Xoan singing features itself a traditional style of folk ritual singing, attached to cult of worshipping Hung Kings and performed by farmers growing wet rice in the midland areas, mainly in Phu Tho Province. Xoan singing is also called “hat cua dinh" (singing in front of the communal houses), Lai Len singing, Dum (love exchange) singing and Tho (worship) singing...
Xoan singing is often practiced in spring for worshipping Hung Kings, deities, and the village's tutelary gods, praying for blessing, good weather conditions, prosperity and peace. Locals of Phu Tho Province consider Xoan singing as the most sacred and charming worship singing.
Xoan singing was originated merely in several localities in Phu Tho. Legend said that it appeared during the time of Hung Kings. In the past, only four original Xoan guilds (including Phu Due, Kim Doi, Thet of Kim Due Commune, and An Thai of Phuong Lau Commune in Viet Tri City) were often invited to perform at many festivals in different villages in the area. Thus, Xoan singing can now be seen at many villages in Phu Tho and Vinh Phuc as well.
After many ups and downs throughout history, Xoan singing still exists with its unique values, proving the longevity and ability of adaptation for survival of Vietnamese folk culture in general and Xoan singing in particular. On November 24, 2011, at the 6th Meeting of UNESCO's Inter-governmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage held in Bali, Indonesia, Xoan singing of Phu Tho Province was officially recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Protection by UNESCO.
History at a Glance
Relating to the origination of Xoan singing, there have been a lot of legendary stories handed down from generation to generation and one of which said that: once upon a time, in spring, King Hung, during his travel seeking for an area to construct a citadel, saw a small group of herd boys and girls playing and singing "dong dao" - an oral folk poetry of children in Vietnam. The king talked to them and taught them the songs and dances of Lac Viet people (the ancient Vietnamese). To commemorate the king's merit, the villagers built a temple, called Lai Len (now located in Kim Due Commune, Viet Tri City, Phu Tho Province) to worship the king. Since then, villagers usually offered the king banquets on the 30th day of the 12th lunar month and performed worship songs from the 1st to the 5th days of the New Year's first lunar month to commemorate what the king taught them, praying for a new peaceful and prosperous year.
During the process of development, the art of Xoan singing has been continuously improved by many generations of folk artists. Xoan singing performance even became a ritual rule in most of village festivals in Phu Tho. According to records of historians, Lady Le Thi Lan Xuan (the fourth wife of King Ly Than Tong (1116- 1138) and 2 famous scholars in Post Le Dynasty (15th century) namely Do Nhuan and Than Nhan Trung had great merit in developing the art.
In 17th century, many communal houses were built in Phu Tho, functioned as a cultural centre of the village. Since then, Xoan singing in temples had been re-placed with singing in front of communal houses with larger space and more audiences. Xoan guilds hence had to find out solutions to adapt with the new space of performance. Every year, villages tried to invite Xoan guilds to perform at their communal house festivals to commemorate King Hung's merit.
UNESCO recognized Xoan singing as a unique performing art thanks to its old tradition and rich cultural value which have been well preserved by local com-munities throughout many centuries and still exist in the modern life.
Old Tradition Value
Xoan singing first appeared during the time Hung Kings established the nation thousands of years ago, originally for worshipping Hung Kings and expressing dreams about happiness and praying for good crops, good health and luck.
The original Xoan singing lyrics were originated from ancient villages located in the midland areas under the Hung Dy-nasty. This was one of the important factors that directly influenced and impacted on the appearance and existence of Xoan melodies and performances.
Besides, some legendary stories which have been preserved also reflect the appearance and existence of Xoan singing in the history of ancient Vietnamese people in the time of Hung Dynasty.
Xoan singing appeared as part of creed of the local inhabitants who engaged in wet rice agriculture in Phu Tho - the ancient land of the Vietnamese nation where many folk festivals were held an¬nually in the spring. Xoan singing obviously contains characteristics of an agricultural culture.
Xoan singing conveys two cultural messages: one is spiritual aspect (worshipping, wishing, and praying) and the other is festive aspect (romantic singing in festivals for lovers).
