Vang Sin Phin, a musical maestro from the northern province of Lao Cai, has dedicated himself to collecting musical instruments and preserving the folklore melodies of his people.
Through painstaking study, Phin has mastered the local musical instruments, ensuring that the mountainous music will be passed on to a new generation.
Vang Sin Phin is not an ordinary person. An exceptional artisan, considered to be a national treasure belonging to the Thu Lao ethnic minority people, he lives in Nan San Commune in Si Ma Cai District in the northwest mountainous province of Lao Cai.
Phin has made a name for himself through his tireless efforts of collecting musical instruments, preserving the folklore melodies and the epic songs of his people, and then passing them on to the locals.
Phin was born in 1962 in Nan San hamlet. The passion for folklore and the melodies of the musical instruments ran in his blood, since he was a child.
When he was 10, he started studying at the national cultural foundation, and then learnt to sing from his father Vang Sao Leng. He also learnt to play the musical instruments from Vang To Sin, a local folklore artisan who was blind but had excellent playing skills.
After years of painstakingly studying until he was 18, Phin mastered the skill of playing most of the musical instruments and learnt by heart many folk songs.
“The cultural folklore of the Thu Lao was developed through their daily life activities, which was passed down from one generation to another orally. This folklore conveyed intense feelings, affection and the lifestyle of the people. Among them, the most popular folk melodies, which are in the Thu Lao language, are called Khao.
The ancient Khao melody was sung in summertime, especially when farmers were in the fields. The Thu Lao have a variety of beautiful songs to make acquaintances, such as khao khiu teo soong (sung when guests arrive in the village) and love songs with sweet melodies khao ni, xa khao ni (the song of exchanging love).
The Thu Lao use their melodies as a medium to greet and know each other, and it has become a part of the people’s lifestyle.
While musical instruments produce the same tune to create the simple harmony, the must-have accompaniments are the an tang guitar (a musical instrument with four strings), tang gan guitar (musical instrument with three strings) and ang din guitar (one-string musical instrument).
“I am probably the luckiest person to have the last two instruments of Thu Lao people, an tang and tang gan guitars, which are used as accompaniments for the folk songs of my countryside. It is difficult to find these two instruments now, even in Si Ma Cai there are only a few left,” said Phin.
While listening to the sound of the rain during the final summer days in his tiny house, Phin took out an ang tang guitar and played it for his guests.
Playing the khao khiu teo soong melody is a means to show the cheerfulness and hospitality of the Thu Lao to the guests.
The guitar’s sound echoes through his flickering house on stilts, besides the terraced rice fields that are ripening vigorously.
His sound convinces the visitors why this man has such a huge love for the khao melodies of his people.
He lowers his eyes, and his voice chokes with emotion when he is asked if there are others in his village who know how to play the musical instrument and sing these folk songs.
“With the development of modern society, many exotic musical instruments and music genres have entered our village. Currently, there are hardly 20 people who can play the guitars and sing the folk melodies. The youngsters are starting to forget how to hold a musical instrument, play the flute and sing folk melodies. Therefore, I hope I can organize more classes to teach the children the tunes of our ancestors,” he said.
Until now, he has helped some 20 people learn the khao melodies.
Phin also helped the provincial and central staff collect and translate over 130 Thu Lao folk songs into Vietnamese in Si Ma Cai and Muong Khuong districts. Many of them were lost and took lots of time to collect.
He also travelled more than 100km to Lao Cai City with folklorists to translate the melodies and turn them into a book for young people.
Over the past eight years as a village chief, because of his devotion and contribution to the preservation and development of national culture, Phin was named a folk artisan by the Association of Vietnamese Folklorists.
In 2015, he was nominated excellent artisan by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. He was also awarded a certificate for his contribution to preserving the Thu Lao’s musical instruments.