Tuesday, May 11 2021


Bả trạo singing passed down generations

Update: March, 04/2018 - 09:00
Loud and proud: Bả trạo singing is popular in central provinces including Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, Thừa Thiên Huế and Quảng Nam – Đà Nẵng to Bình Thuận. — Photo hotrodulich.com
Viet Nam News

by An Vũ

Hát bả trạo (“firmly grasping the paddle” singing), which was composed by fishermen in Central Việt Nam’s provinces, is an original type of folk art and festival ritual. It is also one of the national intangible cultural heritages recognised by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in February 2016.  

On the third day of the Lunar New Year, thousands flocked to the south central province of Quảng Ngãi’s Sa Huỳnh seaport. The opening of the sea festival has begun with the sound of hundreds of drums played by local fishermen.

According to the province’s history, bả trạo singing is popular in the central provinces, from Quảng Ngãi, Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, Thừa Thiên Huế, Quảng Nam-Đà Nẵng to Bình Thuận.

Accompanied by dancing, the singing, held annually to worship the whale, who is traditionally called the “Big Fish”. In the past, they also prayed for a good harvest.

The purpose of the singing is to praise the Big Whale for saving lives, assisting the fishermen to catch large amounts of fish, or describing the painstaking labour of fishermen, as well as praising the wealth of the sea and solidarity of boatmen to have prosperous lives. Also, singers and local residents pray for peace and prosperity, as an act of reverence for the Whale God.

Nguyễn Thành Trung, who was selected by local fishermen of Quảng Nam’s Tam Thanh Commune, Tam Kỳ City as Tổng Mũi (the captain of the boat), is the main singer at this year’s festival.

“The members of a typical bả trạo troupe include Tổng Mũi (the captain), Tổng Khoang (the caretaker of all things on the boat), Tổng Lái (the main boatman), and 10 to 16 other boatmen, depending upon the arrangements of each province, though the number has to be even,” said Trung.

Tổng Lái usually wears a traditional long black dress, long white trousers, and ready-to-wear black turbans. Tổng Mũi dresses like Tổng Lái, but many times he or she wears radiant outfits, such as a tuồng (classical drama) actor.”

Passion: Tân’s devotion for traditional art contributes to the preservation and development of bả trạo singing. — VNA/VNS Photo
Passing it down: Đỗ Mỹ Tân (right) instructs a young singer in a bả trạo performance. — VNA/VNS Photo

Each province’s boat teams have 12 to 16 people, even 18 or maximum 20 people and especially even numbers to balance the formation.

Boatmen wear white outfits, red fabric tied at the back, walking barefoot and carrying one-metre long paddles, painted black and white. The musical instruments accompanying the bả trạo singing are đàn nhị (Vietnamese two-chord fiddle), a drum, trumpet and sênh (an instrument combining clapper, rasp, and jingle made from three pieces of wood).

“I feel lucky and blessed to be chosen as captain of the singing. It is such a great honour for me and I want to pass my experience to younger singers,” said Trung.

Sixty-year-old Đỗ Mỹ Tân, who lives in Quảng Nam’s Vịnh Giang Hamlet, Thăng Bình District, has spent 40 years singing bả trạo.

“It took seven years to study and practise the art, if you are truly committed to it. I have been the captain of the bả trạo singing troupe in my homeland ever since I was young. I usually write the lyrics and take part in choreographing the singing and dancing for local provinces on festive occasions,” noted Tân.

In bả trạo, the most important figure is the captain. This dignified character plays a significant role in controlling the entire troupe, like a conductor in an orchestra. You have to have a deep knowledge of the art, a tenor voice and a disciplined spirit. If the captain misses the right note, it will ruin the whole performance.

“Languages used in the singing are originated from ancient Vietnamese scripts and local dialects, but still remain the unique and spiritual meaning of each province. Currently, I train young people everyday so the tradition will always be passed down to the next generation,” he said.

The passion and devotion for traditional art in Trung, Tân and other boatmen and fishermen are contributing to the preservation and development of the folk singing, a cultural treasure of the nation. VNS 

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