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A Journey to Vi-Giam Folk Singing Region

On November 27, 2014, in Paris (France), Nghe Tinh Vi-Giam folk singing was officially recognised as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO. It is Vietnam’s ninth intangible cultural heritage honoured in the international arena.
         Vi-Giam folk singing is two ways of singing without accompaniment which have been created and handed down by people in Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces during their production and daily activities. People sing Vi-Giam songs while they lull their child to sleep, work in the fields, row a boat, weave cloth or husk rice. So the singing is often named after Jobs or activities such as Vi Phuong Vai (fabric guild), Vi Phuong Non (conical hat guild), Vi Phuong Cui (wood guild), Vi Treo Non (climbing the mountain), Vi Do Dua (rowing the boat), Giam Ru (lulling), Giam Ke (reciting) and Giam Khuyen (advising). These two ways of singing are usually performed alternately, hence they have the name Vi-Giam.»
Vi-Giam folk singing has an extremely strong vitality. It not only existed in the past but has constantly developed in the hearts of people in Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces (Nghe Tinh). That’s why people in these provinces have a famous saying, “only when people here no longer have their voice will Vi-Giam folk singing be lost.”

Soon after Vi-Giam folk singing was officially honoured by UNESCO, we went to Nghe An Province, a “Vi-Giam singing region” to learn about the special features of this type of folk singing.

At 6am on a very cold winter day, we left Hanoi to begin our journey to the “Vi-Giam region”. Our first destination was Kim Lien Commune in Nam Dan District, Nghe An Province, the native land of our great President Ho Chi Minh. This place is considered one of the areas having the most developed Vi-Giam singing movement and is also the cradle of the Vi Phuong Vai singing, one of the famous tunes of the Nghe Tinh Vi-Giam.

We were received by Trinh Hung Minh, a cultural cadre in Nam Dan District. Being a cultural cadre, Minh composed lyrics of most Vi-Giam songs for Vi-Giam clubs in the region. He led us to a hundred-year-old house in Kim Lien Commune where the commune’s Vi Phuong Vai Club with nearly 30 members have regular activities.

Tran Cong Son and Pham Thi Nha, members of Nam Thanh’s Vi-Giam Club in Nghe An Province sing a
Vi-Giam song at an old house in Nam Thanh Commune  where the club’s members
have regular activities. Photo: Trong Chinh/VNP

One of the prominent features of Vi-Giam folk singing is the close connection with the space of performance
so when enjoying this type of folk singing people not only listen to  intellectual lyrics and tunes and singing voices
but also see a living and working space. Photo: Viet Cuong/VNP

Nam Thanh Vi-Giam Club’s members practice singing a new song. Photo: Trong Chinh/VNP

Vi-Giam folk singing is often named after jobs or activities, such as Vi Ru (lulling) and Vi Phuong Vai (fabric guild).
Photo: Trong Chinh/VNP

Old singers of Kim Lien’s Vi Phuong Vai Club and pupils of Lang Sen Primary School sing a
Vi-Giam song entitled “Rowing”. Photo: Viet Cuong/VNP

. Teacher Le Thi Bich Thuy teaches pupils from Lang Sen Primary School to sing Vi-Giam songs during
an extra-curricular hour. Photo: Trong Chinh/VNP

During the music lesson of class 9C in Kim Lien Secondary School, teacher Nguyen Thi Mai Lan teaches
the students how to sing Vi-Giam songs instead of modern songs. Photo: Viet Cuong/VNP

At the club we met Tran Van Tu. Although he is over 80 years old, he still remembers exactly every old lyric of Vi Phuong Vai songs as well as the history of these songs. He said that in the old days all the young men and women in Kim Lien Village could sing Vi Phuong Vai songs because that was a way of conversation and clever repartee between men and women in the cloth-weaving villages. They sang while working to enhance optimism and love for life and work. Many young men and women became husbands and wives from singing Vi Phuong Vai songs.

The most prominent features of Vi Phuong Vai singing are the intellectual lyrics and tunes. Old Tu said that at a young age, Uncle Ho used to follow the adults in the area to listen to Vi Phuong Vai singing. This inspired musician An Thuyen to compose the famous song “Listening to the barcarolle at night, remembering the Uncle” in which there are the words “Uncle followed the guild to listen to the singing, standing in the yard, pants rolled up…”

Today, although cloth weaving no longer exists in Nam Dan, Vi-Giam folk singing still remains intact. To prove this, Minh led us to visit Kim Lien Secondary School. During the music lesson of class 9C, teacher Nguyen Thi Mai Lan taught the students how to sing Vi-Giam folk songs instead of modern songs. Thus, the students have been gradually imbued with their local songs. We were told that most schools in Nam Dan integrated Vi-Giam folk singing into the curricular and extracurricular class hours.

On the second day of our journey, we went to Thanh Chuong District which is well-known for  Vi Phuong Non singing, a popular and simple but poetic type of music.

