Quan Ho Bac Ninh is a category of folk songs of the Red River Delta, concentrating mainly in Kinh Bac region (Bac Ninh and Bac Giang provinces). Quan ho is the combination of many elements like music, lyrics, costumes, and festivals... ex-pressing pure and nice thoughts of local peasants in villages who mainly practice wet rice cultivation. Performing of Quan ho folk songs requires careful training with strict regulations on organization and performance.
Legend has it that, the King Lady (Vua Ba)
- Daughter of King Hung was the ancestor of Quan ho folk songs. King Hung held a festival to select son-in-law but she did not accept the awarded man and asked her father to allow her to travel with her menials. During the travel, a sudden hurricane swept the Lady and all her menials to the area of Viem Xa Village (in Bac Ninh Province). In this place, she taught local people to do farming, develop the village and sing folk songs (later developed into Quan ho folk songs).
Now, Vua Ba Temple located in Viem Xa (Diem Village), Bac Ninh Province still preserves many historical and cultural materials, facilitating researchers to learn about Quan ho folk songs.
In the process of formation and development, with the ingenious and skillful creations of artisans, Quan ho Bac Ninh folk songs had received and inherited the essence of the various types of folk songs through the country forming its own specific style and characteristics. Orally passed from generation to generation, Quan ho folk songs boast the most diversified system of melodies in Vietnam's folk-song genres with 213 different melody variations and over 500 song lyrics. With such a rich system of melodies and song lyrics, Quan ho folk songs are considered a panorama picture reflecting multi aspects of daily life as well as an indispensable cultural characteristics and the soul of Kinh Bac people. The process of formation of melodies and song lyrics was associated with the development of society, therefore enhancing and promoting community relations and cultural exchanges. For that reason, Quan ho is often attached with festive activities, cultural exchanges and spiritual life of the peasants.
On 30 September 2009, in Abu Dhabi capital of the United Arab Emirates, Quan ho Bac Ninh was inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Quan ho Bac Ninh folk songs are highly appreciated by UNESCO experts because of its social customs, style of contact, per-forming costumes, the art of performance, singing techniques, and song lyrics. The recognized region includes 49 traditional Quan ho villages, of which 5 villages are located in Bac Giang Province (Gia Son, Huu Nghi, Noi Ninh, Mai Vu, and Sen Ho) and 44 other villages belong to Bac Ninh Province: (Bai Uyen, Due Dong, Ha Giang, Hoai Thi, Hoai Trung, Lung Giang, Lung Son, Ngang Noi, Van Kham, Tam Son, Tieu, Dong Mai, Dong Yen, Bo Son, Cham Khe, Co Me, Duong o, Dau Han, Dieu Thon, Dong Xa, Do Xa, Hoa Dinh, Huu Chap, Kha Le, Khuc Toai, Nem Doai, Nem Son, Nem Tien, Niem Xa, Phuc Son, Thanh Son, Thi Chung, Thi Cau, Tho Ninh, Thuong Dong, Tra Xuyen, Ve An, Viem Xa, Xuan Ai, Xuan Dong, Xuan o, Xuan Vien, Y Na, Yen Man).
Quan ho Customs
Quan ho is mainly performed in spring, in village festival. Quan ho folk songs are always performed voluntarily in groups of the male (bon nam) or the female (bon nu). Each group usually has four to six people who are named by order such as "Second Sister", "Third Sister", "Fourth Sister", or "Second Brother", "Third Brother", "Fourth Brother" and so on. If the size of a group reaches seven or eight people, then they are divided into "older" and "younger siblings" named as the "Third Younger Brother" or "Fourth Older Sister". In Quan ho activities, members of a group do not address them-selves by real names blitz stage names.
Quan ho folk songs have existed in a typical cultural environment with their own social customs. One of the exceptional customs is Quan ho friend-making. Each Quan ho group from one village makes friends with another group from another village following the principle that male groups make friends with female groups and vice versa. Once becoming friends, men and women in Quan ho groups from these villages are not allowed to marry each other.
