A few years ago, on a trip to Vietnam, I persuaded a cyclo driver to help me find a place to buy traditional Vietnamese instruments.
Tal and I squeezed into the cyclos and our drivers launched us into the swarm of motorbikes that fill the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. We had entered a hurricane of metal and flesh that chaotically swirled and swerved, spitting out black exhaust fumes that stung our throats and burnt our nostrils. I loved it. After colliding with a motorbike, and losing a bit of skin off my knee, we ended up on a quiet street near the outskirts of the city. The street was a crooked row of small garage style workshops selling handmade musical instruments. Sawdust, sewage, sweat and incense punctuated the thick, docile air.
Outside one of these workshops, a young Vietnamese man greeted us. He was covered in a thin film of fine sandy coloured saw dust. With a cheeky grin, he proceeded to tell us all about the instruments in Vietnamese. He knew we didn’t understand, but kept explaining anyway. He took an instrument down from the wall. It was a Dan Tranh, which in some ways looks like a lapsteel guitar crossed with a harp. I remember breaking out in a cold sweat. I was so excited, my nerdy little brain was already thinking of all the different guitar effects I could run this alien instrument through.
I am not sure how the Dan Tranh survived the rest of our trip, as it is a pretty fragile instrument.
One incident comes to mind. We were in Hoi An, it had been raining for days and the stone streets were slippery.
Tal and I were on a small motorbike, which was being driven by a young sociopathic tour operator.
Sitting on the back of the bike with my backpack, Dan Tranh in one arm and guitar in the other, I was holding on for dear life with my previously mentioned Irish potato farming legs. Somehow, we survived the wobbling and sliding through the back streets at psychotic speeds, and I managed to bring the Dan Tranh home in one piece.
I’ve used the Dan Tranh on one of the tracks from my upcoming album Ghost Songs.
The song is called Dalat and you can listen to it on my myspace.