Young Mông people breathe new life into folk music

November 30, 2019 - 13:35

A group of young Mông people in Hà Nội will perform a Mông folk song with a new arrangement at the Our Music project review on December 27.

By Nguyễn Bình

A group of young Mông people in Hà Nội will perform a Mông folk song with a new arrangement at the Our Music project review on December 27.

The project is being carried out by the Action for Hmong Development (AHD) team from March to December with funding from the British Council's Film, Archive and Music Lab Fund. 

The project has recorded about 100 pieces and folk songs by travelling to largely ethnic Mông provinces in northern Việt Nam like Điện Biên, Hà Giang, Yên Bái, Lào Cai and Sơn La.

Giàng A Bê (second from right) and Action for Hmong Development members at Xình Phình Commune, Tủa Chùa District in Điện Biên Province. 

The team members talked with local people and filmed them singing the folk songs and music which are performed in daily life and on festive occasions. 

Established in 2015 by a group of Mông youths who have been studying in Hà Nội with the support of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment, the team aims to popularise not only Mông culture but also other ethnic groups, according to Giàng A Bê of the project.

"At present, young Mông people like to listen to songs composed by Mông musicians in Laos, Thailand and the US," says Bê. "But there are no songs that are composed based on Vietnamese Mông folk songs."

Born in Yên Bái Province, a new graduate from Hà Nội Culture College's Ethnic Culture Department, Bê is the project's communicator. 

He thinks young people need to be more aware of their role in preserving cultural values so that they are not lost.

With Our Music project, the team have run field trips to work with master singers/musicians such as Ly Thị Chở in Hà Giang; Thào Cán Súa in Yên Bái, Giàng Seo Gà in Lào Cai and Hạng Giống Chang in Điện Biên. 

The team met Chở by chance when they booked a homestay in Hà Giang run by her nephew.


Master singer Ly Thị Chở in Đồng Văn District, Hà Giang Province will come to Hà Nội to talk and sing at the Our Music project review on December 27. Photos coutersy of Action for Hmong Development

Chở used to teach Mông language to Kinh people, or Việt ethnic majority group, who worked in the province. She is also late writer Tô Hoài's adopted daughter. The writer's Dế Mèn Phiêu Lưu Ký (Diary of a Cricket) is regarded as a classic children's novel and has been published in 40 countries. 

"I was surprised by the project carried out by Action for Hmong Development because not many Mông young people want to sing folk songs," Chở says. 

She doesn't remember when she first started singing, but can recall her father singing while they were harvesting and doing homework. And naturally Chở learned the tunes by heart. 

The 67-year old musician also plays the nhị (two-chord fiddle) instrument. 

With the lyrics, Mông people form a system of musical instruments to express affection and connect with each other such as khèn (pan-pie), nhị, and đàn môi (jew harp). 

Mông folk songs are extremely rich and feature a variety of topics such as migration, becoming a daughter-in-law, love and brotherhood. The songs are taught by a mother to her children, according to Chở. 

Schools in Đồng Văn District have invited her to teach folk songs to students, but few of them have the voice to hit the high notes in folk songs, she says. 

"The project is great to preserve Mông culture. I'm worried that if master singers/musicians including me pass away, folk songs will fade away," says Chở. 

Recently, she received a certificate from Yên Bái Province for her contributions to preserving and developing folk music. 

She was excited to come to Hà Nội at the invitation of the team to talk about Mông folk music and sing at the project review.  

However, the team didn't always find master singers easily. Before the field trips, the team had to contact local singers through friends and acquaintances. 

It was difficult for the team to find a master in Mù Căng Chải District in Yên Bái because they don't have contacts there, though the team still wants to there as 90 per cent of the population are Mông ethnicity. 

Also very accidentally, they met a former military performer in the district who took them to master musician Thào Cán Súa, who knows a lot about Mông folk music and Mông culture as well. 

"Súa knows to blow khèn (pan-pipe) and make the instrument," Bê says.

"He is also knowledgeable about other Mông groups in Sơn La, Yên Bái and in other countries such as Laos and Thailand. He provided us with a lot of valuable information which helped us compile a book on Mông folk music."

Young Mông people are more exposed than ever to new music from across the world, so a fresh take on traditional tunes is needed to draw attention.

While finding competent Mông musicians can be tough, it's essential, according to Bê.

"Only Mông musicians can profoundly understand the songs," says Bê. 

"Plus, our target is young Mông people. So we want to invite Mông musicians who not only know Mông music but also know the music tastes of young Mông people and what they like."

Sùng Bá Sai from Sơn La Province was invited to join the project. He listened to the master singers singing through video clips and wrote the musical notes on paper. 

He chose six songs to remix.

"To lure young Mông people to folk songs, I use traditional and modern instruments such as nhị, bamboo flute, piano, guitar and violin to remix the songs," says Sai.

"At present, Mông music is known by other ethnic groups such as Tày, Thái and Khơ Mú. I hope that through this project, the songs will enthrall young Mông ethnics and other ethnic groups and they will sing them," Sai says. 

At the project review, the AHD will also release a book on Mông folk music, including the songs and information on Mông music. 

The Our Music project is expected to contribute to preserving the artistic values of ethnic Mông people in modern society. 

New experiments and creativity with folk music help young Mông people show the value of Mông folk music, making the treasure come alive, rich in identity and uniqueness. VNS