Bamboo concert charms and delights

poster3by Bob Park, South Okanagan Concert Society

People who heard the music which duo, Khac Chi, performed for the South Okanagan Concert Society last Friday, described what they experienced as “amazing”, “charming”, “joyful”, “genuine”, “lighthearted”, “lovely”,”engaging”, and, mainly: “unbelievable”. They had thought they were simply going to a concert in Oliver, BC, but in fact, they ended up going on a musical trip to the forest highlands, farms and fishing villages of a Vietnam of several generations ago.

The first thing that greeted us, the audience, was a stage full of curiously constructed instruments, each still growing some elegant wisps of bamboo shoots here and there. (Some of us thought: “So, there are other uses for bamboo besides cross-country ski poles…”).

We soon learned that Khac Chi and his wife, Bic, are master builders, performers, and teachers of traditional Vietnamese instruments. Some of the instruments we heard them play are invented by Chi himself! Bic and Chi, with their lovely voices, expressive acting, and charming explanations, were expert “tour guides” into the beautiful folklore and rich culture of Vietnam. They drew us in to many different moods over the course of the evening, from shy love songs to neighbourly teasing among farmers. Many times, we couldn’t help but laugh.

Heightening our amazement was the pervading sense that what Bic and Chi could do with their instruments was just not physically possible. Take, for example, the “Cloput”. This is, I think, the only instrument invented which is played without the performer touching it!! Bic skilfully clapped her hands in cup shape, forcing air into a series of horizontally ordered bamboo tubes (former fence posts between small farm plots), and producing a marimba-like sound. Another instrument consisted of two vertical foot-activated bamboo tubes: voila, a bass-drum effect! Both singers were experts at playing a mouth-twanging “harp” to achieve the typical “boing-boing” sound, while simultaneously singing elaborate melodies. Bic’s courage to break with tradition in playing a Vietnamese violin, usually reserved for men who wish to impress their future wives, was only matched by her skill in actually playing the instrument. It defies description! Imagine making music on a stick, which has no resonating chamber at all. The energy from the single bowed string is transferred along a thread to a vibrating membrane held in the mouth. By changing the shape of her mouth, Bic was able to alter the sound from “Ma-ma” to “Meow-Meow”. I was reminded of the “wah-wah” pedal of the electric guitar.

The second half of the program featured Chi playing the Dan Bau and the mini piano, both expertly constructed by him. Rock guitar players could relate to the Dan Bau, I’m sure. With its water buffalo “tremolo bar” and its single string, it is capable of doing “dive-bomb” effects a la Jimi Hendrix, but also subtle, chime-y harmonics. Chi is a true virtuoso!

All through the evening, the song titles evoked romance: Forest Love, Full Moon Dance, Spring in the Highlands, When the Wind Calls. Most fitting, therefore, was the addition of a tune our western ears could all recognize: “The Lonely Goatherd”, from the Sound of Music. This was performed, with an impish grin on Chi’s face, and an instrument of his own invention– a sort of cross between a flute and plumber’s helper– that was flailed about expertly on his chest and thighs. Too funny!

After a standing ovation, the performers replaced the ‘obligatory’ encore with a cordial invitation to everyone to come up to the stage and try out the instruments themselves. Which we did. Some of the children clapped their cupped hands, others tried the mini bamboo piano: chopsticks, maybe? And, after about half an hour of concentrated effort, I felt that I could create the first line of “Twinkle, twinkle” on the Dan Bau.

Our ‘temporary venue”,the Alliance Church, was perfect for the audience participation during this particular show. The considerable challenge of handling the 9 different microphones was expertly managed by Steve Dirks. The concert society has appreciated his and Shiela Lange’s behind-the-scenes support all these past three years.

We encourage all music lovers to pay attention to the publicity surrounding our SOCS’s final offering this season: Ken Lavigne and his orchestra will be in Oliver on Feb. 28. The venue for his show, “The Road to Carnegie Hall”, will be finalized in a few weeks.