One particular characteristics of Quan ho singing is the transmitting and disseminating through "sleepover" custom. Members of a Quan ho group and boys and girls from 9 to 10 years old invite each other to sleep over in their host's houses to learn Quan ho singing techniques. Male and female singers combine and practice their voice in pairs in order to have a unified timbre for performance. Nha chua (house for Quan ho singing group) is a place for communal activities of one individual Quan ho group, where they meet each other, practice their voice as well as organize Quan ho singing (the singing at a host's house - Hot canh). The owner of house is often an elder who also used to sing Quan ho before.
Behaviors in Quan ho Singing Activity
Behaviors in Quan ho singing activity are a system of unwritten rules but followed by all Quan ho villages in the area. This conventional system closely attached to the traditions of the local communities. This discipline requires that behaviors, use of language, and costumes of Quan ho groups must be polite and elegant. If a Quan ho group wants to invite the other one for singing at a host's house, the invitation must be in conformity with a certain standard procedure, in which they must present a tray of betel as a gift accompanied with the letter of invitation. On the singing day, the host of Quan ho singing receives the guests right at the gate of the host village and takes them to the place for singing. Here, the guests will be invited to drink lotus tea (or tea mixed with other aromatic spices) and chew betel nuts prepared in shape of phoenix wings. If it is cold, some pieces of cinnamon will be added for more aromatic scent and warm feeling. After that, the Quan ho performance is started. At midnight, the host offers the guests a banquet or a tea-break with sweet cakes.
For banquet, the host uses round wooden trays painted red (called Mam son) to ex-presses the hospitality of the host. The dishes may differ depending on customs of each individual village, but there must be a plate of chicken, two plates of lean pork paste and lean pork meat, except for greasy foods for avoiding voice cracks. For tea-break, sweet cakes may include banh gai (flax cake), banh mat (molasses cake), banh xu xe (a kind of rice cake), banh che lam (sweet cake), and some kinds of sweet gruel... After the feast, they continue to sing Quan ho songs until saying farewell.
Quan ho cultural activities also present the intimate and faithful friendship and courteous behaviours among people. The doings and advises of the elder people are always respected by the younger. This relationship plays a vital role in preservation and development of Quan ho cultural and art achievements. Quan ho folk songs are mainly composed using folk verses and poems, especially Truyen Kieu. For example, when meeting Quan ho singers often say: "We now meet face to face but it seems a dream". This saying shows the softness, fineness and gentleness of Quan ho people. These sometimes are ornate and flowery words but definitely not lies, showing the desire to touch the beauty of language.
Quan ho people pay much attention to gentleness and elegance in communicating activities, from helping guests to take off umbrellas or conical hats, inviting guests to taste betel and drink water, to the gesture of walking, sitting and talk-ing... The fineness of Quan ho people can also be grapefruit flowers placed in the betel tray, a branch of flowers hidden in a handkerchief...
Quan ho Costumes
In performance, the outfits of Quan ho are very distinctive. The male costume comprises turban, umbrella, a shirt or robe including undershirts and long tunics with five pieces, trousers, and slippers. The undershirts are usually made of bright-colored garment such as cotton cloth, fine cloth, floss, silk... while the covering long tunic is often made of black-colored thin silk. Trousers of male singers are wide tube, covering the ankles, usually made of cotton cloth, fine cloth, floss, or Truoi silk.
The female costume includes non thung quai thao (the large round Quan ho hat) and a scarf for wrapping the hair, camisole, tunic, skirt, and scarves tied about the waist. The female singers often wear a camisole inside made of colorful Truoi silk, covered by a light and gentle colored tunic and long colorful tunics with five pieces. The skirt is made of black silk covering the ankles and tied about the waist by colorful scarves.
While performing at a host's house, a competition or a village festival, male and female Quan ho singers may improvise the song lyrics. The song lyrics are mainly composed from poems and folk verses of the Vietnamese, six-eight-word meter verse, modified six-eight-word meter verse, four-word or mixed four-word verses. The lyrics are perfectly polished in poetic and standard language. A song lyric includes two parts: the principal text is the core of the song, containing its base lyrics; the secondary text includes words that are added to the melodies, such as / hi, u hu, a ha, and so on. Without the secondary text, Quan ho lyrics will become monotonous and unbalanced.
