Saturday, January 16, 2010

Xoan Singing Tradition Seminar in Vietnam

I was invited to be part of this seminar in Pho To Province in North Vietnam. Unfortunately, I caught bronchitis and was not able to join them. However I wrote a short paper for them which I will share with this blog.

Xoan Singing can be classified as an Intangible Culture. The purpose of this Seminar is to build up a case for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural AWard.

If you want to hear and see some aspects of this very involved God-worship and courting ceremony, go to these UTube sites:

My Short Paper follows:

Dr Joe Peters, Chief Consultant
Sonic Asia Music Consultants
126 Jalan Chempaka Kuning, Singapore 489155
Tel/Fax: +65-64460979
Liaison Officer (Singapore)International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) UNESCO
External Music Examiner, University of Wales, UK
Co-Chairman, ASEAN Korea Traditional Orchestra, South Korea
Commission Mixte, (RILM) International Repertoire of Music Literature, USA
External Examiner, University of Wales, UK
Advisor, World Cultural Observatory, Hong Kong.

Technologies & Services:
Tremolo Orchestra (using Singapore-Vietnam designed musical instruments)
Listenology (New Laboratory Method)
SEMMI (Sonic Environment Music Measuring Index)
14 January 2009
Xoan Sing Tradition Seminar, 14 – 18 January 2010, Hanoi / Pho To, Vietnam
Xoan Singing Tradition – A Case for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Award
Dr. Joe Peters, Singapore
As Vietnam and the rest of Asia develops their own mapped knowledge of musico-cultural phenomenon in the years to come, and develop socio-cultural backdrops and platforms for true nation building, god worship rituals like, Xoan Singing, will take their place in the thrust of national development. This process requires international collegiate participation for the purpose of documentation and proposal presentation – in this case for the unique UNESCO Award for preservation of Intangible cultural forms. This brief paper will give some information about Xoan singing music as was referred to in the publication by the ASEAN COCI - Sonic Orders in ASEAN Musics: A Field and Laboratory Study of Musical Cultures in Southeast Asia (Peters, Chief Ed., 2003). Some general guidelines are also suggested for analysis of this genre of God-worship where movement over territory is part of the ritual – this characteristic is termed ambulatory. As most God-worship rituals are localized in churches, temples and other designated religious sites, meaning they are static rituals in one place, it is important to make this distinction, and compare Xoan to ambulatory rituals. Some comparison will also be made of parallel systems of God-worship in Singapore, like the Chinese tang-ki ceremonies and the Indian religious rituals of thaipusam and fire-walking. Reference will also be made to Nanyin, not based on the ambulatory classification, but for it’s similarity to some aspects of singing and music tradition based on set forms. Nanyin is one of the last remaining traditional musical forms in Singapore.