Regarding rituals, Xoan singing is for worshipping ancestral Hung Kings, also manifesting the Vietnamese cult of worshipping their ancestors, expressing their wishes for luck, prosperity and good life. Consequently, the lyrics of Xoan singing represent clearly the moral philosophy between the king and his people. Xoan singing consists of sweet and romantic melodies of profound meanings. The song lyrics show not only the feelings between husband and wife, between father and his children but also the thoughts and wishes of community, being a bridge of solidarity in community.
The combination of ritual singing and love-exchange singing, existing for a very long time and loved by many generations ensures to the vitality of Xoan singing.
Sense of Community
Xoan singing is a spiritual product of the people, originated from working life, customs and habits of farmers in wet rice agriculture, honored and preserved by the people. This is a very important criterion for UNESCO to recognize this unique folk art.
ELEMENTS OF ART
Xoan singing is a combination of poetry, music, singing, dancing. Xoan singing is accompanied by dancing and musical instruments like clappers, drums... There exists tight attachment between poem and music rhythm, the meaning of poem unites with music.
The song lyrics reflect quite clearly the cult of worshipping ancestors and gods, and also belief in fertility (tin nguong phon thuc) of Vietnamese community. Besides, they also mention the power of royalty, scholars, farmers, workers, traders or love of couples...
Most Xoan songs were composed follow-ing poetry styles such as four-word verse, and five-word verse, six-eight-word verse, seven-seven-six-eight-word verse, seven- beat verse, and free-word verse.
Scale of Notes
Performance of Xoan singing is deter-mined by Vietnamese language intonation, including six different tones (no tone mark, rising tone, falling, low glottal, rising glottal, falling-rising). Most of Xoan songs use five-note scale, some use three-note scale and four-note scale with simple rhythm.
Xoan singing has three types: recital melody (hat noi); chanting melody (hat ngam ngoi) and praising melody (hat xuong).
The lyrics of recital melody are often poems of four-word or five-word verses. Normally, recital melody uses two-note to five-note scale (not over eight-note scale) with not many ornaments. The style of recital melody is rustic, simple, clear ahd strong.
Meanwhile, chanting melody is usually free and smooth, expressing deep emotions. This type of singing uses more ornaments than recital melody.
Lastly, praising melody combines characteristics of recital melody and chanting melody, composing a song using various methods such as repeating, changing, imitating...
Rhythms interact with other elements of Xoan singing logically. Ritual songs (Giao trong, Giao phao, Tho nhang, Dong dam) and the songs with lyrical dances (So bo, Mo ca, Bom gai) usually go together with clear and connected rhythms. Mixed rhythms do exist but not very popular (Tho nhang, Dong dam). Songs with chanting melody as Gai hue. Hat phu have free rhythm. Atypical characteristic of Xoan singing rhythm is oblique stresses used in many songs as: Giao trong, Giao phao, Tho nhang, Xin hue- do chu...
Organization of Xoan Singing Communities
The original Xoan singing communities are organized into Xoan guilds, each including 2 to 6 male instrumentalists called kep, and 6 to 12 female singers called dao. These instrumentalists may be married, but there must be at least one of them being a young boy, aged from 10 to 15.
They should have ability of both playing instruments like drums, clappers and singing. The criteria for selection of the singers include their age (from 15 to 20), singing voice and beauty. They will be taught about techniques of singing and dancing and knowledge of folk culture, literature and music.
Each guild is headed by an old man who has a thorough knowledge of Xoan singing, referred to as Trum. He takes the responsibility for training instrumentalists and singers and also is a manager of the guild. In spring, Xoan guilds are invited to perform on the occasion of villages' festivals.