Quan ho singers may also create some new sounds to replace the old ones. This reflects the delicate emotion and feeling of the artist, in some cases, bringing the audience a new impression.
Modulation of adjacent and intermediate tones is a special characteristic of Quan no music. Quan ho artists combine two and three pentatonic modes within a single song. This allows artists to maintain an open structure while combining contrasting melodic features in one or several pentatonic modes to add variety to a song. Modulation is one of the features that places Quan ho Bac Ninh at the pin-nacle of folk arts in Vietnam.
Technique of Quan ho Singing
There are four singing techniques that scholars and communities identify as the specific features which are restrained, resonant, ringing, and bouncing. The combination of these techniques will produce a specific nuance of Quan ho singing. Quan ho singers, therefore, should have proficient skills to combine these techniques in performances. Restrained singing (hat nen) takes the role of background for the lead vocal. This technique requires the singer to keep the breath steady and continuous to ensure the song melody uninterrupted. In addition, volume of the background vocal must not drown out the lead vocal but make it sound.
Resonant singing (hat ren) contributes significantly to forming the specific characteristics of Quan ho singing. When singing, the singer must hold breath steady and continuous while the mouth keeps open moderately.
Especially, the vibration of the larynx is the most important part. The sound must be vibrant without any interruption. Ringing singing (hat vang) requires the use of various vocals such as o, i o, i a... For ringing singing, the singer must sing slowly, take deep breath and pronounce every word clearly.
Bouncing singing (hat nay) is a special technique in which the singer breaks pro-longed syllables into short ones, makes them like a chain of sound. Depending on the inspiration of the singer, these short syllables can be different in volume and not necessarily at the beginning of the rhythm but any section of the song. It thus is not ideal for using this technique while singing in groups. Bouncing singing helps enhance the lyricalness and gracefulness of the Quan ho melodies.
System of Quan ho Tunes
According to the researchers of Quan ho singing custom, Quan ho folk songs have 213 different melody variations, divided in to three phrases. They are:
Standard tune type (giong le loi) has slow melody, low tune, sometimes unclear rhythm of castanets, with many vibrant and background vocals. This is a indispensable tune in the traditional Quan ho singing performances. There are 20 standard tunes, including some typical tunes as: La rang, Tinh tang, Kim Ian, Cai a, Treo ten cay gao cao cao...
Variety tune type (giong vat) has diversified melody, flexible rhythm, song lyrics of rich content, well-organized structure. It can be said that variety tune best presents the artistic value of Quan ho singing. There are 183 variety tunes, of which the most well-known tunes can be named as Khach den choi nha, Ngoi tua man thuyen, Xe chi luon kim, Cay true xirth...
Farewell tune type (giong gia ban) usu-ally has sad, smooth and passionate melody. A song of farewell tune type often includes the main part of 2 sentences of poem in six-eight word meter verse, and the chorus part. The beauty of melody and song lyrics of Quan ho singing can be found in farewell tune type which includes 10 tunes, namely Chuong vang gac cua tam quan, Con nhen giang mung, Tam biet tu day...
Form of Quan ho Performance
Quan ho singing has 4 main types: hoi singing (singing at festivals), tho singing (singing at rituals), canh singing (singing at a host's house) and mung singing (singing for celebration).
Singing at festivals is organized in spring and autumn and comprises two forms: Singing for entertainment (hat vui): on the occasion of regional festivals (Urn Festival in Lung Giang, Lung Son, Due Dong villages of Lim Town) or village festival (in villages of Viem Xa, Thi Cau...), Quan ho groups gather to sing for entertainment and friend making. This form of singing only complies with some traditional rules as duet singing, responsive singing between male and female singers, unlike tight rules of singing for prizes or singing at a host's house.
