Battles of Bắc Ninh - Folk Music Edition

Published June 27, 2016 in Episode 51

Last November, musicians Quý Thăng and Thu Hà showcased the beauty and tradition of quan họ folk music at the Vietnamese Language Studies Center in Sài Gòn to an audience of captivated foreign students and Vietnamese faculty.  

But the folk music didn’t always enjoy such international interest, not even domestic attention, says Quý Thăng, director of the “Quan Họ Kinh Bắc Phương Nam” music company anda quan họ artist for the past 40 years.

  (Photo: Loa/Jenny Lý)

(Photo: Loa/Jenny Lý)

“At first quan họ Bắc Ninh was not loved by audiences, who did not understand it,” he says. “But today, it seems quan họ has crossed beyond Việt Nam and there are 18 international organizations throughout the world, such as England, Germany, Switzerland, Norway and United States, where people research and study quan họ.”

Quan họ began in the 13th century in Bắc Ninh, and was also practiced in Bắc Giang province. It’s a type of antiphonal music, a singing style usually performed between groups of men and women taking turns in a call and response format.

Ngô Thanh Nhàn, a Vietnamese music educator in the U.S. city of Philadelphia, explains that villages would get together to hold competitions. This custom played an important role in creating communal bonds between villages.  

“One person composes [the music], the other person sings as if in unison, as if they have been practicing for a long time and the other [pair] has to respond to it,” he explains. “If they could not respond to it, they [would] have lost the competition. There are several villages going in pairs until one won the competition.”

Quan họ lyrics speak of simple and playful love. Originally, the performances were exchanges between bureaucratic families, but they were popularized by the common people.

The drawn-out back and forth, teases and responses, were born out of friends and lovers unwilling to part from one another, says Thu Hà, one of the female performers of the Kinh Bắc Phương Nam company.

“The characteristic of these ‘farewells between friends’ is one of lingering. You keep saying good-bye, maybe up to ten times, but you still can’t make yourself leave. It’s very different from all other forms of folk music where you say good-bye once and that’s it. But with quan họ, it’s good-bye over and over again, sometimes deep into the night, and you still haven’t parted ways. One person answers, and then the other has to respond. So they stay.”

And like in any singing competition, costumes also play a big role in quan họ. Performers wear a variation of the traditional northern costumes. Thu Hà says the female costume is typical quan họ culture.

The most beautiful thing is always hidden inside. The beautiful vermillion bodice, that’s always on the inside. Next most beautiful are the red, the pink. That goes inside. And outside, you have a layer of just black. Quan họ people always hide what’s beautiful inside, and show what’s plain on the outside.”
— Thu Hà

Quan họ is still performed at many cultural events, festivals, and religious ceremonies, though mostly in northern Việt Nam and areas in the country where Northerners have migrated to. Musicians and performers like Quý Thăng and Thu Hà keep the spirit of quan họ alive through dynamic performances and educational talks.

“Quan họ continues to fly higher each day because of the brothers and sisters who preserve it,” Quý Thăng explains.