|The stage, where xam and other folk singing and dancing is performed near the Hang Dao-Dong Xuan street market, is a meeting place for young artists and spectators alike. — Photo coutersy of Viet Nam Music Art Development Centre
by Le Huong
In the bustle of the night market on Hang Dao-Dong Xuan streets at the weekend, singer Le Xuan Quynh loses herself in a xam song (folk song for blind beggars) on a stage by the entrance.
The audience forms a circle around the make-shift stage with attentive eyes towards her in the middle of an endless stream of passers-by.
Quynh said performing on such a night gave her inspiration and encouragement to keep following the art.
"I relish each show, especially on cold or rainy nights," she told Viet Nam News.
"Since our first Saturday night show in 2005, audiences have flocked to this stage.
"Once, it poured with rain as we were performing and the audience suddenly disappeared. We thought we might have to stop the show as there were no people watching us and it began to rain harder. But a few minutes later they flocked back again, wearing raincoats.
"I couldn't hold back my tears, I was so moved.
"They also sometimes give us money and food while bowing in respect."
Retiree Nguyen Tien Loc, who took a bus 80km from the northern province of Thai Nguyen just to see the show, said he was a regular at the performances.
"Last week I travelled alone but this week I brought along my wife and my son's family," he said, pointing to five people, including two toddlers. "We are hungry for the folk art and coming here we have a chance to eat Hanoian food, see interesting places and satisfy our hunger (for the art)."
The free shows, which are the brainchild of the Viet Nam Music Art Development Centre, include not only xam but also other folk arts – like chau van (trance singing and dancing), ca tru (ceremonial singing), quan ho (love duet singing) – and dance with the background music from traditional instruments like dan tranh (16-string zither), bau (monochord), sao (bamboo flute), nhi (bowed two-string instrument), nguyet (moon-shaped two-string instrument) and phach (small wooden sticks beaten on a small bamboo box to serve as percussion).
Beside noted artists like Xuan Hoach, Thanh Ngoan, Van Ty, Hanh Nhan and Thuy Ngan, most of the performers are trainers and trainees from the centre. Since 2010, in co-operation with the Hue Music Academy, the centre has offered xam as a subject in the curriculum for a BA and MA degree in folk music.
It also holds free xam classes to hundreds of people who are fond of the art.
Composer Thao Giang, deputy director of the centre, said that during the five years of giving performances, many young people had come to enrol in xam classes. From such free classes, young people had grown and developed and now acted as centre trainers and performers.
"Looking at young people with a great passion for the art, I am no longer worried about its future," he said. "But what I'm worried about is the disappearance of xam melodies which used to be popular in the countryside last century, which are the root of these in Ha Noi, especially since the recent death of Artisan Ha Thi Cau. No one seems to be able to sing melodies popular in Ninh Binh in her way."
Footloose and fancy free royal has spring in his step
Legend has it that the art of xam (songs performed by blind beggars) was born more than 700 years ago after blind Prince Tran Quoc Dinh, who was rumoured to have been ill-treated by his older brother, was forced to earn a living by wandering the country as a beggar.
He became a gifted singer and instrument player by the grace of God and soon became famous. He also taught other blind people the skills so that they too could take up the vocation.
He died in spring and the art has since been associated with spring.
He said the art was brought to Ha Noi in the late 19th century [1885-88], arriving with handicraft guides from surrounding villages. When the countryside people brought their handicraft careers to settle down in the capital, they brought xam art, which was then modified somewhat to suit the tastes of urban audiences and even French residents. There were two genres of xam: urban and village.
Giang regretted that his centre could not afford to take trainees to meet few old artisans living in provinces around Ha Noi to learn the old melodies, while the artisans themselves were too old and too poor to travel.
"The main material source of the old folk melodies we get from CDs and VCDs recorded by the Radio Voice of Viet Nam dated back to the 1970s," he said. "The old artisans are dying and will take along with them some very rare melodies."
Vu Duc Huy, 25, another trainer at the centre, admitted that he now was more confident about following the folk art, which was not as popular as others like quan ho or chau van.
"Thanks to the efforts by my teacher, Giang, xam is becoming more popular," he said. "We are now being invited to teach art troupes in other provinces and to give performances at local festivals."
However, he said, he wanted people to take better care of old artisans like the late Cau, who lived in abject poverty until her last gasp.
He also said audiences should be given more exposure to the art so that it could live on among the youth.
"Please look at our show every Saturday night," he said with a smile, "The youth outnumber the old, which is encouraging, isn't it?" — VNS