BAC NINH — Every lover of Vietnamese music knows Bac Ninh as the home of quan ho (love duets) and ca tru (ceremonial singing), both listed by UNESCO as intangible heritages of mankind.
However, not many are aware that the northern province nestles another special music genre in its bosom – hat trong quan.
This is an art form that involves a spontaneous back and forth repartee singing accompanied by drum beats, quite like the more famous quan ho, but with distinctions that its aficionados swear by.
In the old days, during mid-autumn nights, youngsters gathered at the village’s communal house (or at the hamlet entrance) and divided themselves into two camps (men and women) and had fun singing trong quan.
The most prominent trong quan location is Bui Xa Village (Ninh Xa Commune, Thuan Thanh District), where the art flourished centuries ago, and has been preserved and developed since, said 88-year-old Pham Cong Ngat, whose family has been singing trong quan for four generations.
Trong quan singing began in Bui Xa in the 13th century during the reign of the Tran dynasty. Along with other troupes like Ba Dat of Vinh Phu Province and Da Trach of Hung Yen Province, Bui Xa Trong Quan had been invited by King Trung Quang in the 15th century to Thang Long (capital city) to sing for him, said Ngat.
“When I was 14, I was already following my father who travelled everywhere to perform,” said Ngat, who set up his own troupe in 1993 with five members.
In the past, artists in Bui Xa used to sing all night, attracting people from far and wide, he said.
His five-member troupe trained often and collected more than 100 old songs, Ngat said.
Despite failing health, Ngat’s wife Vu Thi Kiem, 86, is still enthusiastic about teaching the art form to young couples.
Kiem said that the way Bui Xa artists sing trong quan is different from other places where it is quan ho that is performed with verses in a six-eight word format in the distich metre using a fast rhythm. In Bui Xa, a ten-nine word format is sung in larghetto tempo, she said.
A good voice, passion and the capacity to respond quickly in a contest mark a good trong quan singer, Kiem said.
Le Ba Dao, who heads the Trong Quan Club, the successor of Ngat’s troupe, said they now have 28 members aged 39 to 88.
They meet from Friday to Sunday every week, with some members bringing along young people in their families to join, Dao said.
“What we are most happy about is that no club member is absent every week. We have also received a lot of interest from village youth and children,” he said.
The club recorded its “real success” many years ago by bringing the art form to the stage, performing for large audiences, but this did not last long, Dao said ruefully.
He said the club now faces difficulties in preserving and developing the folk singing because there is no environment for young people to be fully sensitive to how interesting and beautiful real trong quan is.
For instance, there is no all-night festival, as in the old days, to enjoy trong quan performances. The only place they can witness a performance is the club.
Furthermore, there are only six experienced artists left in the club, and they are too old and weak, Dao said.
To help the art survive and grow, there needs to be much more attention and support from authorities as well as the local community, he added.
Agreeing with Dao, Ngat said the folk singing really flourished in Bui Xa before the August Revolution in 1945. Every autumn, in the middle of the eighth lunar month, villagers would organise a festival to pray for good weather, unity among the people and favourable crops.
Many young men from different directions flocked to the festival to compete with local artists. Later many singing couples became husbands and wives, Ngat said.
The decline of trong quan began after 1945, with only a handful of artists taking it to the frontlines of the resistance war against the French, he added.