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Funeral music in Vietnam: All-female band plays Western-style brass instruments

Monday, October 19, 2015, 11:20 GMT+7

A group of rural women from the northern part of Vietnam, including several nearing their 60s, have amazed audiences while playing Western-style brass instruments, a practice traditionally exclusive to men.

>> An audio version of the story is available here

Over the past few years, an all-female troupe playing trumpets, saxophones, trombones and cornets have become a fixture at funerals, processions and other ceremonial get-togethers in Trong Quan Commune, located in Dong Hung District of Thai Binh Province.

Apart from haunting melodies performed with traditional musical instruments, tunes on such Western-style brass instruments are also generally played at funerals, particularly when accompanying the deceased to their final resting place. Most of the players are male.

Performances by an all-female troupe are not something one expects to see every day.

Troupe leader, Nguyen Thi Toan, who has played in the group since its infancy, revealed that she and the other members have practiced the technically demanding, bulky instruments out of passion and as a supplemental source of income.

Six years ago, Reverend Nguyen Van Dat, who led the church in Trong Quan Commune, gathered a number of women, including Toan, to take up music lessons and to learn to play brass.

He traveled all the way to Hanoi and the northern province of Nam Dinh to buy quality instruments, before giving the lessons himself.

Toan and her teammates gathered at the church in the evenings to learn from Reverend Dat.

None of the women had any musical background and several did not even finish high school.

Initially they handled the hefty instruments clumsily, and had immense difficulty making music with them.      

“We soon got used to and then hooked on the instruments before we even realized it though. Previously during idle, off-season times, these women generally did menial jobs such as seamstressing or construction work for extra income. Now they hardly care about such jobs, since they can play these Western instruments,” Toan said.

The women also practiced the instruments at home, with their husbands and children being their first audiences and judges.

Though short of money, Toan bought three saxophones for a total of some VND10 million (US$448).

Several other members borrowed money to buy themselves at least one item.

It takes great physical strength, stamina and strong arms to play the brass instruments, as there are times when they must hold them for hours during services in the chancel.

They have also learnt how to regulate their breathing and keep their throats in good condition.

Over the last few years, the troupe have had a membership of around 30, ranging from those in their 30s to women in their late 50s.

Several young girls have also expressed their wish to join the band in the future.

In the beginning, the troupe members practiced church hymns and a few common songs for funerals.

However later on, Reverend Dat invited a professional musician from Thai Binh Province to help his group brush up on their artistry and finesse.

Over the past three years or so, the troupe have given skillful performances at funerals and other ceremonies held in their locality and even in some neighboring provinces.

Wealthier clients usually pay them VND5 million ($224) for performances that last for one day and night of a traditional funeral ceremony, and may also offer generous tips of VND2-3 million ($89-134).

Less affluent families remunerate them a mere VND2 million ($89), which means VND100,000 ($4.5) per head.

Whatever the pay, the group still give their best without any complaint, Toan said.

The money is divided equally among all its members, whether they are the troupe leader, vice leader or a supporting player.

They can earn VND5-6 million ($224-269) each month from such performances, considered a handsome income in the rural area.

Tran Thi Yen, one of the members, revealed that she would toil all day as a construction worker for a mere VND3 million ($134) each month.

“With such a good income, my husband and kids are all supportive of my indulgence,” she added.

Apart from earning extra pay, troupe members always bear in mind that constantly honing their skills is integral, so that they can successfully represent their parish at local music festivals.

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