Mai Dinh Toi and his innovative musical instruments fashioned out of everyday objects

One of Vietnam’s most prolific musicians, Mai Dinh Toi can often be seen on Vietnamese television and at events playing a wide assortment of homemade instruments made from the most mundane materials: garden hoses, glass bottles, rice bowls, neon bulbs, an aluminum door… He’s traveled to over 30 countries over the past quarter of a century entertaining crowds with his unique blend of creativity and technical execution. He recently made national news for modifying Vietnam’s traditional dan bau (monochord) to use its full length instead of just the front half as it has been played for centuries. From playing a pair of flutes using just the air from both nostrils, playing a flute while using his feet to play the drums or taking advantage of water glasses on the table in a café for an impromptu rendition of Fur Elise, the so-called “Wizard of Musical Instruments” is a blur of fast-talking, hand- waving animation who can barely keep seated as he talks about his extraordinary life in music.

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I was born in Thanh Hoa, in Vietnam’s north. My first recollection of music was accompanying my grandfather as he played the flute at funerals. Pretty soon, he taught me to accompany him playing the drums when I was six or seven. Then he taught me to play the flute as well. In fact, our family has been playing funeral music for generations. My father and brothers are also musicians.

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As a teen, I made it through the selection rounds to attend the National Classical Opera Theatre. I later actually had to attend two universities: the Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema to study clarinet, and the Vietnam National Music Academy for the flute, because I had two different instructors.

I spent some time performing with the national orchestra, and even though audiences were appreciative, I felt something was missing. I’m the type of person who’s always thinking of new ways of doing things. It took me seven years, but I mastered playing the flute at the same time as using my feet to play traditional Vietnamese drums. It’s difficult because the rhythm is completely different for those two instruments. I can’t tell you how many times my wrists and ankles would swell up, harden and then go back to normal while I was practicing. I don’t know if I’m a musical “genius” or “wizard” or whatever; I feel I’m just a regular person. But maybe I’m a bit more observant than average, seeing everything as a potential musical instrument. Everyone has ideas. The key is to not let those ideas fade away.

I remember one especially cold night in Hanoi about 20 years ago when I couldn’t sleep. An idea came to me about using glass bottles as instruments, so I immediately got up. It was four in the morning and nothing was open except for an old lady who sold sticky rice. She gave me a funny look when I asked to buy all the bottles she had. She had to climb up to her crawl space to pull them out. All the while, all I could think about was how to put the bottles together, what they would sound like and what song would capture their unique sound. Now, that bottle instrument is part of my act and audiences really like it when I use bottles from their country to make the instrument.

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You know, I have dozens of ideas, but out of those, maybe only one will succeed. I’ve had lots of failures. No one will ever know how many monochords I’ve broken while trying to modify it to use its entire length. I’ve also tried to make instruments out of clay pots. I went up to Binh Duong to test them out but found that they were too big and the sound they produced wasn’t clear. But music and invention is all about trying new things.

That’s what helped me make the decision to leave the national orchestra and move to Saigon. If you only rely on the orchestra or the government to pay your salary at the end of the month, it can lead to complacency, not really working but still getting a salary. Very few people would dare leave the safety of a government job, but I felt I had to push myself, find my own path. So I moved to Saigon because I felt Saigonese are more open to innovation, and that’s when I felt my musical road open up for me. But striking out on my own was scary, too, because you have only yourself to rely on. I had to become a businessman as well. But I prepared for that, too. As a university student back in the day, there weren’t bookstores where you could just sit and read like now. I remember taking a job at a used book shop. I didn’t receive a salary, but instead got to read all the books I wanted. When I came across an interesting paragraph in books about business or success, I remember tearing out tiny pieces of them to stuff in my shirt pocket. I hope the people who bought the book didn’t get mad because there was still a lot of the book left! [laughs]

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I guess I’m lucky, too, that I can play a lot of instruments. My training was in the flute, oboe and monochord, but I can also play the saxophone and other woodwind instruments. But it takes a lot of hard work to be able to control your breathing to produce a long, steady stream of air, not unlike a skilled singer. It’s like a bee ― when its wings hum steadily as it hovers in the air, not darting from one place to another. My breathing exercises aren’t quite meditation, but they do involve sitting still and practicing holding my breath, just trying for a little longer each day. One day, I found that I could hold my breath for two to three minutes or put my face in a wash basin for a long time and not see any bubbles come up. I remember pulling some pranks at the swimming pool, doing a dead man’s float for minutes until the lifeguard rushed over to save me. [laughs]

So it’s really both a combination of creativity and execution. An idea at first might seem easy to execute, but sometimes it takes months or even years. But in the end, the reward is worth it. When I feel the audience on the edge of their seats, when a crowded opera house suddenly goes quiet to the point you can hear a pin drop as the first note sounds… Then the rapturous applause at the end. There’s nothing quite like it. I don’t feel as if I’ve had to sacrifice anything for my music. It’s all happiness. I’m the happiest person alive. To study what you love, to be able to make a living from music… the time spent practicing and the frustrations of failure is only a thousandth of what music has given me ― fame, money, joy. Especially the joy that comes from performing on an instrument that is my own creation. Flutes are common. But to make an instrument out of bottles or a garden hose, that’s unique. I thought of it. I made it. I play it.

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After Twin

My latest project is the modification of the dan bau. Obviously, before me, there were many people who changed it and perfected it over the centuries. But I wondered why only the top half was used. My modifications have allowed the entire length to be used, doubling the number of notes it can play. I call it the “after twin,” like a missing twin that’s now been reunited. But the dan bau doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to Vietnam. It’s like discovering a fishing pond and telling your friends to come and fish. Or finding a fruit tree where everyone can come and eat. But if you want to take part of the root home and grow it yourself, you’ll have to think of the person who planted it. People come to me and ask me to make them a modified dan bau, but I just tell them to bring me theirs and I’ll modify it for them. I don’t mind people copying me. But if they take one of my instruments and call it their own, that’s another thing. The Vietnamese have a saying: Beat the one running away, not the one running towards you. So when musicians phone me up and say, “I like what you’re doing. Can you show me…?” I’m happy to help, because the execution part is easier. Anyone can execute. It’s coming up with the original idea that’s difficult.

Personally, I’m not afraid for the future of traditional Vietnamese instruments. The key, though, is in not just preserving them, but further developing them. If people don’t like a performance, it just means it needs a few more elements to make it better ― like rice that is half cooked. If we continue to develop the precious heritage of our traditional instruments, audiences will come. Look at places like Japan or Korea where there are hundreds of traditional musicians who can all make a living. Why can’t Vietnam be like that? I’m telling you straight ― Vietnamese musicians are very skilled, on par with foreign musicians. It’s just that we don’t have enough opportunities to perform, just an event once a month at the opera house or for birthday parties or whatever. But Vietnamese musicians have to apply themselves to their craft and not just think about money. If that’s your attitude, then you won’t succeed. First and foremost, it has to be for the love of music. The younger generation of musicians have got it right. Instead of asking “how much will you pay me?”, they’re getting together and performing for free at coffee houses. They’re saying: “Here’s my product. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay.” But in the meantime, they’re honing their skills. Music is all about passion and dedication. You have to give it your all and it will reward you with everything.

To collaborate with Mai Dinh Toi on projects or to meet this inspiring, talented musician, contact him at maidinhtoi@yahoo.com or at 090 388 3870.