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Ancient folk singing faces the sounds of silence

(No.2, Vol.5,Mar-Apr 2015 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


Re-enacted scenes created on a river in Nghe An for the performances of boatman
vi giam. Photo: Sy Minh



Master Tran Tu teaches the kids in his village of singing vi giam folksong. Photo: Ha Nguyen

Curiousness and concern would come at the same time once a heritage item gained UNESCO status. Vi giam folk song, a cultural legacy of locals in Nghe Tinh region in the Central of Vietnam, is in just that situation.
People in other regions in the country and around the world have begun their research on vi giam since December of last year, when it was honoured as a world cultural heritage item by the UN’s cultural body.
Certainly vi giam has yet to vanish in modern life, but it is no longer popular as it was in its glorious age. The old, natural environment of vi giam has almost gone. The traditional craft workshop has been cleared out from the villages in the region, which spans the central provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh.
No more hand-weaving workshops can be found at the localities, while conical hat-making has becomes a personal household job and is seen in only a few hamlets. There are, as well, fewer boatmen going across the rivers. On rice paddies, machinery has replaced farmers in almost all cultivation work. Urbanization has also stopped the placement of banyan trees and wells in front of each village.
‘The original environment for vi giam has gone. We now have only re-enacted scenes of rural and agricultural activities for vi giam on stages,’ says Pham Tien Dung, vice director of Nghe An Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
That fact gives much concern for the conservation of the folksong, as vi giam was born in the working environment to which it became attached. According to Nguyen Ngoc Quyet, head of the research unit at local Centre for Vi giam Safeguarding and Promotion, vi giam songs varied according to craft professions; there are textile workers vi giam, conical hat makers vi giam, rice planters vi giam, field workers vi giam, wood-chucking groups vi giam, bamboo weavers vi giam, boatmen vi giam, and several others.
Technically, vi giam folk songs are combination of vi and giam. Vi songs are composed in 6-8 verse (the last words of the first 6-word line and the sixth in the 8-word line are homonyms; while the last of the 6-word line that goes behind the 8-word line is a homonym of its eighth word) and in some variations of the verse. Vi has no rhythm.
Giam songs are in 5-word verses, with each song composed of five or seven lines, the last normally repeating the second-to-last. Giam songs have rhythm. Their rhythmic changes are made on each word or couple of words.
Vi giam folksong does not require music from instruments, as originally they started in the working environment, among craft workers of traditional textile weaving, conical hat making or farming. Experts said locals were very good at composing 6-8 verse, as quickly as they spoke. Since the 18th century, craft groups grew in the region with many workshops, where workers often produced the verse to ease the burden of the hard working days. They then hummed the verse in tune to make the vi giam folk song.
Elder Tran Tu, a vi giam master in Hoang Tru Village in Nghe An’s Nam Dan District, says during the good old days of vi giam, the songs were sung by folks from all walks of life, from manual workers to Confucian scholars, including the outstanding ones like patriot Phan Boi Chau in Nghe An or the Tale of Kieu’s author poet Nguyen Du in Ha Tinh.
People in those days communicated by singing vi giam. For instance, weavers in a textile workshop spoke to their next door neighbours, rice planters talked to a wood-chucking man nearby, or a boatman welcomed guests on board with basic vi giam.
Master Tu tells an anecdote about when scholar Phan Boi Chau approached Hoang Tru Village and unfortunately fell, kneeing down on the road because of slippery mud. A lady in the nearby textile workshop immediately sang out her vi giam verse: ‘Man, we are the same age. Thus kneeing down in front of me isn’t necessary.’ The scholar just as quickly replied in a very metaphoric fashion: ‘The road is weird so far. Are we so close for such passionate embrace huh?’
But Master Tu also admits that vi giam songs sung at the village club now have lost part of their soul, as its natural environment of textile workshops in the village were wiped out long ago.
Dung of the Nghe An Culture Department says authorities in the two provinces have set up several programmes for safeguarding and promoting vi giam folk songs according to UNESCO commitments. Among them is to give the folksong a theatrical life, which has actually been a tradition since 1973. Artists have composed many plays that comprise old vi giam songs or new songs on old vi giam tunes to perform on stage, he says.
But native people of the region worry that vi giam has lost in the theatre. In the grand show to honour vi giam held in Nghe An late last January, all vi giam songs performed were theatrical versions of the folk song. ‘They are definitely not vi giam,’ says Tran Xuan Tinh, a Nghe An native who lives in HCM City, watching the show live on national television.
According to Nguyen Ngoc At, director of the local vi giam safeguarding centre, the two provinces have around 120 vi giam clubs, but the singing of vi giam faces the same situation as it does Tu’s village.
Experts said the core and soul of vi giam are from local Nghe Tinh dialects, the ability to play with words in 6-8 verse, and the natural environment of original vi giam. The biggest hope for vi giam conservation comes from the pride of locals.
The key task for cultural authorities is how to bring back part of the original environment where the vi giam folk song was born. Obviously, it is a difficult task, but the authorities receive full support from the younger generation, who always holds vi giam as a legacy in their hearts and has so much care about conserving folk songs.

By Ha Nguyen
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