Tai Tu Nam Bo
Saigon: Masters of Traditional Music
Wergo (www.hkw.de)

A chordophone lover's delight, the pieces on this CD showcase various combinations of eight different kinds of Vietnamese lutes, fiddles, and zithers accompanied by vertical and transverse bamboo flutes. The one constant throughout is the clack of the song lang, a block slitdrum played by foot, that marks the long cadences of this musical genre called don ca tai tu. Often mistranslated as "amateur music" this "music of the talented" emerged during the war-induced migration of refugees to southern Vietnam in the latter half of the 19th century. The mixing of various formal musical traditions brought by refugees from different parts and the collapse of any hierarchy associated with the original traditions led to a freer form of entertainment music that was more accessible and syncretic. Informal gatherings in townhouse gardens and on boats in the comfort of the cool evening breeze were the settings for the soothing, freely improvisational repertoire sampled here.

Each instrument has a specific timbre that evokes comparisons to other familiar instruments such as the Chinese pipa or the Japanese koto, but the bau, a single-string box zither, has a truly unique, out-of-this-world sound that could only be likened to the proto-electronic theremin. The sound quality of the recording is excellent and the illustrations of the instruments in the liner notes are helpful. - John Cho

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