General Characteristics of God-worship Ambulatory Ceremonies in relation to Xoan Singing
This section proposes that some general guidelines be developed to classify this genre of ambulatory God-worship. The static God-worship ceremonies have many examples and will not be considered as they may not provide relevant comparisons. There are four features on God-worship suggested here for consideration:
1. that the worship sequence is ambulatory, meaning different aspects of the
ceremony are enacted in different parts of a community domain.
2. that there is immediate community relevance  according
to social, cultural, political and other relevant variables of Vietnam’s make up.
3. that there is artistic merit identified with indicators like the presence of
repertoire in it’s widest sense, there is performance practice that has to be
learnt, and there is some form of format or design or choreography, again in
their widest explanations.
4. that there is community participation which can be at two levels: active roles
within the ritual and/or as a spectator.
Some general examples of ambulatory God-worship include the Alim and Huhhud (recipient of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Award) of the Ifugao in Northern Philippines, the Dreamtime rituals of the Arnhem aborigines in Australia. This paper will not expand on these God-worship rituals, as there is documentation at the source.
Features of Xoan Singing
  1. It seems to have originated in the Le Dynasty Era (1010AD – 1225 AD) when Vietnam was developing Buddhism country wide with the building of pagodas, and the Kingdom of Champa was influencing the court music of the Ly Dynasty with their Hinduistic features.
  2. It is a spring activity and connected to the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
  3. There are only four regions practicing this tradition of which only two genres can be documented to some extent.
  4. There are rules and repertoire and the Nom book is an indispensable part of the ritual as it contains what is described as the 14 tempos, which govern this God-worship tradition.
  5. Blended into God-worship is the undeniable feature of Xoan as a courting ritual as the performing cast is indisputably divided into male and female roles, costumes, song sets and choreography.
  6. The ritual itself is structured into three stages with definitive repertoire and choreography.
  7. The use of musical accompaniment is simple with one drum and a set of castanets, and this reinforces the ambulatory nature of the ritual.
  8. Poetry is a vital part of the song structure, but there is flexibility to add other genres like lullabies, love songs and humor songs.
  9. The use of metaphors in the extend form is a vital part of particular the third stage when it takes on a courting ambience with the imagery of “catching a fish in the net”.
The Musicological Aspects of Xoan
Here I will highlight references to the scale systems and other theoretical features referred to by the authors of the chapter on Vietnam in the ASEAN publication Sonic Orders in ASEAN Musics. This publication funded by the ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information was the first major intra-regional field and laboratory study of the musical cultures in nine of the ASEAN countries. It was meant to be step-one for deeper studies into the term sonic orders that defined the musical elements of this region with some neutrality and independence of the common Western term of musical scales. The follow studies, as expected in such extra-academic projects, never took place. Tucked into this book is a rich plethora of information, ten compact discs of representative music, and suggestion for future research.
The chapter on Vietnam was the largest and most prolific in the two-volume book, written by a national team led by the honorable Professor Nguyen Phuc Linh from the Vietnam Institute of Musicology. Here are some of the comments and observations made on Xoan singing tradition:
  1. Xoan songs generally fall within the five-tone scale and have some similarities with Cheo and Muong songs (Nguyen, p. 584), in terms of scale systems but not content.
  2. There are melodies in Xoan that use leaps of sevenths (Nguyen, p.678).
  3. Legato tones play an important at the beginning of Xoan songs and these can be linked to interval jumps of seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths and sixths. These configurations are closely related to the lyrics with the sole purpose of emphasizing expressiveness. Sometimes there are even three tones in the legato at the beginning of the phrase that is being sung (Nguyen, pp. 690-693).
  4. Xoan singing is classified as folk music, which has three categories – work songs, love songs and games songs. Singing in Vietnam is widespread especially in an agricultural community where it has the tendency to be dramatized as customary rituals. Xoan singing is one of the best examples (Nguyen, pp. 497-498).
  5. Xoan singing tradition as a whole is classified as Folk Performance as it integrates singing, dancing, costumes and games (Nguyen, p.500).
