Artisan dedicates life to ritual singing

November, 24/2019 - 08:52

Tạ Thị Bích Lộc, now 80, works at Cửa Đông Temple in Lạng Sơn City. She has been a chầu văn singer for more than 40 years.


Artisan Tạ Thị Bích Lộc performs chầu văn during a festival at Cửa Đông Temple in the northern mountainous province of Lạng Sơn. Photo

The beautiful melody of traditional instruments and the charming lyrics of chầu văn (trance ritual singing) have enchanted Tạ Thị Bích Lộc since she was a small child.

Lộc, now 80, works at Cửa Đông Temple in Lạng Sơn City. She has vowed to devote her life to the preservation of this traditional ritual, and she has been a chầu văn singer for more than 40 years. 

The artisan said she first heard chầu văn when she was six years old when her mother took her to a local festival.

“When I was a little girl, I enjoyed going with my mother to temples and pagodas and watching hầu đồng (also known as lên đồng) trance shows. The charming folk music of chầu văn was part of the performances and affected me so much I vowed to become a singer,” Lộc said.

“Every time I listened to the chanting, I wondered how the singers could remember the lyrics and melodies. They are beautiful but very hard to sing,” according to Lộc.

A chầu văn performance at the Lạng Sơn Culture and Tourism Week held this year in Lạng Sơn Province. Photo

Chầu văn or hát văn, also known as hát bóng, is a popular singing ritual in Vietnamese spiritual culture, and started in the north of the country.

It appears in the Vietnamese beliefs of the Mother Goddesses of Three – Four Realms, which often accompanies hầu đồng or spiritual rituals in pagodas and temples to honour the Mother Goddesses and form a connection between people and the Gods.

Hầu đồng involves singing and dancing by psychics to express the will and instructions of supernatural beings. 

The ancient lyrics of chầu văn songs were designed to sound poetic and invite Gods or divinities to descend to Earth.

Chầu văn singers are often elderly artisans who can play instruments and take turns singing for up to eight hours.

The Đàn nguyệt (moon-shaped lute) is normally the main instrument used for a chầu văn performance, along with phách (a piece of wood or bamboo to mark the rhythm), sênh (clappers), trống ban (drums), chiêng (small gongs), đàn tranh (16-stringed zither) and sáo (flute). 

Chầu văn or hát văn is a form of ritual singing in Vietnamese spiritual culture, coming from the north of the country. Photo

Experts say instruments play a very important role in chầu văn as they could both emphasise important passages and create contrasting effects to the lyrics.

Lộc was first taught chầu văn in 1978 by Nguyễn Thị Tỵ, who also worked at Kỳ Cùng Temple in Vĩnh Trại Ward, Lạng Sơn City. Tỵ, who is also a chầu văn singer taught the art in Chi Lăng Ward.

After successfully mastering the principles, techniques and content of the songs, Lộc has regularly participated in rituals dedicated to the Mother Goddesses since 1990.

In 1995, with the permission of local authorities, Lộc and her family launched a programme to call for donations to invest in restoring and preserving Cửa Đông Temple.

Thanks to the successful programme, the temple received a certification recognising it as a provincial relic in 2002, and it was recognised as a national relic in 2015.

Lộc has performed at temples throughout Lạng Sơn and other provinces and cities.

She has also participated in festivals overseas, including the Việt Nam–South Korea Culture Exchange Festival in Seoul.

With her passion for singing and deep love for folk music, Lộc is always thinking about how to pass on her skills and love for chầu văn to future generations.

Lộc has helped 116 people learn about chầu văn performances.

”I want to transfer everything I know about chầu văn to the students so I always encourage them to try and preserve the art. I tell them that to study and sing chầu văn, they should be passionate and determined,” Lộc said.

Nguyễn Hải Thanh, an incense lighter at Cô Bé Thượng Ngàn (Little Girl Goddess of the Forest) Temple in Lạng Sơn City, is one those students, and has been praised by Lộc as a pioneer in preserving and promoting the folk art.

“I was really lucky to become one of her followers. She taught me from the most simple sentences and tried to refine my work to the upper levels of ancient rituals,” Thanh said.

Chairman of Lạng Sơn Cultural Heritage Association Hoàng Văn Páo said chầu văn was an indispensable activity of Mother Goddesses in Lạng Sơn, and Lộc was one of the most experienced singers who had grasped the ancient and precious skills and rules of the ritual.

“Lộc has an open heart and is dedicated to chầu văn, which is a precious traditional ritual,” Páo said. VNS