Within the hustle and bustle and crowded streets of Hoang Van Thu, Phan Dinh Giot and Tran Quoc Hoan, the melodious and clear notes of the harmonica often resound creating a calm serenity in Tan Binh district’s Hoang Van Thu Park, which lies at the intersection of these three streets.
On Saturdays and Sundays, members of the French harp club 4F gather in the park every weekend, to practice their melodies on this special musical instrument. Other clubs have also sprung up in the cities of Tao Dan, Go Vap, Tan Phu and Thu Duc.
There are normally three types of harmonicas which can be played in many ways. Each club pursues its own style, like artist Tong Son of Ho Chi Minh City who can blow into the mouth organ and eat a banana and drink beer at the same time. His style remains an influence on members of the Go Vap club.
There are numerous other techniques to playing the harmonica. When listening to Nghi Lang, Duy Quang or Quang Hoa, key members of the Go Vap club audiences can hear the influence of Tong Son’s style of the bending technique. (In addition to the 19 notes readily available on the diatonic harmonica, players can play other notes by adjusting their embouchure and forcing the reed to resonate at a different pitch. Although it is difficult and can be frustrating for beginners, one does this by relaxing and coordinating muscles in the throat, mouth and lips. This technique is called "bending", a term borrowed from guitarists, who literally "bend" a string in order to create subtle changes in pitch. Using bending, a player can reach all the notes on the chromatic scale. "Bending" also creates the glissando characteristic of much blues harp and country harmonica playing.)
On the other hand, some members of club 4F choose a plain style, which means they place much emphasis on the soul of the song, thus they just employ techniques when necessary but the tune remains very velvety.
Nguyen Minh Hoang, chairman of club 4F, said newcomers would find it easy to learn the harmonica because the club members don’t deploy much technique; however, it requires much practice to reach a skillful level.
The club in Tao Dan Park decided to choose the chromatic harmonica rather than the diatonic harmonica and the tremolo harmonica. The chromatic harmonica is a type of harmonica that uses a button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed-plate desired. This harp is used for classical, pop, rock and blues of western music to other styles such as Vietnamese lyric songs and folk songs. It is also the primary instrument used in harmonica orchestras.
The chromatic type is far more expensive than the diatonic harmonica or the tremolo harmonica. Nguyen Van Khanh, a twelve grader from Luong The Vinh high school, said a chromatic harmonica instrument costs from VND3 million to VND5million while the tremolo type costs VND100,000 and the diatomic type costs VND500,000.
It is the love for the harmonica that gathers people to the clubs. On Sunday afternoons, the sound of the harmonica resounds down the lane of Han Thuyen Street near the well-known Notre-Dame church in district 1. The sound is sometimes clear but soft, threading through the leaves of the ancient trees in the alley.
Members of club 4F and Go Vap include students, white collar workers, journalists and business people who are interested in playing the free reed wind instrument. Key members often perform while newcomers listen to them and learn new techniques.
Nguyen Minh Hoang, says it was because he is so fond of the harmonica that he devotes so much time to its practice. There were very few schools teaching this instrument so he was basically self-taught. He set up the club to teach harmonica lovers like himself.
The club has now hundreds of members since its inception the last two years. Hoang explained 4F was an abbreviation of “for you, for me, for everyone and for fun”. This is also the motto of all 4F clubs. The clubs motive is to connect harmonica lovers and inspire others to play the mouth organ. Hence, harmonica lovers receive free training from other professional members.
Trung Tuyen, an owner of a computer shop in Tan Binh district confessed that he played the instrument and enjoyed performances by other members whenever he felt the pressures of daily life.