Revival of traditions hide real charms

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Folk art ill served by modernization efforts


Although tourism has given a fillip to many traditional arts like water puppetry, not many Vietnamese are ardent fans of this unique art

JIudging by the proliferation of traditional music concerts these days, and the applications being made to have one or another genre of music or drama or skill declared a world cultural heritage, the future does not look bleak for many a Vietnamese art form.

Judging by the response of Vietnamese youth to hat Xoan (Xoan singing) or, mua roi nuoc (water puppetry) in the north and cai luong (traditional southern opera) and don ca tai tu (the traditional improvisational chamber music) in the south, however, the optimism seems misplaced.

A closer look at why the youth are unimpressed or turning their back on traditional art forms and at the lives of artists themselves elicits some surprising responses.

In the Mekong Delta region, considered the cradle of cai luong, there are different sides to an artist's life.

Thanh Nam, leader of the Kien Giang cai luong troupe, said if there was no government subsidy of around VND1 billion (US$52,400) per year, the situation would be much worse.

In fact, Mekong Delta artists still have great love for cai luong, but they cannot pursue their dreams on empty stomachs. So they take up other professions selling lottery tickets or finger food at night, said Le Dinh Bich, don ca tai tu lecturer at Can Tho University.

Said to be at least two centuries old, don ca tai tu is now performed in mainly two places, taverns and tourist sites. At the former, the artistes say they play to make ends meet, and not for the sake of art. "Because the guests just focus on their pleasure, we are like the invisibles," explained one member of the don ca tai tu group in Can Tho City.

Moreover, according to some seniors, many of the don ca tai tu troupes do not care to separate cai luong and don ca tai tu while performing and audiences are indifferent as well.

Bich laments the fact that even offspring of famous don ca tai tu artists are not interested in the art.

The lecturer, who has both Vietnamese and Western students, says for every 100 students, "there is only one that truly respects the art in my class, whereas many foreigners really appreciate it. They even study and research it for their PhDs.

"In the near future, we plan to open a class for the best students, to whom the best artists of our generation can pass on their skills, knowledge as well as their passion and love for this art. This requires material support from sponsors," said Bich.

Disappearing acts

In the north, the Xoan songs and water puppetry are also facing an existential threat and/or an identity crisis.


Nguyen Thi Lich, center, and other old singers teach Xoan singing to younger generations. Xoan songs are facing an existential threat and/or an identity crisis.

Hat Xoan were one of the most popular forms of ceremonial songs performed during spring time at villages' communal houses in some northern provinces of Vietnam, originating in Phu Tho Province.

Now just four groups in the four villages of An Thai, Thet, Phu Duc and Kim Dai in Viet Tri Town preserve most of the old Xoan songs. Among the remaining Xoan singers, 31 are now between 80 and 104 years old and only eight of them have the ability to teach it to others.

Xoan song relics are preserved in 30 pagodas, many of which are deteriorating. To Ngoc Thanh, chairman of the Vietnam Folklore Association, said investment was needed for costumes, instruments and space for Xoan performances.

He feels the art should be taught in high schools and Xoan singers awarded titles by the state.

Although tourism has given a fillip to many traditional folk arts like water puppetry, and it is in no danger of disappearing, not many Vietnamese are ardent fans of this unique art that dates back to the 11th century.

Huynh Anh Tuan, the 50-year-old owner of the Rong Vang (Golden Dragon) Water Puppet Theater in Saigon, said, "Rong Vang performs mainly for tourists, and for local children who are accompanied by their parents. Parents usually believe this art is for children, not for adults."

Tuan said 60 percent of Vietnamese don't know or have never watched a water puppetry show. However, he also believes the art will never die, having survived for around 1,000 years.

Saving grace

Despite the apparent public indifference, some artists still pursue their dreams by trying their hardest and never giving up


Artist Vu Binh (L) and Hai Hung in a duet performance as part of Ben Tre Province's Con Phung (Phung islet) don ca tai tu group. According to Binh, they can earn a fairly decent income from performing in tourist sites.

Puppeteer Bui Tan Dat, 39, from Vinh Long Province, started his career as a cai luong artiste, but turned to water puppetry because he was fascinated by it. Besides performing for Rong Vang at night, during the day, he sings for a living at such events as festivals or wedding parties.

He has no complaints about his income from water puppetry, but he wants to earn more to help his family in the village.

The sole female puppeteer with Rong Vang, Tran Thi Thuc Binh, 38, was an accountant before she took up this profession.

"I think I am lucky because at least I have opportunities to perform abroad, or buy a house on installments. I just want people to change their view about puppetry," she said, smiling.

One of the most famous Xoan singers in Phu Tho is Nguyen Thi Lich, who has been making great efforts to preserve and promote the art.

"Xoan singing is difficult to learn," the 60-year-old artist said. "Besides having a good voice and dancing skills, it requires singers to remember the 14 old melody variations, which are very difficult. Now there are only a few old singers who can sing all these old variations. The younger generations seem too busy with their work and are not paying much attention to this art."

Nevertheless, Lich has opened four classes to teach the art to locals, especially the young. At present, each class has some 40 students, from 10 to over 80 years old.

Performing arts museum

Nguyen Le Hieu, in his thirties, is the food and beverage manager at the Thao Dien Village Resort in Ho Chi Minh City. A turning point in his life came when he heard legendary cai luong actress Thanh Nga for the first time. Hieu now has a collection of more than five thousand old cai luong discs, the oldest of which can be traced back to early 1910.

"The important thing here is not to count my discs but figuring out how cai luong can survive. I do not blame anybody, for instance young generations of cai luong artists, for not completing their task of preserving the old art, but we have to take some realistic action. It is better than just sitting and talking," said Hieu


Nguyen Le Hieu now has a collection of more than 5,000 old cai luong discs. He wants to take some realistic action to preserve the old art.

"One question has always haunted me: why there is no place, like a museum, to preserve such a longstanding art like cai luong? If there is a museum, I am ready to sell my entire collection for an exhibition" said Hieu.

Hieu is also looking for sponsorship from any nongovernmental organization to patronize his cai luong cabaret.

"A cabaret which performs cai luong in most traditional way is a great place for anyone, especially foreigners, to discover such a great art. We should be proud of our rich traditional arts and not ignore them," said Hieu.

Ngoc Lan, a sociology student, concurs. She is none too impressed by the heavy-investment backed cai luong plays like Kim Van Kieu (The Tale of Kieu ) or Chiec ao thien nga (the swan's gown) staged two years ago.

"The modern arrangement of cai luong these days is beautiful but soulless. I prefer the plain stage. Focusing too much on technical performance and splendid costumes are not enough to tap the audience's emotions."

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