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Professor’s lifelong dedication to traditional Vietnamese music

Professor’s lifelong dedication to traditional Vietnamese music

Sunday, February 02, 2014, 10:37 GMT+7

94-year-old professor Tran Van Khe has spent his life traveling the world to lecture on, perform, and promote traditional Vietnamese music.

Khe, who lived in Paris for decades, has nurtured his love for Vietnam’s traditional music since a tender age.

Khe fulfilled his childhood passion for the music of his home country by working his way through college in France in the early 1950s. He performed only traditional Vietnamese music on traditional instruments at a restaurant owned by a Vietnamese expat. His music melted the hearts of many, including his French audience.

Since then, he has dedicated himself to researching, promoting, and honoring his country’s music around the globe.

Vietnam’s traditional music has thus made its way to more than 15 universities, 200 international music seminars in 67 countries, and 20 world music festivals.

Khe’s international colleagues and friends all consider him a versatile, eminent personality, who boasts outstanding skills in researching, lecturing, playing instruments, and speaking foreign languages. They all say they look up to him for his talents and devotion to the genre.

The professor’s mastery of several Vietnamese instruments never fails to captivate his audiences. He can play the “dan kim” or “dan nguyet” (moon-shaped lute), “dan tranh” (sixteen stringed zither), “dan co” or “dan nhi” (two-stringed fiddle), “dan ty ba” (pear-shaped, four stringed lute), and the “trong nhac” (ceremonial drum).

Khe is also the first Vietnamese to have earned a PhD in music from Paris’ prestigious Sorbonne University, with his dissertation titled “Traditional Vietnamese Music.”

The professor was also assigned with compiling nine pages on the history of Vietnamese music for the Encyclopedie de la Pleiade (Encylopedia of the Pleiade) in late 1958. This was the very first time Vietnamese music entered an internationally recognized encyclopedia.

Khe also played a central role in earning traditional Vietnamese music UNESCO’s recognition. These genres include “nha nhac Hue” (Hue court music), “ca tru” (northern ceremonial singing), the Central Highlands gong culture, and “don ca tai tu” (southern folk music), which most recently earned the recognition as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Dedicated until his last breath

Several years ago, the revered professor returned to his home country, where he wishes to spend his final years furthering his research and passing on his in-depth knowledge and skills to younger generations.

One of his major concerns is how to make traditional music genres more appealing to today’s youth.

Over the past nine years, Khe’s home on Huynh Dinh Hai Street in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh District has become a haunt for artists and musicians to congregate.

Up to a few years ago, Khe lectured children on traditional Vietnamese music, acquainting them with the genre. He launched projects to teach elementary school students about the genre to kindle their interest in it.

His merry performances onstage with the children concealed his health problems, such as blurred vision and considerable difficulty in moving.

Last year, Khe launched a library in his home, at 32 Huynh Dinh Hai Street, which showcases some 6,420 books, 4,374 journals and magazines on traditional music, and 2,230 files including Khe’s writings and others’ about him. The library is open to the public.

In 2011, despite his poor health, he managed to finish his book “The Nationality in Pham Duy’s Music and the Duy-Khe Friendship.” Pham Duy, one of the country’s most prolific composers, was moved to tears at Khe’s profound analysis of his music.

Khe is now too weak to write, read, or perform, but he never ceases to contribute to the country’s traditional music arena.

He worries about the shortage of professional music experts and the inadequate attention given to the development and promotion of the genre. Tran Quang Hai, Khe’s son, is also a noted expert in traditional music.

In mid-2013, both father and son were lauded by the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee for their massive contributions in promoting “don ca tai tu” in a bid to earn recognition from UNESCO. Khe has also been presented with a host of other accolades and honors from prestigious universities, academies, and international institutions.

No longer fit enough to play his favorite musical instruments, Khe, who is in a wheelchair now, still sits for hours gazing at them, knowing that some day soon he will part with them forever.  



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