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Chau Dinh Khoa, a 104-year-old musician in the central province of Quang Binh has devoted his life to preserving and teaching traditional folk music.
This year, Chau Dinh Khoa reached the age of 104. For decades, his ty ba (four-chord lute) and nguyet (Vietnamese two chord guitar) have resounded with his passion for ancient music.
"Ancient music nurtured me while growing up and helped me to live to this age," said the musician, who lives in Son Thuy Commune, Le Thuy District in the central province of Quang Binh.
At a party to celebrate his 100th birthday, Khoa played so much music that it felt like a concert. For more than three consecutive hours, he played and sang famous folk songs with dozens of his students. It seemed that his passion for traditional music would never end.
Khoa is a grandson of Chau Dinh Ke, a senior mandarin of the Nguyen court (1802-1945). Since his childhood, Khoa has been passionate about folk music. When he started playing, he forgot everything around him, even the need to eat and sleep.
That passion was noticed by teacher Nguyen Quang Ton, a supervisor at Hue National School [a famous school nationwide at the time]. He understood folk music very well and accepted Khoa as a student.
"Every night, we focused our minds on the old lute and sang the traditional songs. Many nights, our practising session lasted until near sunrise," Khoa said.
As time went by, Khoa soon became a well-known musician and folk singer in Quang Binh, as well as the nearby Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces.
Locals thought that he would follow a folk music career, living a free life in the countryside. But in 1930 he joined the growing movement against the French colonialist domination.
Along with other famous musicians in the Central region, Khoa and his teacher Ton used music to call on people to vote for the democratic nationalists such as Hoang Chinh Dong and Tran Ba Lieu to join the people's council.
But in 1939, the French suppressed the democracy movement and exiled Ton to Thanh Hoa Province.
Many patriotic youths, including Khoa, had to flee to Laos and Thailand. Five years later, Ton died in Hue. Before dying, he told his wife that he wanted to give his four-chord lute to his beloved student Khoa.
When Khoa came back to his home country, he immediately tried to find his mentor. Finding out he had died, Khoa arrived in Hue to pay tribute to him, then received the instrument that he left behind.
Thanks to his sharp memory, Khoa can talk at length about the four-chord lute's history.
"It is no coincidence that my teacher gave me the lute with more than 200 years of history behind it, a treasure in the world of traditional folk singers.
"I've heard a story that in 1882, in a music session held in a palace in Hue, court counsellor Luu Duc Xung showed my great-grandfather Chau Dinh Ke a treasure of his family: a four-chord lute made in 1802, the first year of King Gia Long's reign [the founder of the Nguyen dynasty]. When the court counsellor died, his family laid the lute on the altar in their palace.
"My teacher Ton knew about this lute and had prepared a tray of betel and areca to give that family to beg for the lute. As the family thought that the lute would be more useful in life than in death, they allowed my teacher to take the instrument.
"Today, I have presented the lute to the Quang Binh provincial museum," he said.
After he received the lute, Khoa came back to his home village and joined revolutionary activities. During the nine years of the war against the French, the lute accompanied him and the other revolutionary forces through the Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien regions (also known as Binh-Tri-Thien for short).
After the war against the French, then the war against the Americans, Khoa still carried the lute through the battlefields as a member of Quang Binh Province's art ensemble.
During the war years, he thought he might die at any time, so he found four people who loved classical music and taught them music skills. Unfortunately, they fell during the fierce war.
Resolving not to let his musical knowledge get lost in oblivion, he continued teaching folk music as head of the Quang Binh ensemble.
Nam Ky, a famous folk singer in Quang Binh in the 1960s and 1970s who later gained fame throughout the Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien region, was one of Khoa's best students.
"Uncle Khoa was an exemplary teacher of many generations of folk singers in the central region. When I began my singing career I could only sing a few songs I learned from my father. Then Khoa taught me all the basics," she said.
Under Khoa's tutelage, many people in the region became successful singers and composers. The list of his former students includes illustrious names such as Thu Hien, Nam Ky, Hoang Song Huong and Quach Mong Lan.
"I learned a lot from Khoa's folk style, so many of my songs have elements of my homeland in Quang Binh. He has great skills, especially in the use of the four-chord lute and the Vietnamese two-chord guitar, and what's more, you can hear his feelings in each musical note. Few people can play better than him," said musician Lan.
When he was about 60 years old Khoa retired, but the Quang Tri – Thua Thien art ensemble (then Military Zone 4's art troupe) invited him to be their advisor.
Then the elder musicman returned to his native commune with his lute. But he could not stop working, as the art troupes of the local villages, communes and district often asked him to teach them – which he did, refusing any attempt at payment.
"The only reward I need is to know that people still love to learn folk music, so that I can pass on musical knowledge from my teacher to the next generations," he said.
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