One of the world's most advanced dan bau players, Vietnamese traditional musician Pham Duc Thanh has performed in his native country before moving to Germany for a few years in the early ‘90s and finally settling down in Montreal, Québec, Canada in 1996. The dan bau is a traditional monochord instrument played with one hand bending a handle to modify pitch. It is one of the most distinct instruments of the Vietnamese tradition.
Born in 1956, Duc Thanh began to study music at a very young age. The sound of the dan bau coming from a neighboring house bewitched him when he was only four years old. At six he was playing it proficiently, along with the dan tranh (a 16-string zither) and dan nhi (a two-string fiddle). Self-taught and encouraged by his parents, he moved to Hanoi at age 18 to enroll at the School of Folk Music. He graduated in 1978 with a first prize. He then studied at the University of Vietnamese Folk Music in Saigon. Upon his graduation in 1983 he had mastered a dozen Vietnamese traditional instruments, in addition to modifying the design of the dan bau to contemporize it (he would eventually propose a foldable version of the instrument for traveling purposes). A year later he won first place in the International Monochord Competition. He spent the next few years teaching and performing with various ensembles and solo, releasing a few cassettes.
In 1990, Duc Thanh and his wife, singer Lieu Nguyet Lan, moved to Germany. For the next six years, the monochord player toured Europe, taught, recorded for the German national radio, produced a series of instructional videotapes on a number of Vietnamese instruments, and studied improvisation in Paris with Tran Van Khe, who became his maître à penser. In 1996, Duc Thanh was invited by the Hong Duc Vietnamese cultural center in Montreal to take over the Traditional Instruments Department. He moved to Montreal, joining a community of about 25,000 people. Now he runs his own small recording studio. He has self-produced a number of albums, but the two most widely available have been released by the label Oliver Sudden. Vietnamese Traditional Music came out in 1999 and featured his wife. Vietnamese Traditional Dan Bau Music, released in 2002, integrates more modern sonorities. Duc Thanh often performs in Montreal in a trio completed by his wife and son. He tours Canada and the United States regularly.