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Old songs still resound in central region

Update: February, 18/2015 - 07:29
Dueling vocals: Avi giam performance in an annual folk traditions contest in Nghe An. Photo courtesy of the local centre for vi giam conservation

Nghe Tinh residents don't need to know that vi giam folk songs have been granted World Heritage status to appreciate them. They still sing them every day, despite the modernisation wiping out the songs' original rural home. Phuoc Buu reports.

In this region that spans Nghe An, President Ho Chi Minh's home province in central Viet Nam, the sounds of vi giam songs can be heard anytime, anywhere.

Most people here have been singing the songs since they were young. "Ubiquitous" best describes the presence of the songs in the Nghe Tinh region, which includes Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces.

"Over the last decade, watching TV programmes that teach vi giam singing has become one of Nghe An's most popular activities," says Pham Tien Dung, deputy director of Nghe An's Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism.

"The folk songs are already in our hearts at birth. Everyone loves them and wants to sing them."

Labour of love

Vi giam is believed to have begun in the 18th century, when the first professional craft groups formed in the region. Former director of the Viet Nam Institute of Musicology Dang Hanh Loan - a prolific researcher - says the tradition was started by workers labouring together and singing to pass the time and ease the burden of the long, hard days.

They not only sang with each other, but for and to each other as a way to communicate at the workplace and in the fields.

At first, people began by calling out sayings in Vietnamese 6-8 verse (the opening line includes six words, and the next line has eight words with the sixth as a homonym with the last words of the first line) combinations. The sayings initially had moral lessons hidden in the guise of stories about nature or classic myths and legends.

Still current:Singing vi do dua on the Lam River. — VNS Photo Sy Minh

The workers then began humming the verses in a low continuous drone that led to a kind of smooth, atonal singing. But a key aspect is that in the Nghe Tinh region, locals have very unique accent compared with other regions in the country, and they also have a rich dialect from which they source obscure and beautiful words. The region was also home to many noted Confucian scholars, who were experts at producing 6-8 verses in the local dialect.

Once the phenomenon spread from the common people to the participation of scholars who also loved the game of words, the simple singing grew into a more and more diverse way to impart local folklore with an ever-expanding variety of puns, plays-on-words and improvisational ad-libs complemented by changing impromptu tunes and melodies.

To each his own

The good old days of vi giam lasted a couple of centuries and they were sung during an array of activities and found in every corner of life, sung by folks from all walks of life.

Each professional group had its own tune and the groups were almost like guilds or unions of particular craftmakers: there were groups representing vi phuong vai (textiles workers), vi phuong non (conical hat makers), vi phuong cay (rice transplanters), vi ruong dong (field workers), vi phuong cui (firewood gathering groups), vi phuong dan (bamboo weavers), vi do dua (boatmen), and several others.

Meanwhile, giam groups included the 'lullaby giam', 'narrative giam', and 'advice giam'.

People communicated by singing the vi giam they produced for a variety of purposes. For example, the boatmen might welcome a guest on board with a verse, the rice farmers might say hello to each other across fields with verses, and those in the textile workshop might speak to the weavers next door likewise.

The vi giam dialogues then began to influence even normal conversation on the street and at home. The game of vi giam dialogues became more and more sophisticated and eventually large organised competitions were held between scholars, groups, villages or professions.

Competitors played by producing improvised verses by themselves on the spot. When one side was eventually empty of ideas for verse and could no longer reply or continue the dialogue, the other side would win.

"Some competitions lasted for a couple of days. Competitors sang until they felt tired, then they would stop for meals and sleep, and restart again the next morning," says Tran Tu, a 87-year-old veteran singer in Hoang Tru Village in Nghe An's Nam Dan District.

In addition to vi giam dialogue games, courting vi giam dialogues were also popular among young people. A man flirted with a girl by opening a vi giam dialogue and in many cases the relationship ended up in a happy marriage as if they had found love hidden under the layers of words or were convinced by their partner's cleverness and gracefulness with the folk songs.

When scholars began to take part in vi giam dialogue competitions (even in courting rituals) the games became even more lively, profound and interesting thanks mostly to their punning skills. The games became more anecdotal with historical references. The famous poet Nguyen Du, author of the Tale of Kieu (1766-1820), was himself a proficient vi giam composer.

