The Quan họ singing Tradition
Ca quan họ, also called quan họ Bắc Ninh singing, is an antiphonal singing tradition in which men and women take turns singing in a challenge-and-response fashion drawing on a known repertoire of melodies. Usually a pair of women starts, presenting in unison a complete song called câu ra (challenge phrase") lasting three to eight minutes. A pair of men of the opposing team responds with another song called câu đối ("matching phrase"), which must match the melody of the women's song in order to be considered correct. Next it will be the men's turn to challenge the women with a song that can be completely different from the previous pair of songs.
There is in principle a matching song for every challenge song, although traditional singers sometimes presented a kind of single song, called bài độc or "killer song," to corner the opposing team.
According to the tradition, only young people used to sing quan họ songs, as the major body of song texts centers on the subject of love and sentimental desire among young adults. Nowadays, many elderly singers participate in the singing as well in response to the quan họ movement initiated by the provincial government.
Quan họ singing can be carried out both as formal and informal events, called indistinguishably canh quan họ ("quan họ period") by the locals. Each formal quan họ singing event follows a conventional procedure that includes a ritual singing in front of a guardian spirit's altar before proceeding to the extensive courtship singing. This opening of strong ritualistic character usually features two songs in the la rằng repertoire, and it must be attended by the two masters of ritual and sometimes also by village officials.
The second part, courtship singing proper, consists of three phases clearly demarcated by tune-types, called giọng by quan họ singers. The various giọng-s include (1) standard tune-type (giọng lề lối), (2) variety tune-type (giọng vặt), and (3) farewell tune-type (giọng giã bạn). The standard tunes are mandatory, difficult, and can be "boring" to sing, according to today's quan họ singers. The second phase is the longest, comprised primarily of love songs in variety tune-types, which make up the largest part of the quan họ repertoire and include a wide range of styles. The final segment is clearly distinguished by songs that project a lingering sentiment and a musicality resembling what Vietnamese musicologists call the "South" mode.
Quan họ singing in festivals
Quan họ singing in festivals traditionally began either at the communal-ritual house or at the Buddhist temple as early as the night before the main festival day. Nowadays, only a few major festivals continue that tradition, while most villages carry out the singing on the main day. Visitors who channel their eye and tune their ear to quan họ singing at the festivals these days cannot help but notice several salient features shared by many quan họ singing activities throughout the region.
Quan họ Stages
A quan họ "stage" in festivals is simply designated by a few straw mats on the ground; therefore it is also called chiếu quan họ ("quan họ mats"). The male singers sit on one side and the female on the other side. The listeners either sit or stand around the mats. At the center, there usually is a round aluminum tray for donations and rewards. These days, some festivals, such as the well-known Lim and Diềm Festivals, present quan họ performances and musicals on elevated stages in addition to the quan họ mats.
As much as professional musicians have consciously absorbed and made use of folksong, and the people have incorporated folksong in their musical events, the folksong activity, with its true meaning of a folk culture, has increasingly become limited.
The Quan họ Tournament
In the past, quan họ singing in festivals sometimes occurred in the form of a tournament. The traditional tournament outdoor involved a new prize, a quan họ team representing and sponsored by the host village currently holding the prize, a panel of judges, and a number of challenging teams to compete for the prize and even more for the pride. A prize often included some tea, special fabric, firecrackers, and occasionally money. To win, a group had to come up with one or more unusual songs to which the opposing group could not respond, either poetically or musically.
Every year since 1997, the Center for quan họ Culture has organized three special indoor contest-festivals in addition to the outdoor tournament: a quan họ sân khấu ("quan họ on stage") contest for young and middle-aged singers (17-50s) which takes place at the same time as the outdoor tournament, a festival for elderly singers (61 years old or older) in September or October, and a festival-contest for children (6-15 years old) in May or June.
By Thuy Dung