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Traveling musicians perform at a family funeral in Da Nang, Vietnam

Funeral Crashers

“The living need light and the dead need music.”

— Vietnamese Proverb

Daisey & I were walking around one of the Marble Mountains in Da Nang, Vietnam. After visiting the Chùa Quán Thế Âm Temple, we rounded the bend and walked along the river. There were several more beautiful temples and monasteries along the water, even a small cemetery. As we looped around, we started to hear the music. Ethereal music, floating like incense in the air. As we rambled on, the music got louder. We grew more intrigued.

Chasing The Ghost

The sounds were definitely Asian, but there was something familiar about it too. The stringed instruments sounded like slide blues guitar — but from the far east. We soon found the building where the sound was emanating from and stood outside on the road listening, mesmerized.

Lingering long enough, we were noticed by the occupants. They started coming out of the building in a group, all dressed, from head to toe, in thin white clothing, long robes, even white headbands. We started walking away when we noticed they were flagging us down, smiling, similarly intrigued by us.

Guests Of Honor

Seconds later, we had been invited inside. There was a funeral underway. Twenty or so family members milled about. Lots of incense. A brightly decorated coffin was in the center atrium with flower offerings, lights and candles, food and a portrait of the deceased on top of the coffin. Instead of it being a somber offer, it seemed a festive occasion.

And suddenly, we had become the main attraction. The family gathered around us, offering us toasted watermelon seeds and hot tea. Unable to really communicate there were lots of smiles and handshakes, bowing heads. With my head over my heart, I kept nodding my head trying my best to show sincere appreciation.

They seated us with the musicians. One family member spoke impeccable English and translated the group’s questions. Where were from? What were we doing in Vietnam? What were we doing outside their funeral? It seemed to them as if we brought good luck to their grandmother’s funeral. We were astounded at the situation. How inviting, how warm and nice they were. Here we were: strangers at a funeral in a foreign land, now suddenly the guests of honor.

Funeral Music

The amazing music we had heard was traditional Vietnamese funeral music. The musicians had all trained for years at college and now made their living traveling from funeral to funeral as performers. These were the first ‘working’ musicians we had met in Vietnam.

There were three main instruments involved. In front of where I was seated, a man played a modified guitar that is common in Vietnam called the đàn lục huyền cầm. The fretboard is scalloped so the strings can be more easily bent.

A scalloped guitar fretboard
A scalloped guitar fretboard

The đàn bầu (“gourd lute”) is a one-stringed zither. From the wooden body of the long narrow instrument, there is a resonator rod that can be bent. In doing so, the strings become looser or tighter causing the note to rise and fall in pitch. This allows the notes to have a more vocal quality, similar to slide guitar heard in Blues music from the American Mississippi delta.

The đàn bầu (“gourd lute”) is used in most Vietnamese funeral music
The đàn bầu (“gourd lute”) is used in most Vietnamese funeral music


There was also an accompanying percussion player that played minimally with gongs and cymbals, wooden sticks hitting two small leather skinned drums. As with most Asian music, the meter often changed. When this occurs, the percussion often, to my ear, mimics rain drops or waves.

Take a look. Have a listen.

After an hour or so, we politely excused ourselves. We had the feeling we could have stayed there for days — which is how long a typical Vietnamese funeral procession lasts. We were bouldered over by the warm welcome we received. Can you imagine the opposite situation being reciprocated? Picture inviting a group of strange travelers into your grandmothers funeral. This warm-hearted embrace we have experienced time and time again while in Vietnam. The people have continually humbled us with their hospitality. The lesson learned: always follow the music!

Author: Britt

Britt is a photographer/music producer & proud member of #teamtraynham

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