What is a “Dan Bau”?

What is a Dan Bau/Đàn Bầu?

The Đàn Bầu is a Vietnamese one-string instrument. The single string runs along a long wooden or bamboo body and is attached to a long flexible rod (typically made of buffalo horn). Where the string is tied to the rod, it is encapsulated in a bell-shaped structure traditionally made from gourd that acts as a resonator.

The instrument is played by plucking the string with a wooden pick in the right hand while the base of the pinky lightly touches designated “harmonic nodes.” Doing so produces pitches in the harmonic overtone series. Further pitch modifications are made through pitch bends controlled by the left hand’s manipulation of the buffalo-horn rod. Left-hand techniques like vibrato (rung), slides (luyến), and taps (vỗ) are paired with right-hand plucking techniques from simple plucks to strumming combine to create the range of đàn bầu sounds.

While scholars are unsure about the age of the đàn bầu, it is mentioned in historical documents from the 18th century, and scholars like Nguyễn Thuyết Phong believe it was used in the Trần imperial court of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Primarily used in north and central Vietnam through the 19th century, it made its way into the repertoire of southern Vietnamese music in the early 20th century. Especially following the advent of electric amplification that allowed the đàn bầu to be loud enough to be heard in large ensembles, the đàn bầu has been introduced into many different genres of music in Vietnam.