien was born in 1956 in Chiem Hoa District, in the northern province of Tuyen Quang, home to many bamboo forests where little Lien often played with friends. They would chop bamboo branches to make flutes and bit by bit, he taught himself to play folk melodies, which charmed the ears of villagers.

When Lien was 12, he got the chance to come to Ha Noi, where he met veteran flutists Dinh Thin and Duc Tuy.

“After I met them and expressed my hopes, they tested me and told me I was a promising student. They said they would teach me all their secrets,” Lien says. “I stayed in Ha Noi to study under them for two years until the cruel war and the hard life interrupted me.”

Lien had to return to his home village and only had time to study during the summer holidays.

When Lien joined the army in 1974, his flute came along for the journey. Whenever festivals were held, Lien was asked to perform. He served in the army’s ensemble band.

He began collecting flutes in 1977. Whenever his combat unit would move to a new area, his first question would be what kind of flute was traditional to the region.

Duc Lien has won numerous prizes. He has performed all over the world – in the US, South Korea, France, Japan, China and Europe.

“Wherever I go, I receive a warm welcome,” Lien says. “Vietnamese flutes are loved abroad, which makes me proud and more infatuated with flutes.”

Lien still remembers his performance in the US to welcome a delegation of Vietnamese leaders. When the show ended, many overseas Vietnamese ran to the stage to offer him flowers, hugging and shaking hands with him like old friends. Living far from home, the flute’s sound had moved them.

Flute-finding mission

The Ca Le flute of the Lo Lo ethnic group is the smallest in Lien’s collection, only 10cm in length and 0.4cm in width. While Lien was wandering the north-western region in search of new flutes, he stumbled across a Lo Lo ethnic girl playing a strange instrument. Lien moved towards the girl to study the instrument. The girl looked up and was startled at the sight of a strange man following her. She ran into the forest and Lien followed, calling out “Hey, I’m not an evildoer! I just wanted to ask for directions.” After a moment of hesitation, the girl stopped and Lien introduced himself.

“Knowing that I served in the army as a flute-playing soldier, the girl showed her friendliness. Then she offered me her flute and taught me to play,” Lien says.

Since then, the Ca Le flute has been a treasured item in his collection.

Finding the Tam Lay flute of Thai ethnic people was just as difficult. Hearing rumours of the unique flute, he asked the local department of Culture and Information for help and came to the ethnic artists’ village. Unfortunately for Lien, because the flute is a precious item that is never shared with outsiders. Lien was not discouraged. He decided to live with the local people to prove his sincerity.

Once, after a festival, the old artists got drunk and Lien showed off his flute-playing for them. Finally, the elders’ hearts softened in the face of Lien’s determination and they granted him a flute.

Unique heritage

Lien is proud of his collection. Each flute has its own story that reflects the history and character of the ethnic group.

Lien has a 30cm flute which has a tone so low that no western musical instrument can compare. Another is a one-hole flute, which can produce many different tones.

Phong Tieu flute of the Sara ethnic group in the Central Highlands is a bamboo pipe which is hollow at two ends. Lien learned to use his breath and his hand to create different tones.

For Lien, it’s hard to say what’s more difficult, collecting the flutes or learning how to play them.

“If I own a flute but can’t use it, it becomes a useless item,” Lien says. “It’s lucky that I have had the chance to learn to play the instrument during the collecting process.”

Lien takes very good care of his collection, lubricating his 100 flutes by rubbing them with women’s remover cream and storing them in a leather suitcase.

He is still missing flutes from ethnic groups in the Central Highlands. His fondest wish is to complete his collection with a flute from every group in the country.


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