Villagers have to meet the leader of the Xoan guild and discuss all details about the performance. Some villages may invite dao to perform Dum (love exchange) singing with local young men. Some families even invite the guild to perform at their own houses. The Xoan guild, there-fore, should have rich knowledge and skills to satisfy these demands. Day by day, close relationship between Xoan guilds and villages begin to take shape. To avoiding disputes among Xoan guilds, regulations say each guild can only per-form at several certain communal houses. For instance, Kim Doi guild performs at Huu Bo, Thanh Mai, Nha Mon communal houses; Phu Due guild performs at Phu Ninh, Due Bac, Y Ky, Tay Coc communal houses... As a result, close friendship bonds have been made between Xoan guilds with villages in the region, in which, the guilds are regarded as the younger and the villages as the older. This custom reflects the important role and value of Xoan singing in the daily life of people in Phu Tho Province.
Costumes, Props and Musical In Struments
Female singers (dao) often wear a faded- brown five-paneled gown with tight collar, a black skirt and a kerchief tied in triangle shape on the forehead. Costumes of male instrumentalists (/cep) of the guilds and local young men participating in ritual singing are a white silk trouser, a dark- brown gown, and a black turban; meanwhile, they wear white clothes to perform festive singing. Artists of Xoan guilds always wear elegant costumes performing to express their respect to gods and villagers. This is a beautiful cultural behavior of Xoan guilds.
Props of Xoan guilds include little bottles of wine, paper fans and a book of 14 qua cach (folk melodies) written in Nom (ancient Vietnamese language).
Regarding musical instruments, they can be named as small wooden drums with the two heads made of ox leather, 15 to 25cm in diameter and 21 to 25cm in height; a big drum for ritual singing with two heads made of buffalo leather, 60 to 70cm in diameter, 90cm in height; and a few pairs of clappers.
Rules and Procedures of Xoan Singing
A Xoan guild starts a performance by offering sacrifices to the altar of the communal house, singing for inviting the spirit of King Hung to enjoy the performance. After the offering ceremony has been completed, the palanquin of King Hung will be carried from the temple to the communal house by 8 local male virgins, accompanied by 4 young female virgins singing Phu gia (welcoming the king) song. The ritual completes when the palanquin procession has arrived at the communal house. At night, the Xoan guild comes back to the communal house to sing for worship of the king.
A performance of Xoan singing normally comprises of three phrases: Worship singing, Ritual singing, and Festive singing. Worship singing: to commemorate Hung Kings, village guardian spirits, the people, who had merit for the country and families' ancestors, through the repertoires of Moi vua, Giao trong, Giao phao, Tho nhang and Dong dam.
Moi Vua is a dance for welcoming the King to the communal house. Sound of gongs and drums starts the performance, and then dao (female singers) stand in two lines from altar to the gate of the communal house waving their hands to welcome the king.
Giao Trong and Giao Phao requires the joint performance of the guild's leader, four female singers and two male instrumentalists aged from 12 to 13 knocking senh (castanets), singing and dancing in appropriate with the rhythms of the songs. Giao trong is a song in praise of Trong Com (cylindrical drum) and wishing for prosperity and peace as well.
Giao trong and Giao phao are followed by Tho nhang singing for offering incense to the king's altar, praying for villagers' happiness. In the performance, female singers keep incense sticks in their hands singing and dancing. After completing the song, they place the incense sticks on the king's altar and then start to sing Dong dam, the last song of worship singing, which describe the role of female singers in the performance.
Ritual singing: to perform 14 different melodies (14 qua cach), aiming to serve village notables in the feast of communal house festival. "Qua" means melody, “cach” refers to the manner to perform the melody. These 14 melodies are categorized into 4 groups in terms of content:
The first group includes such melodies as Kieu giang cach, Hoi lien cach and Choi dau cach, telling stories about historical or legendary characters.
The second group includes Nhan ngam cach, Trang mai cach, Doi day cach and Thuyen cheo cach, showing respect to gods and predecessors who had merit to make villagers' lives happy and prosper-ous.
The third group includes Xoan thoi cach, Ha thoi cach, Thu thoi cach, Dong thoi cach and Tu mua cach, expressing feel-ings and thoughts of human about the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter.
The fourth group includes Ngu tieu canh muc cach and Tu dan each, describing the four classes of Si (scholars), Nong (farmers), Cong (craftsmen), and Thuong (merchants) in feudal society of Vietnam.