The places for Quan ho singing perform-ance can be at communal house's yard, temple, and pagoda or on the hill (Hong Van Hill at Lim Festival) or on the dykes of the villages located along Hong (Red) River such as Khuc Toai, Tra Xuyen... Singing for prizes (hat thi): is not very popular and not organized every year. If a village wants to organize a festival of singing for prizes, the village must choose a Quan ho group in the village to keep the prizes, then invite Quan ho groups in other villages to join the competition for the prizes. The regulation and invitation of the competition must be published at the gate of the host village's communal house.
The competition starts with songs per-formed by both sides wishing and praying good things for the host village, continues by the competing part with songs of standard tune type. In the competition, the host Quan ho group who keeps the prizes may sing first and the competing Quan ho group will sing in response appropriately. If one side fails to sing in response they will lose points.
The board of judges includes three to five village elders who are knowledgeable about rules of Quan ho singing and have enough reputation to make final decisions about the winning and losing of the competition.
Singing at rituals is often organized in spring festivals between Quan ho groups who have made friends. Singing at rituals aims at praising merit of ancestors and gods and wishing for happiness, prosperity and good harvest for villages. This form of singing mainly uses standard tune type. Variety tune type and farewell tune type are not allowed to perform. Singing at a host's house is organized in the house at night between two Quan ho groups who have made friends. The performance comprises several sections last-ing from 7-8 p.m to 2-3 a.m. The duration of a section can be long or short, depending on the knowledge of the singers about system of Quan ho songs.
A section of singing is divided into three phrases:
- The first phrase (compulsory): after some rituals of communication, the two Quan ho groups will sing standard tune songs, usually 5 songs. This performance is not judged, however, if a duet fails to sing in response, they will be eliminated and another duet will replace.
- Middle phrase: singers will sing songs of variety tune. In this phrase, if one side can not sing in response, they will lose one point. The songs passionately mani-fest love, thoughts of life and destiny...
- The last phrase: often lasts from mid-night to 1:00 am. The guest will start by singing the song Chuong vang gac cua tarn quan, implying the farewell. In response, the host will sing the same song implying to keep the guest stay. After that, the two sides sing other farewell tune songs with moving song lyrics, ex-pressing their desire not to say farewell. Singing for celebration is to convey the congratulations and wish between Quan ho groups in daily life, especially on the occasion of weddings, new home inauguration, promotion in career... Singing for celebration requires male and female artists to sing in response. The standard tune of La rang is the only tune used in this singing form. Other standard tunes as well as variety tune and farewell tune types are not allowed. The songs of La rang standard tune share the same melody but differ in lyrics. In addition to the forms of singing mentioned above, each village may have its own form of Quan ho singing: Trum dau singing, Cau dao singing (Viem Xa Village), Washing Buddha statues singing (Cham Khe village), hieu singing (Lung Giang, Tam Son villages), Giai han singing (relieving one's bad luck) (Xuan 0 Village), ket cha singing (maklng-friend)...
Some typical Quan ho Singing Festivals
Urn Festival takes place every year on the 13th day of the first lunar month in Lung Giang, Lung Son, Due Dong villages (Lim Town, Tien Du District, Bac Ninh Province). It is one of the most special Quan ho festival of Kinh Bac Region. Lim Festival organizes singing at rituals at Hong Van Royal Tomb (on Hong Van Hill), singing at festival on boat and singing at a host's house. Attending Lim Festival, visitors have a chance to enjoy many cultural and belief activities, as well as to play traditional games such as cock fight-ing, bird fighting, wrestling, spring swing-ing, cooking contest...
Viem Xa Village Festival (Vua Ba Temple Festival) is organized on the 6th day of the second lunar month at Viem Xa Village (Hoa Long Commune, Bac Ninh City, Bac Ninh Province). Many activities are held in the festival as: ceremony of incense offering to Vua Ba (the King Lady); Quan ho singing at Vua Ba Temple, on boat and in the house... The festival has become a venue for villagers and visitors to commemorate the King Lady who was ancestor of Quan ho Bac Ninh.