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Not on a song

Will "˜developing' a cultural heritage doom it to extinction?

A troupe performs xoan singing in Phu Tho Province. A policy is needed to support xoan artistes and their careers, so that the art form is well preserved, says researcher Dang Hoanh Loan.

The basic facts are not disputed.

Hat xoan (songs of worship for Hung Kings) is an authentic traditional art form that is in danger and in need of preservation.

How to do it, however, is a contentious matter, and as has become a trend these days in Vietnam, controversy rages over when and where the apparently thin line between preservation and distortion has been crossed.

A few weeks ago the famous Hoi Lim festival that celebrates quan ho songs, a UNESCO recognized heritage, descended into farce as the organizers focused on setting a national record for the maximum number of singers performing at a time.

Such activities are ostensibly aimed at boosting the popularity of the art form, but have been heavily criticized for doing the opposite, destroying its integrity.

The latest con­troversy, ironically, broke out the very day the hat xoan ceremony was officially recognized as a UNESCO heritage.

A show called "Du lich ve nguon va vinh danh hat xoan" (Heritage Tourism and Honoring Xoan Singing) was held to honor xoan artisans as well as other individuals for their contributions to preserving the art and making it to the list of UNESCO's world intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent protection last August. The event also aimed to promote the art as part of heritage tourism in the country.

Katherine Muller, head of UNESCO in Vietnam, attended the event to hand over the recognition certificate for an art that dates back thousands of years to the reign of the Hung Kings, said to be the legendary founders of Vietnam. Also attending the function were Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan and leaders of the province.

However, the hat xoan performance presented at the event shocked most of the artistes and led to a heated dispute between cultural researchers and the local government on the issue of preserving the art.

For one, the performing artists were not from the four famous xoan guilds (clubs and associations in the province), but from a local cheo (traditional opera in the north) theater. As cheo artists, they wore the colorful four-panel attire traditional to this art form instead of the five-panel, plain dress worn by xoan artists. In addition, their movements were derived from cheo and some changes had been made to the original lyrics and melody.


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"In my experience of several years of performing and training, I have never seen such a ridiculous xoan performance. Both the singing style and the hand movements were not of xoan, but of cheo," said a xoan artiste from the Thet Xoan Club in Viet Tri Town's Kim Duc Ward.

Another xoan artiste, Nguyen Thi Lich, head of An Thai Club in the town's Phuong Lau Ward, said: "The so-called "˜new xoan' looks livelier, but it is not the xoan that has been taught for centuries in xoan clubs and associations in the area."

Lich said she was afraid such adapted performances, if continually introduced, may cause the misunderstanding that it represents the original xoan.

According to Professor To Ngoc Thanh, President of the Vietnam Association of Folk Culture and Arts, unlike cheo, xoan singing is performed in a monotonous, repetitive style and melody which some people find boring, but it has been the way it has been performed in the past, expressing the growth and multiplication of life.

"Those who are xoan lovers should appreciate this very aspect of the art," Thanh said at a performance held last October for UNESCO representatives.

According to researcher Dang Hoanh Loan, organizers had invited the cheo troupe because no xoan artists agreed to perform the "new xoan."

Pham Ba Khien, deputy director of the province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, organizer of the event on February 18, had another take on the issue.

"People prefer livelier things, and the old xoan is not (lively). It is still too early to say which form of xoan will be preferred at the end since it is still at an experimental stage. But we all are aware of UNESCO warnings about preserving the heritage in its original form."

There are two ways of preserving and promoting traditional, folk art these days, he said. One is to present them in their original form and the other is to introduce new compositions based on old materials to keep up with modern society. "We can neither deny nor deliberately do it, but follow the trend," said Khiem, although it was not clear what trend he was referring to.

Khiem's senior, director Nguyen Ngoc An, said that the presentation of xoan in the style of other art forms, including cheo and modern plays, is included in the province's project, schedule to run through until 2015, to preserve and promote the art form with new compositions.

In addition to the plan to restore 30 temples in the province where the art was performed in the past, the local government argues that to attract young people and tourists, the lyrics of xoan songs can be compared to a precious but dull stone in need of polishing. The lyrics should be simple and understandable and the artistes' costumes should not be so discreet and plain, goes the argument.

However, researcher and musician Dang Hoanh Loan, who was part of the team assigned to prepare the xoan dossier for submission to UNESCO, disagrees.

"Xoan is appreciated by UNESCO as a genuine art because its original form remaining after centuries. If the submitted dossier had included such new elements, I doubt if it would have been still in the list of UNESCO."

Professor Thanh agreed with Loan, saying, "There's no so-called new xoan. Xoan is xoan and there is only one xoan. Culture is history and the depth of history. Xoan as a heritage should not be included in the so-called culture and art modernization that happens nowadays."

Loan, Thanh and other researchers want to preserve the original xoan, but provincial authorities have insisted on presenting the new version.

Loan, who traveled to the Lim Festival held in the northern province of Bac Ninh in February to witness the chaotic scene of thousands of people gathering at the place to make a record for the largest number of people wearing traditional costumes and singing quan ho (folk songs sung as duets in perfect harmony) at the same time, said xoan singing, like other traditional and folk art in Vietnam, has been caught up in the trend of valuing quantity above quality.

Instead of few xoan artists sharing the stage in a worshipping ceremony as it was originally held, at the February show, hundreds of people invaded the stage as if they were performing a third style of xoan, called hat bom gai or hat giao duyen (love singing between males and females at spring festivals).

Loan feels what is needed is a policy to support artistes and their career, so that the art form is well preserved, not "well developed" by younger generations.

""¦ I am afraid that after a few years, it (hat xoan) will probably be excluded from the list of world cultural heritages since the deformed one, created by a cheo troupe under the province's policy, ruins the original form.

"Little by little, in ten years, under the province's effort to transform the art, hat xoan will no longer exist."


Hat xoan is also called "Khúc môn Ä‘ình," a way of singing to worship saints that dates back to the time of the Hung Kings. This is a form of ritual folk songs closely associated with the harvest festival or the worship of village tutelary god, similar to dặm or singing in the Red River Delta region.

Cheo, dating back to the 12th century during the Ly Dynasty, is a form of generally satirical musical theater, often encompassing dance, traditionally performed by Vietnamese peasants in northern Vietnam. It is usually performed outdoors by semi-amateur touring groups, in a village square or the courtyard of a public building. Today it is also performed indoors by professional performers.

Quan ho, folk love duets, originated around the 13th century. Its music style is characterized both by its antiphonal nature, with alternating groups of female and male singers issuing musical challenges and responses, and by the fact that most of the songs in the repertoire deal with topics of love and sentimentality as experienced by young adults. Recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO in 2009, quan ho has traditionally been associated with spring festivals that follow the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year.