Preserving the treasure of Cao Lan songs

 easy rider

Song and dance: Cao Lan ethnic villagers in Thai Nguyen perform folk singing and dancing. — VNS Photos

A club of the ethnic minority community in the northern province of Tuyen Quang is preserving sinh ca folk songs as "treasures" for the next generations. Mai Hong andTrung Hieu report.

Hoang Thi Nghiem, 73, a Cao Lan ethnic woman in Tuyen Quang, stated that she knew how to sing sinh ca folk songs since she was 18 years old.

"Cao Lan youngsters sing to learn about our lovers. My lover and I sang together one or two times before we really felt in love," she recalled.

The Cao Lan considers sinh ca tunes as their "treasures".

After years of being engulfed in war when folk music was not paid much attention, the province now sees a re-emergence of folk song clubs in places populated by the Cao Lan.

One of the most famous clubs in the province is the Dong Mon Village, Thai Long Commune of Tuyen Quang City.

When we visited, people of all age groups, the old, middle-aged, and young members of the club were present at the house of Lam Thi Quang, to sing together and teach the youngster about the songs handed down from their forefathers.

Sinh ca is a lyrical folk genre sung by young men and girls. It is a unique, attractive, and long-standing folk culture of the Cao Lan community.

It features an amorous singing style performed by a man and a woman or between a group of men and women.

They sing in many different contexts, such as in weddings, festivals, the New Year's Day, and spring festivals.

In ancient times, these songs were written in the Nom script (an ideographicscript formerly used to write the Vietnamese language). When translated into Vietnamese, the songs are often transformed into the luc bat style of poetry with melodies.

According to the elders of the community, sinh ca has two basic tunes, such as amorous singing and lullabies, but the lyrics are extremely rich and close to daily life. Many couples became husband and wife after singing together in the spring festivals.

Fifty-year-old Quang recollected that since she was a little child, she had heard her mother's lullabies in these music tunes. Hence, the music has left an impression in her mind and she knew many songs.

"Each song has several parts. Firstly, after meeting, we sing about the plants, flowers, and nature, and then greet each other. We then sing in a call-and-response manner, and then we sing about the love between men and women. When people fall in love we also express this emotion by these folk songs. We also sing these songs on our wedding day.

"When we gather at a house to sing, first, we have to sing for the house owner to allow us to sing. We then sing to invite others to drink tea and eat betel, sing to wish for the host to be happy and wealthy, and finally we sing for our love. When we go to work in the rice fields, we would sing songs depending on each season. Each month also has its different songs," she said.

Septuagenarian Au Thi Nong said, "In the past, young people sang when we met together in public places. Now, when we see people singing on television, we also sing along. Despite our age, we still love to sing."

Beat poet: Cao Lan singer Lam Van Cau performs Sinh ca with his drum.

Knack for singing

Many girls at the Dong Mon Village noted that the village elders have a passion for these songs similar to what kids have for playing computer games.

They can sing with friends via mobile phone throughout the evening, till the phone card worth VND100,000 is totally used up. Some of them live hundreds of kilometres away from here but still arrive at their friends' home to sing together.

"These tunes are melodious, rustic, and sincere," elaborated Ly Thi Minh Nguyet from Thai Long Commune, who had just graduated from a Teachers College.

This young teacher loves to hear these songs.

"Every time I hear the elders practise the songs, I love it. Each verse tells the descendants how to live and love each other, that's why I want to learn how to sing this genre," remarked Ly Thi Minh Nguyet.

"I also love to hear those songs because they are really interesting," said Chief of Dong Mon Village Nguyen Huu Thach in a cheerful tone.

He added that the commune organises cultural exchange programmes for the masses every year.

"Dong Mon Village has a knack for folk singing, so we win a prize every year," he boasted happily.

Dong Mon is the most populous village in Thai Long Commune, with 124 households and more than 450 residents. The life of the locals has changed for the better due to the restructuring of crops and livestock farming.

Thach pointed out that besides improving the economic conditions of the families, the local authorities have also encouraged the villagers to maintain the singing club.

Hoang Minh Duc is famous in the village as he has collected and recorded hundreds of lyrics of these ancient songs.

He explained that because old lyrics were written in Nom scripts, hence, he has transcribed them into romanised Vietnamese for the youth to make it easier to read, understand, and memorize.

Every Sunday afternoon, the elderly congregate to sing and teach others how to sing.

After each song, they stop to explain its meaning to the youngsters.

"At first, the listeners can find it hard to hear, but after listening to it time and again, one really gets attracted to the tunes," claimed Tran Thi Hang, a 7th grade student.

"My class mates and I find singing these folk songs very interesting. I hope the elders will teach me these tunes, so that later when I grow up I can perform sinh ca," she added.

Talking about the preservation and development of the Cao Lan's musical treasure, the provincial People's Committee Vice Chairwoman, Vu Thi Bich Viet, emphasised that they have recently developed a thesis on the preservation of the intangible cultural heritage of the province, including the folk songs of the Cao Lan community.

"During the coming years, Tuyen Quang Province will continue to take further steps to research on the folk music and the festivities of the Cao Lan," she said.

We left the club late afternoon. The melancholy and rustic nature of the melodious songs have left a lasting impression in my mind.

With these down-to-earth villagers, their "treasures" are being preserved and handed down to the next generations. — VNS