30/12/2015 19:56 GMT+7 Email Print Like 0

Heaven’s Melody

In the cultural and spiritual life of the Tay, Nung and Thai ethnic groups in northern border provinces, Then singing is compared to a tune sung by “fairies” and a melody of “Heaven”, which originates from their daily labour and is closely attached to them from the time they are born to the time they depart from this world. Hence, one can find in Then the values of a global outlook on life.
Live with Then, Die with Then, follow it to Heaven

As perceived by these ethnic people, Then means “Heaven”. The singing of Then in worshipping rites is a form of story telling through folk singing, narrating human journeys to Heaven to ask the Heaven King to bestow luck and a happy life on them.

According to folk music researchers, Then singing constitutes a form of cultural and spiritual activities and also a type of folk music. Then is composed of nearly 4,000 verses, reflecting all aspects of life, from daily-life activities, hamlets, living creatures to love, funerals, weddings and corvee labour. The Then worshipping ritual is actually an inspiring artistic show, making audiences think deeply of a supernatural world. Through comprehensive studies of traditional Then rites, one can clearly see the outlook on life, the world outlook and cultural identities of the Tay, Nung and Thai ethnic minorities.

For a more comprehensive look at Then singing, we had to travel more than 300km to the mountain district of Chiem Hoa, Tuyen Quang Province, which is considered the cradle of particular and attractive Then tunes of the Tay people.

Sorcerer Cao Xiem, a famous Then singer, performs a worshipping rite in Chiem Hoa District, Tuyen Quang Province.

In the cultural and spiritual life of the Tay, Nung and Thai ethnic groups,
the singing of Then in worshipping rites is a form of story telling through folk singing,
narrating human journeys to Heaven to asking the Heaven King to bestow luck and a happy life on them. 

At  Nong Van Sep’s house in Ha Thoi Hamlet, we had a chance to attend a ritual called “Cau Khoan”, a ritual praying for parents’ good health and longevity strictly according to the Tay ancient customs. The rite was presided over by Cao Xiem, a well-known sorcerer. To the Tay, people who preside over  Then rituals are referred to as “Ong Then” (Mr. Then) or “Ba Then” (Mrs. Then), who were dispatched from Heaven, acting as the medium between earthly man and deities.

The “Cau Khoan” rite at Nong Van Sep’s house was crowded with people like a hamlet festival attended by almost all hamlet dwellers packed inside and outside his five-partitioned house on stilts.

In a red dress and hat and “Dan tinh” (two- string musical instrument) in hand, sorcerer Cao Xiem opened the “Cau Khoan” ritual with an ancient Then tune. Amidst the incense smoke, his vocals and musical sounds inspired people into a strange mysterious world totally different from the earthly world, where children and grandchildren are making a long journey to Heaven to ask the Heaven King to bestow good health and longevity on their parents and grand-parents.

The Tay, according to sorcerer Cao Xiem, consider Then their own cultural stream, they confide into Then tunes all their thinking related to life such as the struggle for their survival, their sneaking feelings and deeply buried thoughts, their wishes, aspirations and confidence....

As a result, Then is the spiritual strength, helping people surmount all difficulties, ailments, natural calamities and enemy sabotage for a better life. For the Tay, the Then tunes are, therefore, deeply attached to them from the time they are born to the time they die.

According to researchers, as it originates from daily labour, Then contains values of the Tay time-honoured cultural traditions of profound humane nature. It not only deals with the question of belief but also contains human admonitions, moral praises, criticizes bad habits and practices, expresses love between man and woman, love for nature and love for the homeland. For such reasons, Then is an art genre, containing poems, singing, music and dancing, awakening the beauty of the human soul as well as the noble aesthetic and humane values inside people. With such peculiar cultural values, the Then singing ritual of the Tay in Tuyen Quang Province has been recognised as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Then in Contemporary Life

Currently, besides different forms of ceremonial Then singing with a system of ancient Then songs, there has appeared a form of  new reformed on the basis of ancient melodies. According to sorcerer Cao Xiem, the reformed Then songs have gradually freed themselves from creed activities to be an independent form of folk songs, a form of community art performances. This is considered the progress and cleverness of Tay people and also an inevitable change in the course of developing and preserving the traditional cultures of various ethnic groups today.

