Answering Calls From Home


by Minh Luan

Devoted musicologist Professor Tran Van Khe is more attuned to the sounds of Viet Nam than most, but in recent years the call of his homeland has become an increasingly dominant force in his life.

In the past, Tran Van Khe’s brief visits to Viet Nam were usually a whirlwind of work engagements, though high blood pressure and diabetes constantly threatened his health.

However, thanks to growing recognition of Tran Van Khe’s contribution to Vietnamese academia, this year will mark a new phase in his relationship with his homeland. Plans to build a museum in which he can continue and expand his research look set to ensure that this eminent cultural historian is able to spend more time in the country of his birth.

On the mic: Master Khe joins a cai luong artist in song as young spectators throng to enjoy this rare duet.
Having a jam: Musicians watch on with approval as Professor Tran Van Khe beats his hand to the tune of their folk music. Khe’s decades of musical research have earned him pride of place in Vietnamese musical circles. — VNS Photos Duc Ngoc

Tran Van Khe is expected to return to Viet Nam in July for a series of important cultural events. First on the agenda is the 2003 Festival of Folksongs and Folkdances, held by the HCM City’s People’s Committee and Department of Culture and Information, followed by the Moi Do Mung Xuan (Wishes for each New Spring) live cai luong show, sponsored by Emeritus Artist Ngoc Huyen, and finally the Nhung Canh Chim Khong Moi (Untiring bird-wings) programme by HCM City Television.

He will also chair musical studies seminars and give lectures on poetry, music and gastronomic culture, drawn from the copious notes that he organises meticulously in his many notebooks.

Prominent Vietnamese artists rarely lose the chance to catch up with Tran Van Khe when he is in town, and by observing their conversations I can see how he has accumulated his impressive wealth of knowledge. The topics he discusses are diverse, but he never fails to take extensive notes.

"When I was a young journalist," he explains, "I was used to this work. Sometimes, even if I were in bed and going to sleep, when an idea flashed up in my mind I took notes till 2 or 3am. When we get into the habit of such a well-organised method of working, our work will go more smoothly."

So with eminent artists Ut Bach Lan and Vien Chau, he focuses on the composition of traditional songs. His meeting with Emeritus Artist Ngoc Giau is more lively, because it turns to the artist’s experiences during his tour of Western Europe in February 1984. With Emeritus Artist Thanh Tong, he navigates a complex discussion of traditional opera and the difficulties facing modern artists like a boatman who knows a river’s rapids by heart.

Tran Van Khe is a man of wide-ranging interests, but one of his pet projects is Cau Lac Bo Tieng Hat Que Huong, or The Song of the Homeland Club, which has nurtured many generations of renowned dan tranh (sixteen-string zither), dan bau (monochord) artists and folk singers. He is regarded as a teacher and mentor for the club, which has more than 200 members.

"This year Master Tran Van Khe has reached the age of 83. His health gets weaker and weaker but still he is very busy," says his formerstudent, Emeritus Teacher Pham Thuy Hoan. "He is anxious not only about the activities of the club, but also about the procurement of scholarships for keen but poor students."

"His silent endeavours make us uneasy. Sometimes small matters discourage us, but as for him his love for the homeland becomes more and more passionate.

"For many years now he has been returning to Viet Nam, working for his homeland out of money from his own pocket, or with the support of some international organisations.

Even here, in his own country, he has had difficulties finding accommodation. At last, the Cuu Long (Majestic) Hotel offered him a room free of charge. This room has become his residence every time he returns to his homeland."

Until recently, Tran Van Khe was unable to return permanently to Viet Nam because he lacked a house large enough not only for lodging and work, but for storing his vast treasure of documents, books, notebooks, and precious research on Vietnamese music.

However, HCM City authorities have stepped in to make sure Tran Van Khe’s expertise is not lost on the people of his native land. The deputy director of the city’s Department of Culture and Information, Nguyen Tuan Viet, has announced that the HCM City People’s Committee will set up the Tran Van Khe Museum of Culture, where the professor can live and work while he is in Viet Nam.

"Tran Van Khe is a living set of documents of national musicology, a man of culture, a high-class orator. Building a museum bearing his name is an urgent and significant work," Viet said.

Although Hue and Ha Noi authorities also offered Tran Van Khe residences, he chose to stay in HCM City because it is near his birthplace, Vinh Kim in the Mekong Delta town of My Tho.

When Tran Van Khe returns here next, it will be with a longer stay in mind. Despite his age and health problems, his vigour and intellectual curiosity remain unabated. After finishing a series of lectures on national music at Hung Vuong University, he plans to seek out new projects to embark upon as soon as the Tran Van Khe Museum of Culture is completed. — VNS