Researchers are compiling a dossier on ‘then' singing of the Tay, Nung and Thai ethnic groups to seek UNESCO's recognition of the folk art as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Dang Hoanh Loan, a member of the compiling group, shared his views on the sidelines of a workshop held recently on the preservation and development of ‘then' singing in Viet Nam.
What is your opinion about ‘then' singing at present?
During my field trips to the northwestern region, I found that in daily life, one or two men perform ‘then'. But on the stage, the art form is performed by a group of singers as an entertainment based on ‘then' melodies, not the real ‘then' ritual.
‘Then' singing is a kind of ritual singing of the Tay, Nung and Thai groups. The songs are spiritual musical epics on the human journey to heaven to ask gods for help.
The singing is always accompanied by ‘dan tinh' (gourd lute) and dancing.
In general, ‘then' performers sing and play instruments better than real ‘then' masters. Yet, there are singers who have turned to be ‘then' masters when they returned home.
I have met some ‘then' masters in the 30-35 age group who have participated in various singing festivals. They are now ‘then' masters in real life. They have a more modern way of singing, playing instruments and performing.
In the past, male or female ‘then' masters performed only at rituals, where they communicated with dead ancestors to ask for help in dealing with some problems in daily life.
I met some old ‘then' masters. They asked me to take off my shirt and burn incense to pray for ‘then' ancestors before they sang some tunes for me. They said it was a ritual of asking the permission of ‘then' ancestors.
Could you tell me more about the content of the songs?
The songs describe how people bring offerings to the holy doors of heaven. There are 20 to 30 stages of offering of objects, depending on the talent of ‘then' masters. They move from the gates of the local landlord to the gates of God, through the gates of the Water God, then to the gates of ancestors before moving to other gods' gates.
The lyrics describe the difficulties and hardships in the journey when the travellers pass a village of the deaf and a village of lazy and stupid people. The songs also tell the love stories of male ‘then' masters and fairies, and of ‘soldiers' serving ‘then' masters. All ‘soldiers' are souls of the dead. The masters can order the ‘soldiers' to do this or that.
The more experienced the masters are, the more ‘soldiers' they possess. Some masters can have thousands of ‘soldiers'.
So you are compiling a dossier on ‘then' beliefs, not the entertainment form of the folk art as we see on the stage?
Yes. It's on ‘then' spiritual beliefs. The file will contain descriptions of the application of ‘then' in real life. We will include ‘then' music and its preservation. I found that the ‘then' belief can survive by itself. It doesn't need to be preserved.
What should we do to develop the art of ‘then'?
The art of singing ‘then' and playing ‘dan tinh' is being taught in art schools of ethnic groups since the 1960s.
Artists have collected ‘then' melodies from real ‘then' masters, and have compiled them in course books to teach students.
About the ‘then' belief, we just should respect it and support local communities with printed lyrics.
The Viet Nam Folk Arts Association has published six books on ‘then' songs. Each of them has more than 4,000 verses. ‘Then' masters handed the art down from generation to generation. The more stories ‘then' masters can remember, the more interesting the ritual their performance will be.
There are only 10 ‘then' masters above the age of 80 who can remember the maximum number of stories.
Some masters have books handed down by their ancestors. But the books may be in nom (Vietnamese ideography based on Han Chinese language) or Tay language. They cannot read them. The association will help translate the old books into the present Vietnamese language so that the ‘then' masters can read them. That's the best way to support them. — VNS