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Lauren Meeker, Sounding Out Heritage: Cultural Politics and the Social Practice of Quan Ho Folk Song in North Vietnam.

Lauren Meeker, Sounding Out Heritage: Cultural Politics and the Social Practice of Quan Ho Folk Song in North Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2013. viii + 192 pages.

Lauren Meeker's Sounding Out Heritage: Cultural Politics and the Social Practice of Quan Ho Folk Song in North Vietnam concerns efforts in Vietnam over the past half-century to preserve and promote a particularly rich folk-song tradition known as quan ho that is concentrated in an area in and around the city of Bac Ninh, which one can reach by bus from Hanoi in about thirty minutes. It is also about the daunting problems inherent in "preservation" and "promotion"; for, as the author demonstrates, it is almost impossible to make a musical folk tradition available to mass audiences without radical changes in style, content, and meaning. The author provides a rich array of observations from every sort of person involved in the quan ho enterprise and shows a thorough awareness of analogous developments elsewhere in Vietnam and around the world.

In her introduction, Meeker describes the area from which quan ho emerged: a 250-square kilometer area in Bac Ninh Province and a bit of Bac Giang Province just north of the Cau River. This area includes forty-nine villages designated as "quan ho villages." It also includes a number of villages that have come to practice quan ho, even though they are not among the original forty-nine designees.

In chapter one, "Music After the Revolution," Meeker provides helpful background, discussing the preservation, dissemination, and distortion of Vietnamese traditional music in general. Meeker suggests that the two most significant agents of distortion in the post-1945 period have been the ideological demands placed on music by state theorists and the structures and methods of Western music.

In chapter two, "Embodied Practices and Relationships of Sentiment," Meeker lays out, with much delicacy and detail, the social context of quan ho before the advent of efforts to preserve and promote the form. Prior to 1945, people in the Bac Ninh area did not generally speak of hat quan ho (singing quan ho), but rather of chai quan ho ("playing" or "engaging in" quan ho). It was not essentially a performance genre. Its purpose was not entertainment, but communication and affirmation of social ties between individuals and small groups. There was no defined "audience" for quan ho aside from the participants themselves, who sang in groups of five or more called bon. These bon were all either exclusively male or exclusively female. Typically, each neighborhood (xom) in a village would have one or more bon. Members of a bon engaged in intensive training and were paired into singing duos based on vocal compatibility, with one singer assuming the lead and the other a subsidiary role. The subsidiary singer continued lines begun by the lead singer. Taking alternate breathing breaks, the two singers could create an unbroken vocal line. Each bon would seek out a bon of the opposite sex in a different village with which to "make friends" (ket ban). The two bon would meet one or more times per month and exchange renditions of songs. These arrangements had nothing to do with courtship; marriage between members of paired bon was in fact strictly forbidden, even though the feelings generated by the musical exchanges were personal, intense, and included deep admiration and friendship.

Chapter Three, "How Much For a Song," begins by tracing phases in the development of quan ho practice after 1945 (there was a partial cessation of singing in the late 40s and throughout 50s, followed by a revival in the 60s), then deals with the chief origin myths associated with quan ho, and finally discusses the transplantation of quan ho from a context of social exchange to one of monetary exchange. According to the chief origin myth, Vua Ba, a daughter of the sixth Hung VtfCng king, went on a sightseeing trip with forty-nine male and forty-nine female retainers. She and her attendants were swept from their intended path by a storm and founded a settlement in what is now Diem village, near Bac Ninh, where she taught people the arts of sericulture and quan ho. She then married the forty-nine women to the forty nine men, after which each couple founded a village. These villages became the fortynine quan ho villages of Bac Ninh tradition. By contrast, I once asked the poet Hoang Cam, a native of Bac Ninh, if he had any thoughts on the origins of quan ho. He said that Bac Ninh had for centuries been a crossroads for commercial and other traffic in north Vietnam, where merchants and itinerant monks often stopped. This created an eclectic atmosphere and a degree of intellectual ferment. He also said that Ly Cong Uan (974-1028), founder of the Ly Dynasty, came from the Bac Ninh area and did much to promote cultural activites in the region after coming to the throne. As Ly Cong Uan died a thousand years ago, it seems farfetched to suppose that he contributed to the appearance of quan ho, but this idea is at least less fanciful than the myth of the Hung VtfCng princess.

