Major General Nguyen An Thuyen, rector of the Military College of Arts and Culture, discusses the school’s tradition of finding and training talented ethnic minority artists.
Why does your college care about discovering and training ethnic students?
I was born and grew up in a poor commune in Quynh Luu District, in the central province of Nghe An. That region is filled with traditional music and culture. Afternoons spent grazing buffalo, the whistle of flute-kites and the sound of ethnic minority gongs left a lasting impression in my mind. The environment full of unique folk music held a magical attraction has been a part of me ever since my youth. The music world urged me to find way to preserve the nation’s invaluable traditional music and bring it to the attention of the people.
My college is a military institution, where everyone considers love between the army as the same as the love fish have for water. During our struggle for national independence, our bases for the revolutionary cause were in rural and remote areas. Inhabitants withstood sacrifice and hardship for the success of our mission. They are very worthy of enjoying the achievements of the revolution. I want to do something to prove our commitment, to show that they weren’t forgotten after the revolution. Acknowlegement of their beliefs helps to uphold our people, our nation and sustainable development.
What did your college in general, and you in particular, do to scout for talented students?
My colleagues and I often arrange scouting trips to mountainous provinces in search of young people with artistic talent. We have visited several highland villages. Sometimes it takes us several days to travel on foot to reach our destination because of bad roads and weather.
What prodded you to overcome the difficulties that occur when enrolling ethnic students?
I think that if we want students with talent for natural sciences, we should search for them in big cities. And if we want people with artistic talent, we would find them in rural and mountainous areas where cultural traditions are clearly present. Talents in those areas are often as hidden as coal and mineral ore deposits. We should seek them out and provide them with education.
I was born into a family of travelling performers, singing xam (folk music, often sung by blind musicians), which was handed down from generation to generation. When I was 14, I failed the Ha Noi Academy of Music entrance test because examiners said that I did not have an aptitude for music. Disappointed, I did my best to improve my music ability. Sixteen years later at the age of 30, I passed the exam. By that time I had composed some well-known songs including Em Chon Loi Nay (I Chose This Way) and Chin Bac Tinh Yeu (Nine Steps of Love).
We have squandered a number of talents, not only artistic ones, because of our hasty appraisal during aptitude tests. In my current position as principal, I always remind myself that I must be prudent. I hope that I will not miss out on any great talents. Although we cannot transform good talents into great talents, our curriculum can help provide them a better life for their family and their homeland, and make a small contribution to implementing the Government’s policies for the poor.
Do you have any profound memories from your scouting trips?
Once on a trip to Gia Lai Province in the Central Highlands we found three sisters, Dinh Thi Hoi, Dinh Thi Ngon and Dinh Thi Bay, in Stor Village, To Tung Commune, Kbang District. The ethnic Ba Na girls are the granddaughters of our Hero Nup, who made great contributions to the revolution in the Central Highlands. They all have a fine sense for music and a high spirit for studying. I chose the T’rung for them to learn, a traditional musical instrument of the Highlands people. Playing such works as Vu Khuc Tay Nguyen (Dance of the Central Highlands), Suoi Dan To rung (T’rung’s Stream of Music), Mua Hai Qua (Harvest Season), Bong Cay Ko nia (Ko nia Tree’s Shadow), the trio express perfect co-ordination, and leave domestic and international audiences satisfied.
How many students have studied at your school? Which ethnic groups do they come from?
Thousands of ethnic students from 44 ethnic minority groups have studied at my school. At present, 500 students, mostly from the Central Highlands provinces, are being trained.
Considering that they come from remote areas, do they face any special difficulties? What do you and other teachers do to help them?
Because my school is a military institution, all students have scholarships. They also have accommodation and free uniforms. The school is willing to train them until they master their skills, however long it takes.
At the time of enrolment, some students have only completed primary school to grade three or four. Some of them do not know how to read and write. When necessary we provide them with the standard national education. We do it no matter how hard the challenge. Thanks to our efforts, we continue to help preserve ethnic cultural identity and learn for ourselves more about ethnic minorities.
Do students study general or special programmes at the school? Does the teaching staff teach them specific kinds of music?
We do not impose our will on them, and let them express their own talent, abilities and cultural identity. They choose the instrument they want to learn according to their preference. However, we often encourage them to study musical instruments from their own ethnic groups, such as T’rung, flute and pan-pipe, because eventually they would play for the entertainment of people in their native region. We also encourage them to study western musical instruments, including the organ and guitar.
Are many students from your school successful in the music industry? Do they follow the school’s cultural orientation? For example, do they continue to preserve and develop their traditional music?
Many of my students have become well-known singers, such as Kasim Hoang Vu, Ploong Thiet and the two brothers Y Von and Y Garia. They all express their ability through songs that contain characteristics from the Central Highlands.
Which student has let you with the most profound impression?
I still remember the student I found on a trip to the northern province of Hoa Binh. In a cultural exchange session, I heard a young girl named Luong Thu Ha sing a Muong folk song. Her voice was strong, clear and beautiful. After asking local residents, I discovered that she was from a remote village. It took several days of travel on foot to reach her home. At school she learned very well and studied hard. She graduated and is now the lead singer for an army ensemble.