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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Vietnamese Đàn Bầu: A Cultural History of an Instrument in Diaspora

  • Author(s): Beebe, Lisa
  • Advisor(s): Merchant, Tanya
  • et al.

In Vietnam and its diaspora, the đàn bầu monochord zither is a symbol of cultural pride. Based on fieldwork conducted in Vietnam and in diaspora communities between 2015-2017, this study of the đàn bầu argues that the instrument is a site where state institutions, individual musicians, and audiences in Vietnam and the diaspora articulate myriad narratives of personal and national identities. In contemporary Vietnam, the state maintains a discourse that positions the đàn bầu as a musical representative of national culture, rooted in an imagined past.

In the diaspora, the đàn bầu is similarly emblematic of Vietnamese identity, but the dimensions of the “nation” are continually in flux. Due to legacies of trauma in the diaspora, musicians and audiences actively separate Vietnamese culture from the current nation state. The đàn bầu represents Vietnamese heritage, while also articulating the personal and political concerns of life in the diaspora. Musicians use the đàn bầu to traverse political and aesethetic expectations in Vietnam, in diaspora communities, and in the liminal space of tourist performance.

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