In the bustle of the night market on Hang Dao-Dong Xuan streets
at the weekend, singer Le Xuan Quynh loses herself in a xam song (folk song for
blind beggars) on a stage by the entrance. The audience forms a circle around
the make-shift stage with attentive eyes towards her in the middle of an endless
stream of passers-by. Quynh said performing on such a night gave her inspiration
and encouragement to keep following the art.
"I relish each show, especially on cold or rainy nights," she told Viet Nam
"Since our first Saturday night show in 2005, audiences have flocked to this
"Once, it poured with rain as we were performing and the audience suddenly
disappeared. We thought we might have to stop the show as there were no people
watching us and it began to rain harder. But a few minutes later they flocked
back again, wearing raincoats.
"I couldn't hold back my tears, I was so moved.
"They also sometimes give us money and food while bowing in respect."
Retiree Nguyen Tien Loc, who took a bus 80km from the northern province of Thai
Nguyen just to see the show, said he was a regular at the performances.
"Last week I travelled alone but this week I brought along my wife and my son's
family," he said, pointing to five people, including two toddlers. "We are
hungry for the folk art and coming here we have a chance to eat Hanoian food,
see interesting places and satisfy our hunger (for the art)."
The free shows, which are the brainchild of the Viet Nam Music Art Development
Centre, include not only xam but also other folk arts – like chau van (trance
singing and dancing), ca tru (ceremonial singing), quan ho (love duet singing) –
and dance with the background music from traditional instruments like dan tranh
(16-string zither), bau (monochord), sao (bamboo flute), nhi (bowed two-string
instrument), nguyet (moon-shaped two-string instrument) and phach (small wooden
sticks beaten on a small bamboo box to serve as percussion).
Beside noted artists like Xuan Hoach, Thanh Ngoan, Van Ty, Hanh Nhan and Thuy
Ngan, most of the performers are trainers and trainees from the centre. Since
2010, in co-operation with the Hue Music Academy, the centre has offered xam as
a subject in the curriculum for a BA and MA degree in folk music.
It also holds free xam classes to hundreds of people who are fond of the art.
Composer Thao Giang, deputy director of the centre, said that during the five
years of giving performances, many young people had come to enrol in xam
classes. From such free classes, young people had grown and developed and now
acted as centre trainers and performers.
"Looking at young people with a great passion for the art, I am no longer
worried about its future," he said. "But what I'm worried about is the
disappearance of xam melodies which used to be popular in the countryside last
century, which are the root of these in Ha Noi, especially since the recent
death of Artisan Ha Thi Cau. No one seems to be able to sing melodies popular in
Ninh Binh in her way."
He said the art was brought to Ha Noi in the late 19th century [1885-88],
arriving with handicraft guides from surrounding villages. When the countryside
people brought their handicraft careers to settle down in the capital, they
brought xam art, which was then modified somewhat to suit the tastes of urban
audiences and even French residents. There were two genres of xam: urban and
Giang regretted that his centre could not afford to take trainees to meet few
old artisans living in provinces around Ha Noi to learn the old melodies, while
the artisans themselves were too old and too poor to travel.
"The main material source of the old folk melodies we get from CDs and VCDs
recorded by the Radio Voice of Viet Nam dated back to the 1970s," he said. "The
old artisans are dying and will take along with them some very rare melodies."
Vu Duc Huy, 25, another trainer at the centre, admitted that he now was more
confident about following the folk art, which was not as popular as others like
quan ho or chau van.
"Thanks to the efforts by my teacher, Giang, xam is becoming more popular," he
said. "We are now being invited to teach art troupes in other provinces and to
give performances at local festivals."
However, he said, he wanted people to take better care of old artisans like the
late Cau, who lived in abject poverty until her last gasp.
He also said audiences should be given more exposure to the art so that it could
live on among the youth.
"Please look at our show every Saturday night," he said with a smile, "The youth
outnumber the old, which is encouraging, isn't it?".