Prosperity revives a tradition
Hoang Hiep Binh is a fiddler in a music band who never goes on stage to perform and doesn’t even play at home to relax because most people within earshot would not want to listen to his tunes.
Binh plays a two-stringed fiddle in a band that serves the dead.
Unlike Western countries where hymns, classical, jazz or pop music can be heard at funerals, Vietnam has a specific musical genre for mourning the dead and comforting the living with the belief that the strains accompany the soul to the Land of Buddha.
Having disappeared during the 1960s and ‘70s under a communist government opposed to superstition and having been interrupted by the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, funeral music was revived two decades ago as living standards rose.
In Thailand, also a heavily Buddhist country, the music is not as popular, but funeral songs are sometimes heard.
Playing funeral music is one of Vietnam’s oldest professions, often passed down within families and used not just at Buddhist ceremonies but also at nonreligious ones.
Its practitioners and fans say the music does not get enough respect.
“It has an important position in the life of the Vietnamese, but people do not look at it as an artistic activity,” said Dang Hoanh Loan, deputy head of the Vietnam Institute for Musicology and a traditional music researcher.
Binh said most of the fault lies with the musicians, who were mostly less-educated rice farmers more accustomed to hard labor than to fine art. Their crude demeanor spoiled the image of funeral musicians, he said.
“They have themselves caused the disrespect,” he said. “Sometimes I wanted to quit because of that social concept.”
Originally, the eight-piece band -- including a bell, a drum, a two-stringed fiddle, a three-stringed lute, a flute and a pair of cymbals -- played continuously from the moment the deceased was placed in a coffin until burial.
“But the picture of the funeral music nowadays is a musical mixture of several types,” Loan said. “There are no more eight-piece bands.... It is no longer genuine.”
Band members have always been men because in the old feudal era women were not allowed access to sacred places, he said.
With nearly a decade in the job, Binh is able to play the drum, a monochord or a fiddle in order to stand in for anyone in his band of five. Other bands have four to six members.
Musicians said the better bands play at about a dozen funerals a month. A qualified player can earn $190 to $255 monthly. Per capita income is about $400 a year in Vietnam.
The bands are often hired for funerals held at home, often playing until midnight.
“The busiest time is from October, it could be a funeral every two days. When the business is less, I have to do other jobs,” said musician Hanh, who, in his late 40s, is also a motorcycle taxi driver.
The colder months, particularly in north Vietnam, tend to result in more illnesses.
But growth in the bands is limited by factionalism. Loan said each commune or village has its own band and the job is passed only from father to son.
“That has led to limits in the creativeness, in compositions, and so there is no school,” Loan said. His facility, set up in 1951, is the state body charged with preserving national music.
Bands compete not just against each other but also against taped music that is played when the players take a breather and sometimes as a substitute for live performers.
Hanoi’s main funeral hall often uses a taped revolutionary song glorifying fallen soldiers for state officials.