The musical examples quoted in the book to explain Xoan songs are a few and will not be reproduced here as it was taken from various sub-regions of North Vietnam. Perhaps, these statements could be assessed against the field research that this project on Xoan singing in Pho To.
Some examples from Singapore
Here I will deal briefly with Chinese tang-ki (medium invocation rite), Indian thaipusam (penitential rite) and pookkulittal (fire walking penitential rite) and the nanyin music tradition of the Hokkien community.
Hokkien Tang-ki is spirit medium worship of the Hokkien people of southern China has its roots in pre-Chinese tribal folklore more than 5,000 years ago. Tang-ki ceremonies feature self-mortification by entranced mediums held to be gods incarnate (tang-ki). It is performance as both religious phenomenon and theatre event. Tang-ki ceremonies are theatrical in that mediums perform the roles of gods using costumes, make-up and props. However to believers, the very act of theatre, where a medium assumes the role of a god in full-view of his audience of devotees, is a magical ritual that transmogrifies the medium-performer into the god in the flesh. Tang-ki worship as religious phenomenon is ineffable for its basis is a contract of faith between the worshipper and her/his gods. It is the tang-ki performance as theatre event that bears analysis (Chan, 2006). Music, is performed by drums and gongs, and serves as an accompaniment for dramatic effect. The performance is semi-ambulatory in that it could start in a location but if the tang-ki moves then the flowers will also have to move. Taoist religious rites are most often the format for such performances.
Thaipusam has been in Singapore for about 150 years and is a hindu form of God-worship in the design of a penitential rite to the deity Murga. It is ambulatory in that devotees walk along a five mile route between two temples in Singapore carrying kavadis (light weight metal structures) made into floral offerings, with the end of the metal spikes pierced into the devotee’s flesh at various parts of the upper-body, arms and fore arms, and cheeks and tongue. There is one set melody, which is in call-and-response form, and the supporters of each kavadi chant improvisations to this melody as they move along the route (Peters, 2003).
Pookkulittal is also an ancient hindu rite in the form of a penitential vow to walk barefoot on burning coals, made to Mariamman, the rain goddess. In Singapore it is now held at only one temple and therefore it is a non-ambulatory rite (Peters, 2003).
Nanyin (Nanguan) Music of the Hokkien Community is a musical tradition that originated in the south of Fujian province in China. It traveled with itinerant Chinese workers as they traveled to other parts of the world and developed nanyin at their domains. In some ways this art form is ambulatory in a macro sense as it has created a nanyin diaspora. But, this music is not related to God-worship in a direct manner. The most interesting part of nanyin is the repertoire which consists of three types of compositions: 1. Zhi – 48 song suites; 2. Qu – thousands of individual songs that are based on the form of zhi; 3. Pu – 16 instrumental suites (Ying-fen, 2003, pp. 145 -146). In Singapore there is a move to incorporate the study of Nanyin in the school music curriculum (Chong & Chia).
Xoan Singing Tradition has a strong case for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Award, as it is an ancient art form based on semi oral and written tradition that is currently being reinforced by performances, research and competitions for the practicing troupes. It blends God-worship rituals and courting intentions, and thereby will bring to the attention of the world that there are many other types of courting, mate selection and marriage practices imbedded into worship. Most of all there is repertoire to sustain as well as to recover With international recognition through this award, Xoan may provide a method for sustaining intangible artistic traditions in a fast globalizing world.
Chan, Margaret. (2006). Ritual is Theatre, Theatre is Ritual: Tang-ki – Chinese Sprit Medium Worship. Wee Kim Wee Centre, Singapore Management University.
Cheong Kwok Yeng. (1999). Unpublished Paper. Pronunciation of Minnanyu in Nanyin.
Chong, Sylvia and Chia Wei Kuan. (undated). Music of the South: Workshop Manual. Siong Leng Musical Association, Singapore.
(write to them for a copy with a CD enclosure: 2&4 Bukit Pasoh Road, Singapore 089816. Email:
Nguyen Phuc Linh (2003). Sonic Orders in the Traditional Music of Vietnam. In Peters, Joe (Chief Ed.). Sonic Orders in ASEAN Musics (2003). Singapore: National Arts Council on behalf of ASEAN COCI, pp. 496-708.
Peters, Joseph E.E. (1994). (ED.). Forum Papers: Presentations at the 2ns Asean Composers Forum on Traditional Music. Singapore: National Arts Council on behalf of the ASEAN COCI.
Peters, Joe. (2003). (Chief Editor). Sonic Orders in the Musics of ASEAN, Vol1 &2 and 10 CDs. Singapore: National Arts Council on behalf of the ASEAN COCI.
Ying-fen Wang. (2003). The Significance of Binary Durational Ratio in Nanguan Music. In Budenconsejo, Jose, S. (2003), (ed.). A Search in Asia for a New Theory of Music. University of the Philippines: Center for Ethnomusicology, pp. 145-160.

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