AMIS 2022: Contemporary Innovations for the Đàn Bầu Monochord in the Canadian-Vietnamese Diaspora

The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

Contemporary Innovations for the Đàn Bầu Monochord in the Canadian-Vietnamese Diaspora
Lisa Beebe

Lisa Beebe is Assistant Professor of musicology and ethnomusicology at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, California. In 2017, she completed a PhD in cultural musicology from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a dissertation focused on the cultural history of the Vietnamese đàn bầu monochord. Along with the đàn bầu, she loves to play viola, tenor and bass viols da gamba, and recorders.

A monochord zither, the đàn bầu (also known by Vietnamese musicians as the đàn độc huyền or độc huyền cầm, both meaning “one string instrument”) is a symbol of cultural pride in Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora due to its organological distinctiveness. For example, while other Southeast and East Asian cultures have monochords similar in construction to the đàn bầu, the Vietnamese instrument is unique in its use of natural harmonics rather than stopping the string directly. In this paper, I argue that Vietnamese-Canadian musicians draw upon the distinctiveness of the đàn bầu to distinguish Vietnamese music from the music of other diaspora communities. I draw on a series of interviews and virtual đàn bầu lessons with Vietnamese-Canadian musician Bic Hoang. As a teacher, composer, and performing musician, Ms. Bic has introduced Canadian audiences to the đàn bầu through educational programs and collaborations with institutions such as the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra (VICO). Ms. Bic’s 2016 collaboration with VICO, River of Memory, is a fretted đàn bầu concerto featuring violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, and percussion, as well as the erhu spike fiddle, yangqin dulcimer, yueqin lute, and the oud lute. Not only is Ms. Bic a talented performer on the standard đàn bầu monochord, but her compositions for đàn bầu modified with frets make use of extended techniques to continue to expand the sonic palette of the instrument. Through the work of composer Bic Hoang, this paper explores contemporary organological innovations for the đàn bầu monochord and investigates the ways in which musicians center the đàn bầu as a symbol of Vietnamese identity in multicultural Canada.

Watch more videos from the 2022 AMIS Conference here.