Folksy couple preserve a national heritage

Published: 20/02/2009 05:00



Le Giang (right) and Lu Nhat Vu (left) with Tay people in Lang Son.

The old woman was bed-ridden and waiting to die. She was a repository of many folk songs, this much Lu Nhat Vu and Le Giang knew. They did not know, however, if they could save any of the songs for posterity.

Vu took out his tape recorder and played a folk song from the area for her. To everyone’s astonishment, the patient got out of bed and started singing the songs she’d learnt and sung when she was young.

Vu and Giang have collected many unforgettable memories over the last three decades that they have spent trying to collect and preserve Vietnam’s rich oral music traditions that are an endangered species.

Though they might not think of themselves as such, the couple have been cultural anthropologists whose work has rescued numerous songs from obscurity and extinction.

Vietnam is a treasure house of oral folk traditions that have flourished for centuries, like the ho (love duet) and hat ru (lullaby) in the southern provinces, and quan ho in the north. However, not many people are engaged in recording and preserving the thousands of songs that country traditions have created over all these years.

Musician Lu Nhat Vu and his wife, poet Le Giang, are in their seventies now. They have already spent almost half their lives researching folk songs in the country, and published at least a dozen books on the subject that have popularized hundreds of melodies among artists and the general public.

Work in progress

At their modest house on the top of an apartment block on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, the couple proudly showed me many works for which they had collected material ever since the American War ended 34 years ago.

The couple have a folk song book on almost every province in the south, but there are still many drafts and unfinished folk songs to go.

Soon after Reunification Day, Musician Luu Huu Phuoc, head of Viet Nam’s Music Institute assigned Vu the task of collecting and researching Vietnamese folk songs, especially in Mekong Delta. In 1981, thanks to the tape recording of a music festival in Ben Tre, Vu edited and published a book about folk songs from the province.

That was the first of his many books about folk songs in southern provinces that were warmly received by fellow musicians and the public. It also motivated the couple to continue their journey to many areas, meet countless people and gather priceless melodies.

Since 1981, the artists together with other musicians and experts, have travelled the length and breadth of rural areas in the southern region, and to the north to trace melodies of folk songs that are in threat of disappearing.

A century ago, this was a task done by many people. Giang says before them, Musician Tran Kiet Tuong, during the war, had a project collecting songs sung by soldiers from the south like Ly Binh Voi, Ly Con Sao and Ly Ngua O.

People in the north appreciated Tuong’s work very much because the country was still divided then. Then there was Musician Quach Vu who also travelled to many provinces in the south to collect folk melodies. “After their passing, their work is being carried on by us,” says Giang.

The couple say that southern folk songs are not only created by people in the south, but composed in central and even northern provinces. People from these areas migrated south over many years reclaiming wasteland and using them to produce crops. The migrants brought their traditional melodies here.

The challenge

Though the couple love their work and are passionate about it, it is still a challenge to prise songs from the villagers. Once their hearts are won, however, they are ready to sing all the songs they know, says Giang.

The couple have even learnt songs from children of old people who were taught them by their dying parents, Giang says in reminiscences that she is currently writing.

Sometimes, even when there are a lot of songs that the local people know, getting them to sing is very difficult. For this the couple have become part of the community, joining in the farm work and other daily activities that put their hosts at ease before they would open up and sing.

There have been many instances when people were in tears as the couple left, says Giang.

Another difficulty they have faced in the beginning is that there was no tape recorder. Collectors had to listen and make musical notations on paper.

As both a composer and collector of music, Vu believes he has an advantage, despite the opinions of many that say the job of research will conflict with composing. He has composed many songs based on poems written by his wife, whose real name is Tran Thi Kim. Many of the songs carry traditional folk melodies.

Among the memories they have gathered on this long journey is a trip to Ben Tre where the local official in charge of cultural affairs did not know if the province had a folk song tradition.

Vu recalls that after completing their work, Vu and his wife invited the official to show him what they had collected, and the official said he could hear his mother’s voice in the songs.

Vu and Giang have won several awards including being mentioned by the Viet Nam Records Books for having done more projects than anyone else in collecting and preserving southern folk songs.

Besides this, Giang has also written hundreds of poems reflecting life in the southern region, including Lap Lanh Cat Vang, Lang Thang Gio Cat, Bo Hanh Voi Ca Dao.

Meanwhile Vu, whose real name is Le Van Gat, has composed music for many of Giang’s poems, converting them into folk classics, like Co Gai Sai Gon Di Tai Dan, Hay Yen Long Me Oi and Bai Ca Dat Phuong Nam.

Vu says collecting traditional folk songs is more a hobby than a job. He loves nature and the opportunity to travel everywhere in the country. He used to take an easel and paint brush along with him to every corner of the country.

However, his assignment to collect cultural treasures consumed his life and left him with no time to pursue anything else but music.

But even after thirty years of travel and painstaking work, the couple are looking to a busy year ahead, with thousands of pages to be sifted through in selecting 580 pieces of music composed by 192 musicians during 20 years of war, collected by the couple and their son, musician Le Anh Trung.

For this family, music is truly a way of life.


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