Audiences watch a pair of xam artists performing during the Hanoi millennium anniversary
On a recent evening at Dong Xuan Market, in bustling downtown Hanoi, a crowd gathers, waiting to hear xam.
Most, in the audience, don't really know what they're waiting for.
Professional cheo singers from the Vietnam Music Development Center take the stage clad in matching brown outfits and spotless conical hats and begin to sing.
"There are dozens of cheo bands and quan ho villages, many ca tru clubs, but xam only has a few artists left. At the same time written data on this almost don't exist," Thanh Ngoan, Deputy Director of Vietnam's Cheo Theater said.
Ngoan first heard the music from professional xam artists, and since 2006, her group has put on free xam shows every Saturday night at Hanoi's largest night market.
The lively market performance makes it seem as though xam is making its way back into the Hanoi zeitgeist. But a closer look at this revival suggests that xam is being co-opted by modern performers rather than making a genuine return.
Some say, it's already dead.
The traditional folk genre peaked in popularity during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Performed by blind people in open crowded places, xam offered a livelihood to those who had no other options. (The word "xam" evolved to embrace the meaning "blind" in Vietnamese language.)
The lyrics usually paint dramatic narratives designed to seize the attention of passers-by and these distressing ballads are typically set to heart-wrenching melodies.
As an occupation of the blind, homeless and dispossessed, xam is assumed an untouchable stigma. Unlike other traditional forms of music, xam was not permitted to be sung in sacred places like communal worship houses or temples.
A black-and-white photo, taken in 1906, shows two xam performers sitting flat on the ground, playing the nhi (a two-string wooden violin), and a senh (a bamboo percussive instrument). Their worn, blousy trouser legs sprawl out on the dirt; a handkerchief hangs around each of their necks. A metal bowl lies in front of them, empty. Cultural scholars say the clang of coins let them know when someone had made a contribution.
As the political and economic center of the colonial government, Hanoi attracted scores of migrant workers, including xam singers. Researchers have found that during the 1930s, strolling blind musicians founded several xam communities in the capital.
At the beginning of the 20th century, xam artists performed on the trams in Hanoi. Together, the vehicles and the music became a cultural icon of the city during its most austere age. When the municipal government abandoned the tram lines in the late 1980s, the last xam bands broke up and the genre gradually disappeared.
UNESCO's recent recognition of traditional Vietnamese musical genres (e.g. Hue royal court music, ca tru, quan ho) has inspired a rush to recover the last vestiges of xam. Researchers have been searching for genuine examples of the genre. Filmmakers have been hunting for remaining xam artists. The Vietnam Music Development Center has begun its restoration campaign and holds a public celebration every February 22nd in honor of the legendary founder of the genre.
Googling "hat xam" yields hundreds of thousands of results.
The genre has travelled beyond the borders of Vietnam to Japan, France, and China. It has also drawn scholars from across the world to the country. Thanh Ngoan said, she has taught xam researchers, musicians and graduate students from the US, the UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, and Australia.
Xam's star has risen greatly, in recent years, bringing the genre from the street to the studio. The pedestrian art form is now packaged and sold in CDs and performed in opera houses. Moreover, it has played a prestigious role in the 1,000- year-Thang Long-Hanoi anniversary.
At a recent press conference, Professor Hoang Chuong, director of the Center for the Preservation and Promotion of Vietnamese Culture, said he strongly believed that xam would claim a place on UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritages.
Bui Trong Hien, a traditional musicologist at the Vietnam Institute for Culture and Arts Research says he doesn't see it happening. Hien believes the chances of securing UNESCO's title are almost zero because the only living xam artist, Ha Thi Cau, is well into her 90s and not doing well.
"Obviously it's almost lost; it has almost disappeared," said Mr. Hien. "During the years 1997-1999, filmmaker Bui Thac Chuyen and I searched every nook and cranny but didn't find anyone else."
The traditional musicologist emphasized the distinction between xam artists and those who can sing xam. The former sang traditional xam songs. They survived by forming bands that performed and lived together.
"Not everyone singing on the street is a xam artist," said Hien. "Not everyone singing xam songs is a xam artist."
Hien argues that xam is an independent genre with its own collection of songs, unique melodies and its own performing style.
"Street musicians are everywhere in the world but xam artists are only in Vietnam. Today people learn one or two songs and claim to be "˜xam artists.' But I don't think so."
Traditionally, xam artists sang solo; accompanied by the nhi and the senh. Today, all of that is changing.
"I don't imitate Ha Thi Cau, I don't imitate Do Tung. I don't imitate any single xam artist," said Thanh Ngoan, a cheo artist, that also sings xam songs. "I pick the best of them and make my own xam. I have my own style."
Now to add flavor to the traditional music, Ngoan and her band employ many different instruments, and often sing in chorus.
Some hold that xam draws its soul from the suffering of its artists.
Purists argue that a true xam artist needs to perform that inferior, outcast identity.
"It isn't like what we see at Dong Xuan Market today," said Hien. "The melody might be the same. Yet, the performance is different. Now performers play blind by putting on sunglasses." Hien went further by saying that though he appreciated the contemporary artists' efforts in trying to revitalize the endangered music, he does not consider their performances art.
Xam artists must be people who earn a living by singing xam, Hien argues. "People like Thanh Ngoan, she sings very well. Yet, she's still a cheo artist who sings xam."
Ultimately, it seems impossible to preserve the ascetic ideal of xam. It would be unfair to expect someone to live miserably all their life, singing on the side of a dirt road in a city that is changing so fast that few are willing or able to remember the distant past.
For her part, Ngoan said that, so far, her Vietnam Music Development Center has been the only organization in the country to make any attempt to keep xam alive. Ngoan says her center receives no state funding for their weekly performances at the Dong Xuan Night Market or the free xam classes they offer to the public.
The government encourages the preservation of traditional values but has only gone as far as handing out certificates and titles. Since 2004, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has recognized Ha Thi Cau as an outstanding national artist. Yet, the nonagenarian folk artist is still leading a very tough life in her home village in Ninh Binh with no stable source of income.
"If the government doesn't provide grants to its artists, who will?" asked Hien of the Vietnam Institute for Culture and Arts Research. "[Traditional musicians] are not pop or rock singers who can survive and thrive on their own."
Ultimately, Hien believes that real xam will disappear forever with the passing of Ha Thi Cau.