Thanh Chuong District has the Ngoc Son Vi-Giam folk singing club which is credited with rebuilding the stages of the Vi-Giam singing groups to prepare a dossier to submit to UNESCO

The form of “Betel inviting” singing is very popular in the area of Nghe Tinh. Photo: Trong Chinh/VNP

Members of Ngoc Son Vi-Giam Club practice singing Vi Phuong Non (Conical Hat Guild) to prepare for the
ceremony of receiving UNESCO’s recognition of Nghe Tinh’s Vi-Giam folk singing as a humanity’s
cultural heritage held on January 31, 2015. Photo: Viet Cuong/VNP

Phung Thi Tinh and Vo Thi Mai Anh and Vo Thi Van, members of Ngoc Son Vi-Giam Club in Ngoc Son Commune,
Thanh Chuong, District, Nghe An Province sings Vi-Dam songs in fields of corn. Photo: Trong Chinh/VNP
        Vi-Giam folk singing is being widely popularised in Nghe An and Ha Tinh Provinces. Now there are over 100 Vi-Giam singing clubs with 803 singers and more than 2,000 members in these provinces.
When we arrived at the club, the vocalists were busy rehearsing to prepare for the ceremony to receive UNESCO’s certificate recognising Vi-Giam folk singing as a humanity’s intangible cultural heritage which would be held by the People’s Committees of Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces on January 31, 2015. Vo Thi Van, Chairwoman of the club, said that she and Vu Trong Thin, the musician of the club had prepared a programme, from setting the stage to writing the invitations.

Although the club was established only five years ago, it has over 40 members and holds activities twice a week. In 2014 Vo Thi Van was recognised as a merited artisan for her great contributions to the preservation and development of the Vi-Giam folk singing movement in her native land.

Van said to us with emotion: “After many years of waiting, when hearing that Vi-Giam folk singing of my native land had been recognised as a world heritage, I burst into tears of happiness!”.

On the third day, we returned to Vinh City to continue our journey. In the city we met People’s Artist Hong Luu, Deputy Director of the Centre for Conservation and Development of Nghe Tinh’s Folk Songs. Hong Luu is one of the artists who has been credited with preserving and developing Vi-Giam folk singing.

According to Hong Luu, bringing Vi-Giam singing to the stage is a very important direction in the conservation and development of this folk art form. In 1970, the singing drama titled “Not me” of the Nghe Tinh Folk Song Troupe was first presented to the public and received warm support from the audience, marking the start of the singing drama adapted from Vi-Giam singing. Later, many well-known dramas of this type were produced, such as the “Girl on the Lam River” and “His words are the words of the country”, with the latter being performed over 1,000 times in many areas inside and outside the province.

The “Vi Phuong Cay” item performed by Vinh Tan Vi-Giam Club in Vinh City, Nghe An Province impresses
the audience with the reproduction of activities of farmers, such as sowing and transplanting rice seedlings
and bailing out water. Photo: Viet Cuong/VNP

Besides lyrics and tunes, the space for performance is defined as an important factor in preserving
and promoting Vi-Giam folk singing. Photo:  Trong Chinh/VNP
Singers from the Centre for Conservation and Development of Nghe An’s Folk Songs perform
“Vi Song Lam” songs  on the Lam River. Photo: Sy Minh

“Nghe Tinh Vi-Giam Folk Singing” Festival is a greatly anticipated event annually held in two provinces of
Nghe An and Ha Tinh to honour the value of the type of singing. Photo: Sy Minh

Along with bringing the dramas to the stage, the authorities of Nghe An and Ha Tinh Provinces have also taken measures to conserve and develop Vi-Giam folk singing, such as organising Vi-Giam singing contests, bringing folk songs into schools and publishing documents, books, tapes and discs on folk songs to popularise and promote this art form.

It was thought that the busy life in the urban areas made people not interested in folk songs. Yet, in Vinh City, there are Vi-Giam clubs which have developed strongly. For example, Vinh Tan Ward’s club has nearly 40 members and most of them are civil servants, but in the dramas they act as experienced farmers.

Seeing young men and women with white, bare feet ploughing in the field like the farmers and singing Vi Phuong Cay songs we could  sense the love of the residents in Vinh City for Vi-Giam folk singing.

Nguyen Thanh Van, Chairwoman of Vinh Tan Club said that the club was established in 2011,  and it has over 40 vocalists. The youngest is Tra My who is seven years old and the oldest is a retired civil servant who is over 70 years old.

Although we stayed in Nghe An, the home of Vi-Giam folk singing, for only three days, we saw the love of the local people for this special type of heritage. This is the basis for us to believe that along with the Lam River and Hong Mountain, Vi-Giam folk singing will exist forever with the people in Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces.
Nine world intangible cultural heritages of Vietnam:
1/ Nghe Tinh Vi-Giam folk singing (2014).
2/ Don Ca Tai Tu music in the South (2013)
3/ Worship of Hung Kings (2012).
4/ Xoan singing in Phu Tho (2011).
5/ Giong Festival at Phu Dong and Soc
      temples (2010).
6/ Ca tru ceremonial singing (2009).
7/ Quan ho love duet singing (2009).
8/ Space of gong culture in Tay Nguyen (2008).
9/ Hue’s royal court music (2008).

Story: Thao Vy
Photos: Trong Chinh, Viet Cuong & Sy minh

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