The structure of each qua cach comprises of 3 parts: the opening part called giao cach, the central part called dua cach and the ending part called ket cach. Regarding performing manner, chanting and recital melodies are common. The guild's leader or a male instrumentalist sits in the middle of the communal house beating drums and clappers and taking the role of lead vocalist. Some female singers stand behind singing following the lead vocalist.
Festive singing: alternate singing between singers and instrumentalists. This is also a chance for audience to take part in singing together with Xoan guilds to express love and dreams about happiness through 11 songs. Di choi bom gai, Duong di tren suoi duoi khe, Treo len cay buoi hai hoa are a potpourri of songs, featuring fast melody, performed by 6 female singers of the Xoan guild and 6 local young men to make the festive night more joyful.
Dum singing is an exchange between Xoan's female singers and village's men.
Bo bo illustrates various activities in daily life of Vietnamese peasants as cutting wood, growing trees, tailoring, embroidering, selling and buying products...
Xin hue, Do hue are kind of tricky puzzles composed by local young men to test the female singers of the Xoan guild.
Do chu explains the meaning of old words, in order to encourage the studiousness of local youth.
Hat moi ruou is the song to invite the village elders to attend the feast of communal house festival, drinking wine on the occasion of a new spring.
The animated potpourri of Cai hue and Mo ca are most expected by the village’s young men in the Xoan night for that will be a chance for them to express their feelings with Xoan guild's female singers. Mo ca is considered the oldest melody of Vietnamese people.
According to survey, Xoan singing is still practiced in 30 villages in 15 communes of Phu Tho Province and 3 communes of Vinh Phuc Province. However, only four original Xoan villages of Kim Doi (Ke Doi), Thet, Phu Due and An Thai (Phu Tho Province) perform outside their villages.
In festive seasons, after performing on the opening of spring festival in their vil-lages (from the 1st to the 4th day of the first lunar month), these four Xoan guilds start to perform at other villages from the 5th day.
At present, there are some 70 Xoan singing artists in original Xoan villages, 29 of them have been officially recognized by the Vietnam Association of Folk Cultural and Arts.
In an effort to accelerate the development of Xoan singing in the local communities, 15 new Xoan singing clubs have been established in Phu Tho Province, with 298 members who are teachers, students, peasants, retired persons... Xoan singing is a unique cultural folk asset of Phu Tho Province. That Xoan singing has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Protection, which has proved the significant importance of Xoan singing and also heightened the position of Vietnamese traditional folk culture. Xoan singing is a great pride of Phu Tho Province in particular and the whole country in general, which needs to be well preserved and further developed in modern life.
Of the above mentioned 30 villages, there are , 17 ones having tight relationship with Xoan guilds, including:
In Phu Tho Province:
- Thanh Mai (Thanh Dinh Commune, Viet Tri City)
- Co Tich (Hy Cuong Commune, Viet Tri City)
- Cam Doi (Thuy Van Commune, Viet Tri City)
- Nong Trang (Nong Trang Ward, Viet Tri City)
- Duu Lau (Duu Lau Wafd, Viet Tri City)
- Huong Non (Huong Non Commune, Tam Nong District)
- Tu Da (Tu Da Commune, Phu Ninh District)
- Phu Ninh (Phu Ninh Commune, Phu Ninh District)
- An Dao (An Dao Commune, Phu Ninh District)
- Tien Du (Tien Du Commune, Phu Ninh District)
- Cao Mai (Cao Mai Commune, Lam Thao District)
- Huu Bo (Kinh Ke Commune, Lam Thao District)
- Tay Coc (Tay Coc Commune, Doan Hung District)
In Vinh Phuc Province:
- Tu Du (Tu Du Commune, Lap Thaeh District)
- Duc Bac (Duc Bac Commune, Song 10 District)
- Hoang Chue (Kim Xa Commune, Vinh Tuong District)
- Xau (Kim Xa Commune, Vinh Tuong District)