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King of Mong flute takes bow

Mong musicians

The original works of Mong flautist and People's Artist, Luong Kim Vinh are widely known at home and abroad. He has made unforgettable appearances at concerts to welcome world leaders such as the then Chinese Prime Minister, Ly Peng, and former US President Bill Clinton. The King of the Mong Flute, as the people from north-west Viet Nam call him, used his musical talent to lead a renaissance in the music of the ethnic minorities.

Luong Kim Vinh was a captivating performer from the outset. The flautist, now 67, won a gold medal for his very first performance of the Mong flute at the National Song and Dance Festival of Professional Artists at the age of 34. The then Deputy Minister of Culture, poet Huy Can, said Vinh's performance was as magnificent as "thunder over Ha Long Bay."

With his composition, Dem Trang Ban Meo (A Meo Village under Moonlight), Vinh charmed the festival's audience with his haunting music, reminiscent of the birthplace of the instrument high amid the hazy clouds of the mountains in north-west Viet Nam. The Mong flute echoed the sound of the nearby jungle, the quiet momentum of the streams and the sound of the wind wandering over the white-reeded hills interrupted by gongs sounded during Mong festivals.

Vinh was born in Ha Tay Province, but later moved to Yunnan, China, returning to his homeland in the late 1960s where he fell in love with the sound of the Mong flute. Already an accomplished flautist, Vinh joined the Song and Dance Troupe

of Lao Cai Province soon after he came home. During his tours to Mong villages to play the flute, Vinh became more and more fascinated by the mysterious tones of the small bamboo flute used by young Mong men to express their love for their sweethearts.

How strange, he thought, that these young men and women high up in the mountains express their feelings for one another not by words but by music: the women by a leaf held in their lips, the men with a small flute. Vinh was determined to bring this instrument of love onto the professional musical stage.

Vinh spent many months in the Mong villages perfecting the technique of playing the local flute. But he realised that even though the tone of the Mong flute was sweet and melodious, it was not a true musical instrument. Its sound was easily affected by the weather and, with just a six note range, expression was limited.

After many tests Vinh decided to extend the flute's range to two octaves and add a tube at the top of the flute that could alter notes up to half a tone. Vinh then began writing music to suit his new hybrid instrument, concertos that he would play accompanied by a group of Mong musicians.

Vinh's compositions and his musical ability have brought him national and international recognition. (He has performed at concerts held to welcome the likes of Chinese Prime Minister Ly Peng and former US President Bill Clinton to Viet Nam.) He has taken the sound of the Mong flute as far as the Russian Federation, performing during the Cultural Days of Viet Nam in 2002.

Vinh's unexpected successes at the 1970 Theatrical Festival strengthened his conviction that he was following the right direction. For the last 33 years he has devoted his heart and mind to the preservation and promotion of the Mong flute. At the 1985 National Theatrical Festival of Professional Artists in Ha Noi, he once again surprised his audience with his work Phien Cho Bac Ha (Bac Ha Market Day), composed for a group of nine Mong flautists.

Vinh continues to change the physical nature of the indigenous instrument, innovations that give him more scope as a player and composer. In 1991 he invented the four-in-one flute, a combination of four different instruments. Vinh's son, Emeritus

artist Luong Hung Viet, was the first to play this new flute when he performed his father's composition, Lao Cai Mua Xuan (Spring in Lao Cai), at the 1992 Theatrical Festival.

During his artistic life, besides his work with the Mong flute Vinh has improved and brought to the professional musical stage many instruments from different ethnic minorities of north-west Viet Nam such as the pan flutes, leaf instruments, pile trumpets, pipap flutes, pilao, pithieu and percussion instruments like gongs, drums, cymbals, gay tien and horse bells.

Because of his tireless work as a member of the Lao Cai Song and Dance Troupe, the province is now home to a museum that has one of Viet Nam's greatest collections of musical instruments of minorities from the north-west.

The merits of performing and improving the Mong flute and other traditional musical instruments from the north-west has won Vinh some of the Viet Nam's most prestigious awards: the title of People's Artist, eight national gold medals, a prize for the improvement of traditional musical instruments and a prize for creative labour.

Although he has formally retired, Vinh still takes part in the performances of the Lao Cai Artistic Troupe. He is teaching his grandchildren to play the Mong flute – one of whom was awarded a national gold medal at the age of eight – and also teaches music to students from the boarding school for ethnic minorities.

The young man from Ha Tay, the land of silk, is now a well respected village elder for all the ethnic minority villages in the north-west. The King of the Mong Flute, as he is called by the people, is still attached to this flute, the flute of love and the voice of the Viet Nam's northern mountains. — VNS

VNS - (25/05/2004)

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