Concerts revive streetcar singing
Vuong Bach Lien
HA NOI (VNS) — For nearly a century beginning in 1900, streetcars plied the streets of Ha Noi and featured live entertainment. So-called xam tau dien singers, mostly itinerant blind artists accompanied by dan nhi (two-string violin) or dan bau (monochord), used to charm commuters daily, but when the streetcar lines were abandoned in the late 1980s, xam tau dien disappeared and this style of singing fell into oblivion.
|Next stop: Xam tau dien is performed at the Women's Museum in Ha Noi last Friday. — VNS Photo Bach Lien
But the strains of xam tau dien were heard again in the capital city over the weekends, with a series of concerts at the Women's Museum from Friday to Sunday. Performers included veteran artists Thanh Ngoan, Hoang Anh Tu and The Dan, as well as 10-year-old singer Thanh Thanh Tam.
Additional performances will take place this coming Saturday evening at the Dong Xuan Night Market.
Last weekend's shows attracted hundreds of all ages, but mostly elderly who wished to relive the memories of their youth when they used to hear the bells of the streetcars and the melodies of this style of folk music.
Audiences once again heard the familiar melodies that used to resound on streetcar trips from the central station at Hoan Kiem Lake to various destinations, including the Mo and Buoi markets, Cau Giay and Ha Dong.
The melodies of xam were borrowed from other styles of Vietnamese folk music such as trong quan or quan ho (love duets). Through the content and performance of the songs, xam artists told of their tragic lives or the misery of the poor and evoked sympathy from audience.
However, different from songs performed at markets, the streetcar songs were often had more elegant lyrics tailored to the tastes of city dwellers. And there were always humourous songs that aimed to advertise products being sold by the performers, such as toothpicks, balm, and herbal medicines.
For this weekend's shows, the stage is decorated with a 3D photo of old Ha Noi with an image of a streetcar. According to researcher Nguyen Do Bao, a performance of xam tau dien on a stage, with lights and microphones and without the rattle of the streetcars, could not fully capture the soul of the artform.
"We cannot ask to return to the ambience of the 1980s," said Bao. "The most important thing is that the melodies be preserved and the passion of the artists."
The objective of the show was to remind people of an original artform of the past, he added.
"Xam can teach people about ethical behaviour, and it has great human values," he said. "We should not forget the past because the past helps us enrich our souls."
Bao himself keeps souvenirs of xam tau dien. Three generations of his family used the streetcars, and each time they rode, they heard the xam melodies.
"For Ha Noi people, listening to xam singing was something very precious in their daily lives," he said.
For the audiences over the weekend, the performances recreated the ambiance of those old days in their minds.
"The show was really valuable," said 80-year-old audience member Le Thanh. "It was very precious for me to hear the xam melodies again. The streetcars were part of my life."
Today, about 400 xam songs are still preserved, mainly handed down orally from generation to generation. The most famous surviving artisan of this art form is 95-year-old Ha Thi Cau, the so-called "Last surviving xam singer".
Xam is, in fact, an endangered form of traditional music because the number of experienced artists has declined rapidly, while younger street performers prefers more modern styles of music. Researchers and devoted artists have tried to revitalise the artform and teach it to a younger generation, but they knew it would be an uphill battle to revitalise the style completely. — VNS