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Guitar in a non-Western Musical Genre Essay

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This paper is aimed at discussing the use of guitars in a non-Western musical tradition. In particular, it is necessary to focus on such a genre of Vietnamese chamber music as Ca trù that has a history of many centuries. Yet, for a long time, it was overlooked by musicologists and art historians. One of the tasks is to explain how the performers may use musical instruments that are similar to guitar, namely, the đàn đáy and đàn kìm.

Furthermore, it is important to examine the cultural significance of Ca trù, especially the places where this music was played and the main audience of the performers. This discussion can show that contemporary music is much more diverse than many people believe.

It is often assumed that guitars are used primarily in Western culture, however, this opinion is not true similar musical instruments exist in Asian countries as well yet, they may have different applications. It is possible to argue that đàn đáy and đàn kìm bear some resemblance to guitar; yet, they are used mostly to highlight the vocal of the female singer. Although their role is supplementary, Ca trù performances are hardly possible without these musical instruments.

The origins of Ca trù

First, it should be noted that in the majority of cases, a Ca trù performance requires the participation of at least three people, a female singer, đàn đáy player and a drummer (Wilcox 2010, p. 20). Overall, this genre is often regarded as a form of conversational song which means that the female performer can impersonate different individuals while singing (Wilcox 2010, p. 20).

This person is supposed to play the main role in the performance. To a great extent, this musical genre can be viewed as recitation of poetry to musical accompaniment. In the twentieth century, Ca trù almost came to the brink of extinction, since it was heavily suppressed by the state. However, within the last decades an increasing number of Vietnamese people began to take interest in it.

The use of string musical instruments

Those people, who perform musical compositions of this genre, can use several instruments that may be similar to guitar. First of all, one can speak about đàn đáy because it is mostly used in this musical genre. It is a three-string plucked instrument that has a very long neck and a wooden body (Ooi, 2004, p. 925). When comparing a guitar and đàn đáy, one should focus on such aspects as their design and uses.

Dàn đáy serves as an accompaniment to the female vocal. It has to emulate the inflections of the singer’s voice (Broghton, Eligham, & Trillo 2000, p. 265). Unlike the guitar, đàn đáy has only three strings. However, in both cases, the bodies of these musical instruments are not solid. It is believed that in the past the performers used mostly silk strings in order to create overtones that have a range of approximately three octaves. (Broghton, Eligham, & Trillo 2000, p. 265).

It should be noted that this musical instrument is believed to originate from China (Ooi, 2004, p. 925). However, in the course of history, it was significantly modified. According to musicologists, đàn đáy was supposed to mimic or emulate the vocal inflexions of the performer (Broghton, Eligham, & Trillo 2000, p. 265).

This is the main role that is played by this instrument. One can identify another important difference between a đàn đáy and a guitar. The Vietnamese string instrument is used primarily by Ca trù performers; in contrast a guitar can be used in a variety of genres such as jazz, trip-hop, or rock.

There is another musical instrument that plays an important role in the Ca trù. In particular, one can speak about đàn kìm. It may be used in different musical genres that exist in Vietnam. This lute can be found in the performances that are not related to Ca trù. So, đàn kìm differs from đàn đáy which has very limited applications.

It is a two-string instrument with a circular body and a long neck. One of its major differences from a Western-guitar is that the tension in đàn kìm strings is usually much lower (Williams 2008, p. 42). In this way, the performers can better regulate the tonality of the sound. Yet, there are some similarities between a guitar and đàn kìm that one should take into account.

In both cases, the musicians can use a plectrum that is supposed to intensify the sound and increase the tonal contrast. Certainly, the sound of this instrument differs from a traditional guitar. Apart from that, one should emphasize the point that in Ca trù, string instrument function mostly as an accompaniment to the vocal which is supposed to be the central part of the performance.

In Western traditions, a guitar can be a self-sufficient musical instrument that does not require the performance of a vocalist. For instance, one can remember such a musical genre as flamenco in which the presence of a vocalist is not always required. These examples show that Vietnamese people may use string musical instruments that bear some resemblance to a Western guitar. Nevertheless, these instruments may differ from a guitar in terms of design and the range of applications.

The social importance of Ca trù

It should be noted that that ca tru takes its origins from the chamber music that was played in the imperial palaces or the houses of very rich aristocrats (MobileReference 2007, p. 405). At the beginning, this form of entertainment was accessible to only few well-to-do and privileged people. One can argue that it was associated mostly with elite groups of the Vietnamese society.

However, later it became increasingly more popular, and people could attend such performances in different places. One should take into consideration that Ca trù was performed by female artists who were often regarded as geishas. The musical genre was often blamed for promoting immoral behavior and promiscuity. The female performers were even blamed for prostitution.

This is why the government has long tried to oppress this musical genre. Yet Ca trù enabled many female performers to express their creativity and showcase their musical talents. In most cases, women were deprived of this opportunity.

Fortunately, nowadays, much more attention is paid to this genre and attempts are made to revive it. Overall, these examples show that Ca trù has a long-standing tradition in Vietnam. Although, Ca trù has been marginalized for many years, it may continue to play a prominent part in the social life of Vietnamese people.


Overall, this discussion indicates can lead to several important conclusions. First of all, non-Western musical genres, can adopt instruments that may be similar to a guitar, even though their sound and shape can design significantly. Secondly, these instruments usually supplement the vocal, but they do not have a central part in the performance.

By comparing đàn đáy and đàn kìm to a guitar, one can say that Vietnamese string instruments do not have the same range of applications. On the whole, the example of Ca trù shows that a musical genre can survive the oppression of the state and retain its relevance to the life of the community. The examination of these similarities and differences can help people gain better insights of non-Western musical cultures.


Broghton, S., Eligham, M. & Trillo, R 2000, World Music: Latin and North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, Rough Guides, New York.

MobileReference 2007, Asian Art, MobileReference, New York.

Ooi, K 2004, Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, ABC-CLIO, New York.

Wilcox, W 2010, Vietnam and the West: New Approaches, SEAP Publications, New York.

Williams M 2008, Handbook of Southeast Asian Music, Routledge, London.

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