Fabric of life

According to veteran singer Tu, vi phuong vai in his home village of Hoang Tru Village, which was the hub of the textile trade in the region and home to more than 100 textile workshops, is also a capital of vi giam.

Duet:A couple performs vi giam. — VNA/VNS Photo

Tu says the textiles workers sang in five styles: sightseeing songs, greeting songs, question songs, courting songs and farewell songs.

"At first, visitors walked around in front of the workshop gate to give a signal with a sightseeing song, then the girls in the workshop would sing for a greeting, welcoming them inside for more singing and eventually farewell songs to say goodbye."

Scholar and patriot Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940), a native of neighboring Dan Nhiem Village, and fabric weaver Hoang Thi An, President Ho's aunt, were both known to sing in the area.

"Many visitors to the village lost the singing games to locals because they couldn't answer the word puzzles [that used synonyms in each line] produced by the villagers," says Tu. "This made the village famous, luring more visitors and prompting the growth of vi giam folksongs."

Modern times

The traditional weaving workshops have vanished from the village. The production of handicrafts itself has dwindled in the region, both in Nghe An and Ha Tinh.

Conical hat making can be seen in a few hamlets, but large workshops gathering many workers are gone, with most people working at home individually. The market economy, urbanisation, "international integration" and the global safety rules and machinery that go with it have caused many of the services and jobs to disappear.

Music class:Teaching vi giam singing in Lang Sen Primary School. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu

There are fewer boatmen ferrying passengers across waterways and fewer farmers in the fields and less artisans and craftsmen in the workshops. The old Viet Nam is almost gone and with it the natural environment of vi giam.

Fortunately, the Nghe Tinh dialects are still used with pride by locals in the region. The ability to play with words in 6-8 verse is strong in each local, and song puzzles are still popular.

This means the core and the soul of vi giam is in there in the region despite the loss of environment.

It's not what you say, but how you say it...

"Vi giam is something rooted in the minds of Nghe Tinh people. Vi giam singing has enhanced the local Nghe Tinh accent so every one loves it," says Dung of the culture department, concluding that the vi giam tradition shouldn't be too difficult to preserve.

Staying alive

In 1973, locals began working to preserve the folksong tradition by founding a theatre for Nghe Tinh folksongs, which is now known as the Centre for Vi Giam Preservation and Promotion. In Ha Tinh, the Ha Tinh Theatre of Folk Arts has the same function.

What is vi giam?

To be most exact and technical, vi giam folk songs are actually combinations of two different kinds of songs that can be sung together or separately. A vi song can be performed alone, but normally vi is sung with a giam verse at the end of the songs. Giam can also be sung alone without vi, but such performances are not popular.

Vi songs are composed in 6-8 verse, 7-7-6-8 verse (the two opening lines have seven words each, with the fifth word of the second 7-word line as a homonym of the last word in the first line, and its last word as another homonym of the last word in the 6-word line that goes next). Some vi variations are in straight 6-8 verse all the way, with words added and subtracted with respect to the tonal and homonym rules.

Giam songs are in 5-word verses, with each song composed of five lines, the fifth normally repeating the fourth.

"Vi giam folksongs don't require music accompaniment. The changes in different tunes and pitches - up and down - of vi singing performances depend on the sentiment of the performers, but it has no rhythm," says Pham Tien Dung, deputy director of Nghe An Province's Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism, who is also an outstanding performer of vi giam folksongs.

"Giam has rhythm. Rhythmic changes are made on each word or couple of words."

Literally, vi means 'making a comparison' and giam means 'adding up'.

For decades, the two theatres have brought old timey songs to the stage as well as new songs reflecting contemporary life inspired by the old tunes.

While most singers are 50-70 years old, young people are also fond of the local cultural legacy.

"My students are really happy with vi giam classes as they find fun in the tunes and in the familiarity between songs and their daily language," says Le Thi Bich Thuy, who is a music teacher at Lang Sen Primary School in Nam Dan District.

Thuy is also recognised a prominent vi giam artist and she insists that the school should spend more time on folk songs study in class.

Her view is strongly endorsed by 12-year-old Nguyen Quoc Bao, who has won several prizes in vi giam singing contests.

"Singing vi giam is my pride," he says. — VNS

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