To further inquire into this matter, we met with artisan Ha Thuan in Tan An Commune, Chiem Hoa District, Tuyen Quang Province. He is the first Tay to be conferred with the title of folk artisan for his great contributions to the socialisation of Then tunes.

Apart from collecting and recording ancient Then tunes sung by older people in the hamlet, he has composed more than 40 new Then tunes, which are very dear to people while also carrying the breath of their life. Free-of-charge Then classes organised at his stilt house lay the foundations for the emergence of various mass Then clubs inside and outside Chiem Hoa District at present.

Ma Van Doan, Director of the Then club in Tan An Commune, said that his club has been constantly maintained with 40 – 50 regular members, who are from 5 to 85 years old, after it was set up 20 years ago.

Four daughters and nieces of artisan Ha Thuan are famous for Then singing. 
Members from the Then singing club of Tan An learn dances for new Then songs. 

Elder Ha Thi Chinh (An Thinh Hamlet, Tan An Commune) teaches Then singing for a little member of the club.

A regular activity of the Then singing club in Tan An Commune, Chiem Hoa District. 

A Dan tinh (two-string musical instrument) is indispensible in Then singing. 

Thanks to contributions from clubs and schools, Then singing has been preserved
and developed in the lives of the Tay, Nung and Thai ethnic groups. 

The vitality of Then is clearly seen through the development of Then clubs not only within communities but also in schools. Ma Van Duc, a teacher at Tan An secondary school (Tan An Commune, Chiem Hoa District), revealed that his school has established a Then club, which had high achievements at district and provincial Then singing contests. More importantly, he added, learning various Then tunes, pupils will further understand and love the traditional culture of their native place.

According to statistical figures of the Culture, Sports and Tourism Department of Tuyen Quang Province, there exist now about 60 Then-Dan tinh clubs in 46 communes, wards and townships with 54 Then artisans, 100 “Tao” and 15 “Put” sorcerers (who practice Then singing in spiritual ceremonies) largely in Chiem Hoa, Lam Binh, Na Hang and Son Duong districts.

On the last day of our journey, we were lucky to attend the 5th Then-Dan tinh Festival- 2015 of Tay, Nung Thai minority people in Tuyen Quang City with the participation of Then singers from 14 northern mountain provinces. Participants brought to the festival various Then tunes of their ethic groups and localities, which helps audiences discover the origins and diversity of Then singing arts in different regions. For instance, Then of Cao Bang region is deeply attached while Then of Lang Son is cheerful and boisterous, Then of Tuyen Quang highland region is fast and thick and powerful, like troops marching to battlefields, Then of Ha Giang is slow and melancholic, Then of Bac Kan murmurs like heart-to-heart talks.

The 5th Then Singing – Dan tinh Festival provides  audiences the chance
to discover the art of  Then singing – Dan tinh of ethnic groups in the mountain northern area.

A young sorcerer attends the 5th Then Singing – Dan tinh Festival of Tay, Nung, Thai ethnic groups.

Reintroducing the singing of Then in worshipping rites at the 5th Then Singing – Dan tinh Festival. 

We bid farewell to Tuyen Quang, cradle of the “fairy” tunes which are closely attached to the life of people. Just as Ha Thuan said: “Life without Then is like birds without singing, trees without leaves and flowers, or fish without rivers and streams. Then is a bridge linking the spiritual world with the earthly world, heaven with earthly people. It is the thread of love and duty binding people together for a peaceful and happy life, for good home and hamlet traditions”.

With such profound humane values, Then seems to go beyond the border of a village or a hamlet to become a cultural heritage of the nation and mankind as a noble value of the outlook on life. Hidden in each Then tune, are the objectives which mankind is aiming to reach.

In order to confirm and honour the value of the Then singing heritage of the Tay, Nung and Thai ethnic minorities, on August 12, 2015, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism issued a decision approving the master plan on formulation of dossiers on national nomination of Tay, Nung, and Thai Then to UNESCO for inclusion in the list of Mankind’s Representative Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Story: Thao Vy - Photos: Trinh Van Bo