Last chance saloon for an endangered folk art

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Ha Thi Cau, the doyenne of xẩm artists, from a scene in the documentary Xẩm Ä‘ỏ.Photos Courtesy of Luong Dinh Dung

The old woman walks along a quiet path toward a rural market, Ä‘àn nhị (two-stringed bowed instrument) in hand, singing softly.

The lonely, melancholic scene, a metaphor for the disappearing folk song genres in modern Vietnam, sets the stage for Xẩm Đỏ, a documentary on one of Vietnam's last xẩm singers, made by award-winning Director Luong Dinh Dung.

It is thought that xẩm singing was born under the Tran Dynasty in the 14th century in the northern region. The art was popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when artists performed in public places like markets, trams and streets.

It was considered a "working-class" art with artists earning a modest living by wandering from town to town and singing for the poor.

Xẩm's melodies are borrowed from various kinds of folk music. The singers often played the Ä‘àn bầu (single-stringed instrument) or Ä‘àn nhị as they sang.

But the art, like several traditional folk music traditions, has gradually fallen into oblivion as younger generations turn to modern music forms.

The doyenne of xẩm artists, Ha Thi Cau, has stopped singing due to poor health and old age. On January 4 last year, the 94-year-old, who has devoted almost all her life to xẩm, decided to perform her last show at the Xẩm Hà Thành (Xẩm in Hanoi) Club.

At the event, she was one of 10 xẩm singers to receive certificates of merit from the Center for Preservation and Promotion of National Culture. She had been conferred the prestigious "People's Artist" title in 2004.

Meritorious Artist Thanh Ngoan, Cau's protégé, founded the Xẩm Hà Thành Club together with other students to commemorate her contributions and help preserve the art form.

She says there are young xẩm singers waiting in the wings. Ngoc Anh of Thai Binh Province has been singing since she was nine. Now 11, the girl can sing three xẩm songs.

"I hope my teacher will be able to set her mind at rest now that we have a new generation of xẩm singers," Ngoan says.

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But Quang Long, one of the club's members, says the biggest problem was attracting people to their performances.

One last effort

Dung, 39, says it took him a lot of time to persuade Cau to allow him to film Xẩm Đỏ on her.

The accomplished director, one of the winners of the Video Grand Prize at the 2007 JVC Tokyo Video Festival, had planned to complete the film in a month but it ended up taking more than two years.

"Due to old age, Cau often forgot the words while singing," he explains.

"Sometimes she was not healthy enough to work, and sometimes she suddenly refused to work for no apparent reason. So we had to wait and then persuade her again."

However, these obstacles did not discourage Dung. Out of his love for the art and the veteran artist, Dung and his crew decided to travel back and forth from Hanoi to Ninh Binh Province, where she lives, to shoot the film.

"I inherited a love for traditional folk arts from my mother.

"Now, as I understand more about them, I see they are valuable treasures that our ancestors left for us, and we need to preserve them."

The crew members were all his friends and, like him, worked on the film just out of their love for the art. "I would not have made it if I had to pay them at the market rate."

The hardships apart, Dung has lots of good and moving memories of his time with the artist.

"When we visited her house for the first shoot, Cau did not allow us to shoot. We were feeling really disappointed and wondering how to persuade her while she was crying.

"We did not know why [she was crying] but it was like she was feeling self-pity.

"After a while, she agreed to start.

"And that was the only time we saw her cry. Even when I asked her once to cry in a scene, she said she could not."

Dung also remembers the time they filmed at a local market. Many people came up to talk to him about their memories of Cau's performances there.

After the final scene was shot, Cau told Dung: "It is lucky that you shot this film so quickly. I'm almost unable to sing now."

And from more than 1,200 minutes of filming, Dung chose 35 minutes for his documentary. The film is one of few works he is really pleased about, he says.

Asked about the name "Xẩm Đỏ" (or Red Xẩm), he explains that red is the color of alarm, and xẩm may well be lost when the veteran artist dies.

The documentary has no dialogues or voice-over, and is a solo performance by Cau. Dung says he wants to let viewers perceive things in their own way.

"It might have been easier to understand if I had added dialogues or comments.

"But with this film, I wanted the character to talk and share her life directly with the audience. But to do it this way, we had to shoot a lot more scenes to create links between them."

In Xẩm Đỏ, Cau, who lives in poverty with her daughter's family, sings all the songs she could remember. Some of the best are Thập Ân, Thập Sầu and Hà Liá»…u.

The film is yet to be released in DVD, but the director has made a number of copies to present to his friends and relatives who love the art.

Dung also plans to make a longer version so that people will have the chance to enjoy more of Cau's songs.

Besides Xẩm Đỏ, Dung has also produced a DVD called Hề chèo Việt Nam (clowns in Vietnamese chèo, or traditional operetta), which features some of the best chèo comedies, as a gift for the 8th International UNESCO Congress held in Vietnam last year.

He is now working on a 90-minute film titled Cha cong con (Father and Son), which he will shoot next June. He says that he is really happy with the script which has been edited by script consultant Pilar Alessandra.

It is the story of a father who helps take his six-year-old son to look for a cloud the latter saw in his dream.

"When I was young, I saw a man beating his father, and the father's cries have always haunted me," Dung says.

"Now, again, I see and hear about many criminal cases involving parents and children. This urged me to make a film to show the love that exists between parents and children."

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