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Vietnam Culture & People

Farmers keep traditional folk songs alive

Farmers keep traditional folk songs alive

Villagers in the northern province of Bac Giang continue to preserve the ancient quan ho (love duets of Northern Delta).

Hoac Cong Cho is just an ordinary old man in Trung Dong Village, in the northern province of Bac Giang.

But when the locals talk about him, everyone in his village in Van Trung Commune, Viet Yen District, would say he is their own artisan and folklorist.

At 74, Cho is very healthy and quick. Locals say he is like a piece of living heritage in terms of his knowledge of quan ho.

His eyes shine brightly when he talks about these love duets.

"Our villagers composed and sang love duets many hundreds of years ago. My grandparents and parents were members of the village’s quan ho troupe during the feudal era.

"I learned how to sing from my mother since I was little. When I grew up, I studied folk music at the provincial Arts School."

Over the past 50 years, Cho has always been the motivation behind raising the village’s singing movement.

Today he is the head of the local quan ho club, with its 28 elders ranging in age from 53 to 89.

Though most of them are old, whenever Cho calls, all of them will show up and be ready for a performance.

"Since before the August Revolution in 1945 until now, our village has always had a few troupes. For any events, such as festivals, we can easily mobilise about 50 people who can sing," he says.

Cho lives with a special passion for quan ho, which led him to collect and preserve a lot of materials related to the village’s ancient folk songs. These include books that store ancient lyrics and a list of singers who have passed on.

Showing off his books, Cho says: "I collected their names to prove that quan ho has existed here for a long time."

Also precious treasures are the more than 100 ancient songs that he found and recorded after travelling and searching for them around the region.

Cho says about 130 ancient folk songs have been recorded and he is still able to sing dozens of them.

The songs tell the stories of daily lives mixed with classic references and folk ballads. They are both natural and full of love.

Cho points out a few differences between the quan ho in Bac Giang Province and the nearby Bac Ninh Province.

"Our lyrics are different from the quan ho in Bac Ninh Province, and we also sing slower."

Cho currently teaches his skills to younger villagers for free. His students voluntarily and enthusiastically learn how to sing the ancient songs.

His oldest student is Vu Thi Sau, 77, who studies along with her daughter and daughter-in-law.

Seven members of the Hoac family, including Cho’s elder brother Hoac Cong Tao, 89, and elder sister Hoac Thi Chuong, 82, also sing with the troupe.

Hoac Thi Chuong says she remembers that during her childhood, she went with her parents to sing in the nearby village.

"We loved singing and we did our best to finish all of our work during the day, so that in the evening we would have time to go to the communal house to sing through the night.

"During these nights, we did not feel tired from the singing, and we never wanted to sing the song "Say Farewell To Friends," she recalls.

"Now I stay and you leave me, just tell each other good things.

I hold a cup of salt in one hand and a dish of ginger in the other hand.

Acrid ginger and briny salt remind us that we should not forget each other.

My darling, as we love each other we should keep our promise..."

After she finished singing a song, Chuong says: "My voice is not as strong as it used to be, so I often sing the short verses. My daughter can sing many longer songs, both old and new."

Every week, on Saturday afternoon, the troupe gathers in the communal house to practise.

At times, members also gather at Chuong’s house. If one of the members has collected a new song, all of them stay together to practise.

Folklorists and music researchers have visited the village many times.

"We admire them not only because of their special love for quan ho, but also for their will to overcome material difficulties," says folklorist Dr Bui Quang Thanh from the Institute for Culture and Arts, who has spent years studying folk songs from the region.

The troupe does not have common funding from local authorities or other sources; members generally have to spend their own money to purchase costumes.

"The commune is still poor so we can hardly earmark a part of the budget to help the club. We have to maintain local art, and we have to base that on socialisation. We call for local organisations and individuals to help support the operation of the club,"says the commune’s Party Secretary Hoang Van Khiem.

Cho says folklorist Thanh recently gave each elder gifts of VND200,000 (US$10).

Happily, the provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism recently gave the troupe VND9 million ($486) to help acquire costumes.

"Authorities should pay more attention to us. We are getting older and older. Without proper attention from the authorities, I am afraid the old art may disappear forever," Cho says.

Hoac Cong Tao, 89, says he went with his parents to singing sessions during his childhood. The elder still remembers most of main local tunes, including: Anh Hai Tai Tu (An Amateur), Tam Mat Xuong Song Dao (Bathing in the Dug River), Chot Thuc Day Sao Mai Long Lanh (Wake up and See the Morning Star), Doi Ta Nhu Chi Moi Xe (We Are as Closely Associated as Fresh Thread) and Tay Cam Bau Ruou Nam Nem (Holding a Wine Gourd and Meat Roll in Hand).

"We are too old and feel tired. We don’t wish for anything greater; we only wish for the Government to recognise our cultural heritage," Tao says.

Bui Quang Thanh says because of the limits on socio-economic conditions, researchers have yet to complete many thorough studies about the values of this village’s ancient folk songs.

"Among the ancient quan ho villages on the northern bank of the Cau River, this village has the highest number of elders who are still able to sing. They are 70-80 years old but they still have very good voices.

"Compared to other villages, the quan ho of Trung Dong has special features in their lyrics and different ways of expressing the various musical tones.

"With today’s alarming situation that could see ancient folk songs fall into oblivion, we need to conduct more studies and develop conclusions for preserving the precious value of the love duets from the northern bank region of the Cau River."

Hoac Cong Cho, on behalf of the members of his troupe, affirms their passion for traditional love duets.

"We established our troupe to preserve the ancient cultural values of our homeland. Without pay or material support from the Government, we still sing. This is our love for the ancient heritage that we inherited from our ancestors.

"We would be devastated if our village’s love duets were to disappear - we could all leave the world anytime. Without funds, the young generation would not want to follow the heritage of our forefathers."

Clubs flourish at village and communal level

Northern Vietnamese people conceived "the Kinh Bac cultural region", which is famous for the local quan ho (love duets). Today, quan ho has been divided into distinct regions: the love duets of Bac Ninh Province (on the southern bank of the Cau River) and love duets from Bac Giang Province (on the northern bank of the river). Among 49 ancient quan ho villages, Bac Ninh Province has 44 and Bac Giang has five villages, according to traditional music researcher Bui Trong Hien.

Director of Bac Giang Province’s Cultural Centre Vu Hong Bang says in recent years, though foreign and pop music have become popular, young people in villages in Viet Yen District still preserve the original folk songs.

"In Viet Yen, we found 130 artisans who can sing quan ho according to traditional standards. Our researchers also collected nearly 200 ancient songs that have not been published yet, and some variants."

Viet Yen now has about 30 quan ho clubs at communal and district levels, and each local village has its own quan ho troupe.











Source: VietNamNet/VNS

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