Chapter Four, "Staging Quan Ho," discusses the addition of dance and spectacle to modern quan ho performances, changes in the use of pronouns in quan ho performance, changes in marriage conventions associated with quan ho, and finally the efforts of a small and underfunded Bac Ninh Provincial TV station to restore the authenticity of the quan ho tradition. It is reassuring that so many involved in quan ho are concerned about authenticity, even though there is no conceivable way to make the traditional quan ho experience fully available to a modern listener.

Chapter Five, "Broadcasting to Ourselves," discusses the "picturesqueness" of modern quan ho performance, focusing on mimetic gestures and the amplified, modernized quan ho sung on little dragon boats on ponds or on the Cau River. Dance and physical mimesis played no role in quan ho prior to 1945; in fact participants maintained a studied immobility while singing. The eyes were the only expressive part of the body. It was standard practice for the singer to gaze directly into the eyes of the listener. This helped to create close bonds between the paired bon. The pond and river performances are likewise a new development. Traditionally, quan ho was performed in open-air settings and within dwellings. However, modern listeners--even natives of the Bac Ninh area--often assume mistakenly that there is something "traditional" about the little dragon boats.

In her conclusion, "The Heritage and Afterlife of Songs," Meeker discusses the inherent tension between "preservation" and "development" and then focusses on the irretrievability of a particular song, "Hu La," which is considered the most difficult song in the genre. Though its lyrics consist of only four lines of poetry, the song takes ten minutes to perform, due to the interstitial nonsense syllables that are an essential aspect of it. Contemporary singers, even expert ones, sing it only gropingly--it is too complex for them.

Technically, this book is excellent. Vietnamese names and quotations are for the most part given in correct form, with diacritics. The bibliography is useful and the endnotes are informative. It is a pity that the book does not include any transcriptions of melodies, and that it lacks an accompanying CD illustrating different phases and modes of quan ho. Still one must be grateful for the considerable quantity of wellorganized information that it does offer.

Let me conclude with a personal experience that corroborates Meeker's book. In the summer of 2006, I arranged for a small group of professional quan ho singers to do a personal recital for me and a young Vietnamese friend in Bac Ninh. We were met on the street by Thuy Cai, the leader of the group. She was dressed in a Northern-style fourpaneled ao dai. She and a male associate took us to an empty theater and invited us to sit on a group of mats on the stage. Four young women in traditional dress came out and sat on the mats as well. For the next hour and a half, I listened to quan ho sung by the five young ladies and chatted with Thuy Cai and her associates in between the songs, which included "Con Duyen" ("Charming"), "Vao Chua," ("Entering the Pagoda"), and "Nguoi O Dung Ve" ("Oh Boarder, Don't Go Back"). Each piece appeared to have a distinct modal and melismatic character. Some seemed minor-keyish, some major-keyish, and some seemed poised somewhere in between. I would have had to listen to them repeatedly to pin down the exact mode of each. There was no instrumental accompaniment, but the songs had inner voices that most probably would not have been there if the songs had been performed in a completely traditional style. We sat cross-legged on the stage, gazing into each other's eyes. At the conclusion of the recital, the performers startled me by asking me to sing something. Fortunately, I was tolerably familiar with a quan ho song called "Qua Cau Gio Bay" ("The Wind Was Blowing as I Crossed the Bridge"), and I did my part without total embarrassment. I see in retrospect that all this was very much in line with what Meeker says about essential reciprocity at the core of quan ho.

ERIC HENRY, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Author:Henry, Eric
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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