Along with Ca Tru and Quan Ho Folk Singing, Xoan Singing was recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Vietnam in 2011. The article below which was written by musician Cao Khac Thuy will give readers an overview of this unique and long-standing folk treasure of Vietnam.
Xoan singing – an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Vietnam
The Origin of Xoan Singing
Xoan singing from the villages in the ancestral land of Phu Tho is usually performed in the springtime. Legend has it that, in the era of the Hung Kings, a beautiful lady named To Hoa was famous for her singing and dancing, so the king commanded her to perform for his pregnant wife during her delivery. To Hoa’s beautiful songs and lithe dances eased the queen’s pains and helped her give birth to three sons. The Hung King complimented To Hoa on her virtuosity and asked the princesses to learn to perform like her. This form of dancing and singing became known as “Hat xuan” (Spring Singing) because it was first performed in the springtime.
The elders in Phu Duc Commune tell another version of the art form’s origin. It is said that one day when the Hung King traveled to Phu Duc he saw a group of herders playing and singing joyfully so he asked his entourage to teach the children some folk songs. This is considered the origin of Xoan singing and Phu Duc Commune is believed to be the cradle of the art form.
The two stories and research into the legends, history, archeology and sociology all confirm that Xoan singing dates back to the Hung Kings era. “Xoan singing itself features a wider variety of traditional cultural rituals than other cultural customs in the northern midland and delta region, such as rituals for worshipping ancestors or national heroes in the country’s struggle against foreign invaders. The mixture of different kinds of rituals in Xoan singing performances indicates that the genre has had a long history of development,” said AssociateProfessor and artist Tu Ngoc. Presenting a different viewpoint, researcher Nguyen Khac Xuong says, “Xoan singing did not come from the Hung Kings Festival; it sprang from other festivals at the time. The Xoan singing performance today is quite different from the original version. Today’s Xoan singing is the type of art form that was performed in temples for celebrations commemorating the village gods during the Dai Viet cultural period.”
According to information gained by folk art researchers in Phu Tho province, Xoan singing is now performed in temples in 17 villages and the province has four Xoan singing art troupes: Phu Duc, Kim Doi, Thet and An Thai. Each troupe is made up of 12-18 actors and actresses aged from 12-18, and headed by a middle-aged man who understands the rules, songs and ancient Nom script as well as how to properly organise the troupe and train the artists.
The performers practice their skills in December and deliver performances in January every year. The shows are not their life’s work but, rather, an entertaining extra-curricular activity for their spare time.
There are two forms of Xoan singing, ceremonial singing and festive singing, which have different content and are performed in different ways. Ceremonial singing features 14 ‘Qua Cach’ (tunes) telling different stories praying for peace, prosperity and favourable weather conditions. Each tune comprises three parts: ‘Giao Cach’, also known as ‘Giang Dau’ and ‘Bi Dau’ (the introduction) is sung by a soloist; ‘Dua Cach’ (the body of the piece) is performed by a male vocalist and a group of female artists and contains dances; and ‘Ket Cach’ (the conclusion), in which a female singer ends the story.
On the other hand, the festive Xoan singing is more exciting and is performed by artists from the Xoan troupe as well as young people in the village.
The art of Xoan singing is based on three main components: lyrics, music and dance.
There is a wide range of Xoan lyrics inspired by both folk art and fine art, and they express the people’s aspirations, dreams and happiness as well as their daily activities. The lyrics are always written down and are seldom performed ad lib.
Thirty-five songs have been recorded in Xoan singing, each one including speaking, reciting and singing. The tune is often connected, diversified and creative to distinguish it from the others. Syncopes and contre-temps, which are rarely used in other folk art forms, are favoured in Xoan singing. The musical instruments used in the performances include drums and ‘Phach’ (small wooden sticks used to beat a small bamboo box for percussion).
21 out of 24 sections of a Xoan singing performance have dances, and each section is accompanied by several kinds of dances.
Xoan singing is not only singing and dancing, it is also the art of performance. Xoan artists must master the skills of singing, dancing
In one lively and amusing fishing ditty, a group of female artists provides vocals whilst standing in a circle representing fishing net and they try to catch a male artist, who is acting as a fish. The ‘fish’ struggles to escape from the net, and if he succeeds, the ‘net’ will capture another man.
Another example is the ‘Xin Hue’ (Asking for a Flower), in which a man sings a song to ask for a flower. When the group of female artists ask which kind of ‘flower’ he wants, he points at one of them. The chosen lady will sing a short tune expressing a reason to refuse the man’s request, and then another man will ask for another ‘flower’, and so on.
Each tune sung on the stage is really a separate performance, which is why, Xoan singing has such rich cultural value as well as being a lively, diversified and very special art form.