Article by Pham Thi Van Anh (Vietnam)
Blog Correspondent of ASEAN-Korea Centre
Vietnamese folk music is extremely diverse and includes dân ca, quan họ, hát chầu văn, ca trù, hò, and hát xẩm, among other forms.
Tuong Orchestra is the orchestra of Tuong stage – a kind of traditional court performing art of Vietnam. Tuong stage derives from Xi Ju opera of China which entered Vietnam in Thien Bao’s years (1279-1284) in the Tran dynasty and, they were gradually Vietnamized from performing, singing to the orchestra to become traditional stage of Vietnam with creativities full of native characteristics.
Tuong stage with tragedy plays shows heroic roles of loyal sentiments thought. Therefore, art forms supporting it must be suitable with violence and strained nature. So, the Tuong orchestra is a gathering of musical instruments with much different intensity. The orchestra consists of following musical instruments:
Three reeds (high, middle, bass) called oboe, two two-stringed fiddle Nhi, one small cello, one big drum, one chien drum, one cymbals, one gong, one bell and one temple block.
Three key musical instruments, which are the characteristic of Tuong stage, are oboe, two-stringed fiddle Nhi and Chien drum. Chien drum is musical soul of Tuong stage.
Cheo is a form of popular theatre in Vietnam that has its roots in ancient village festivals.
It consists of folk songs with pantomime, intrumental music and dances, combined with instructive or interpretive sketches dealing with stories from legends, poetry, history or even daily life. Also brought into play are acrobatic scenes and magic. Cheo tells tales of chiefs, heroes and lovely maidens and offers an eclectic mix of romance, tragedy and comedy.
Traditionally, Cheo was composed orally by anonymous authors. Today’s playwrights compose cheo operas along traditional lines: the characters in the plays sing time-tested popular melodies with words suited to modern circumstances.
The costomes, makeup, gestures and language create typical characters familiar to every member of the audience. The props are simple. As a result, there is a close interchange between the performers and the spectators.
A Cheo play could be put on stage in a large theater, but it could also be performed successfully on one or two bed mats spread in the middle of a communal house with a cast of only three: a hero, a heroine and a clown.
The sound of the Cheo drum has a magical power and upon hearing it, villagers cannot resist coming to see the play. The clown in a cheo play seems to be a supporting role, but actually he or she is very important to the performance. The clowns present a comic portrayal of social life, with ridiculous, satirical words and gestures; they reduce the audience to tears of laughter.
The national Cheo repertoire includes among others Truong Vien, Kim Nhan, Luu Binh – Duong Le, and Quan Am Thi Kinh, which are considered treasures of the traditional stage.
Cheo opera is an integral part of Vietnamese theater and is well-enjoyed by people in both country and town, and by foreign spectators as well. It is particularly relished by foreign tourists and overseas Vietnamese on a visit to their country of origin.
Xẩm singing is a type of Vietnamese folk music which was popular in the Northern region of Vietnam but is considered nowadays an endangered form of traditional music in Vietnam. In the dynastic time, xẩm was generally performed by blind artists who wandered from town to town and earned their living by singing in common place.
Quan họ (alternate singing) is popular in Ha Bac (divided into nowadays Bac Ninh and Bac Giang Provinces) and across Vietnam; numerous variations exist, especially in the Northern provinces. Sung acappella, quan họ is improvised and is used in courtship rituals.
Hát chầu văn (spiritual singing) is a spiritual form of music used to invoke spirits during ceremonies. It is highly rhythmic and trance-oriented. Before 1986, the Vietnamese government repressed hát chầu văn and other forms of religious expression. It has since been revived by musicians like Phạm Văn Tỵ.
Nhạc dân tộc cải biên (revised traditional music) is a modern form of Vietnamese folk music which arose in the 1950s after the founding of the Hanoi Conservatory of Music in 1956. This development involved writing traditional music using Western musical notation, while Western elements of harmony and instrumentation were added. Nhạc dân tộc cải biên is often criticized by purists for its watered-down approach to traditional sounds.
Ca trù (folk singing) is a popular folk music which is said to have begun with Ả Đào, a female singer who charmed the enemy with her voice. Most singers remain female, and the genre has been revived since the Communist government loosened its repression in the 1980s, when it was associated with prostitution.
Ca trù, which itself has many forms, is thought to have originated in the imperial palace, eventually moving predominantly into performances at communal houses for scholars and other members of the elite (this is the type of Ca trù most widely known). It can be referred to as a geisha-type of entertainment where women, trained in music and poetry, entertained rich and powerful men.
Hò (another kind of alternative singing) can be thought of as the southern style of Quan họ. It is improvisational and is typically sung as dialogue between a man and woman. Common themes include love, courtship, the countryside, etc. “Hò” is popular in Can Tho – Vietnam.