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Law student pursues passion for VN folk art

Update: March, 27/2016 - 09:00
Lives of the saints: With an attractive face and his demeanor and attitude, Quân is suited to play male saints. The most difficult challenge for stage performers is to accurately reflect the spirit of each saint, says Quân. Photo Nguyễn Thế Nam

by Minh Trang

At four years old, when most kids are busy with their toys, Nguyễn Văn Quân discovered his fondness for the traditional folk art and music of Việt Nam.

Since then, he dreamed of being on stage and performing Vietnamese folk art and folk music for an audience.

His dream seems to have come true. His popularity among young people soared since winning first prize with a hầu đồng performance at the Ha Noi Law University’s Got Talent competition held recently in the city.

Quân, who was born in 1994 in the northern province of Hưng Yên, is a college senior. He is interested in all forms of folk music but he feels a special bond with hầu đồng.

Hầu đồng (also known as lên đồng) is popular in Vietnamese spiritual culture. It is one of the main rituals of đạo Mẫu, and exemplifies the worship of mother goddesses in Việt Nam. During these rituals, mediums go into trances so their bodies can receive the spirits of various deities.

The young man said that his passion comes from his grandmother taking him to temples and pagodas to attend hầu đồng rituals. He observed and listened to the elders practising those religious rituals. Slowly, he became fascinated by their songs and performances.

Quân has also been active in theatrical arts since childhood, when he often acted in plays purely from instinct, without having had theatrical training.

At the age of 18, Quân entered the Ha Noi Law University, an institution completely unrelated to traditional art and music. His fire for the art forms, however, still continued to burn.

Quân always dreamed of performing regularly on stage. So he decided to enroll in the Viet Nam Music Art Development Centre in Hà Nội (VMADC), which is dedicated to preserving Vietnamese folk music such as xẩm and trống quân, as well as chầu văn singing. The VMADC offers training for lovers of such music.

At first, Quân wanted to learn to sing different forms of folk music. But senior teachers who devoted their whole lives to preserve the traditional music of Việt Nam - including musician Thao Giang and accomplished artist Văn Ty - urged him to pursue hầu đồng.

Hầu đồng includes 36 giá (sessions) representing 36 deities with different names and personalities. It is always accompanied with chầu văn singing.

Quân has an attractive face with grave manners and attitude, well-suited to play male saint characters, according to musician Thao Giang, 58, the director of the VMADC.

“Stage performers are different from real practitioners,” said musician Thao Giang. “Practitioners incarnate all deities and spirits, both male and female, to meet their spiritual and religious needs. While performers only need to consider and choose characters that suit them well."

After enrolling in the VMADC, Quân has had more opportunities to study traditional arts. Teachers have given him valuable advice, as well as taught him the stories and contributions of saints and deities. This helps him to understand and to act their spirit and life stories accurately.

Quân also learns from books and experienced artists and visits temples and pagodas to watch real hầu đồng performances. Then he draws inspiration from all of  his life experiences when he performs.

Hầu đồng combines both singing and dancing. So Quân spends a lot of time memorizing chầu văn lyrics, so that he can later devote himself to learning and refining this traditional dance form.                     

Quân and other VMADC members are currently performing folk games and music onstage at the Đồng Xuân Market and on Mã Mây Street in Hà Nội, as well as in other provinces.

The 22-year-old student says that the most difficult thing for performers on stage is to accurately reflect the spirit of each saint. Performers are not believers in these spiritual figures. Performers just portray saints as characters in performances lasting 10 to 15 minutes.

Việt Nam is seeking UNESCO recognition of hầu đồng as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. So the preservation of this belief’s true value via performing on stage is very important.

“I have never met the saints. So making audiences clearly visualize the character I am playing is the hardest thing. Using my imagination, I have to act accurate facial expressions, gestures and postures, all without losing the sacredness,” Quân shared.

The admiration and cheers of audiences after his performances are great motivation for him to confront any such difficulties. Such acknowledgement is also a precious gift for every artist.

Quân’s family and friends don’t work in the arts. But they always stimulate a passion for folk music in him.

“My family absolutely support him to pursue and preserve Vietnamese cultural heritage, if he can balance the amount of time for studying and performing.” Nguyễn Văn Đến, Quân’s father said.

Vietnamese young people today are the heirs and guardians of these folk music and arts for future generations. However, most young folks ignore folk music because of the strong influence of modern music from aboard.

After Quân’s victory performing chầu văn singing and hầu đồng in the school competition, he is very happy. Chầu văn and hầu đồng mean "songs for the souls" in Vietnamese. Quân hopes to make these "soul songs" popular and loved by more students who can introduce the unique performing arts of Việt Nam to the world.

“The traditional folk music created by the Vietnamese is a gem of Vietnamese spiritual life. I always want to preserve it and to make this folk music popular, like other kinds of music,” Quân said. VNS

Impressing the audience: Quân performs hầu đồng at the Hanoi Law University’s Got Talent competition. Photo Phan Hồng Anh

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