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Performance promotes original folk art

A performance called “Xam singing - From the Street to the Stage” was held in Hanoi Old Quarter Cultural Exchange Center on November 18 to promote the original folk art which originated from north Vietnam.

The event was held by the Hanoi Old Quarter Management Board and Vietnamese Communal House group as one of the efforts to conserve and revive Xam singing, a genre of folk music which is falling into oblivion.

Xam singing is an art form which has existed for centuries and was very popular in the rural areas of the northern plains.
According to a legend which has been handed down from generation to generation, Xam singing was invented by Tran Quoc Dinh and Tran Quoc Khanh who were children of King Tran Thanh Tong (1258-1278).

Xam singing exhibits the optimism and love for life of common blind people who overcame difficulties and earned their living by singing Xam songs.

In the past, Xam singing was practiced during leisure time after the harvests. The farmers used to invite Xam troupes to their village and their home to entertain with their repertoire of music.

In the first half of the 20th century, another version of Xam songs appeared in Hanoi and was sung by rural people who came to the city from different provinces to earn their living.

Crowded trams, car stations, markets and street corners were the venues for these entertainers. Gradually, a new style of Xam singing developed on the basis of the traditional forerunner in rural areas, but it had quick and ornate rhythms unlike the traditional Xam played in the countryside, suitable to the busy atmosphere of the city and satisfying knowledgeable people.

It may be said that Hanoi Xam was created at that time. Wandering the 36 streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Xam singers were accomplished in enriching their songs with popular poems, particularly those full of folk characteristics by poet Nguyen Binh, such as “Lo buoc sang ngang” (A Girl’s Anxiety before Marriage), “Giang sang vuon che” (Moonlight on Tea Garden), “Em di tinh ve” (A Girl’s Return after a Province Trip), which were loved, put in writing and popularized by many people. 

Xam was not only performed at stations and markets, but also appeared in folk performances, lullabies, music for funerals, Ca tru (ceremonial songs), etc. Together with the clanging rhythms of the trams which were once a common means of transport in Hanoi, Xam singing became familiar to the city dwellers. When tram use discontinued in Hanoi, so disappeared the stage for Xam performances. Now only a few people remember the tunes of Xam.

Musician Thao Giang and researchers Tran Viet Ngu and Hoang Kieu who paid early attention to Xam singing were concerned about the decline of Xam in Hanoi. With a desire to revive Xam music, they decided to collect, study and recover the typical Xam tunes which were popular in Hanoi in the early 20th century. Their records of the singing by old artists were valuable documents for research. They also talked with old people and sought the specialists’ opinions about Xam. With their efforts, Xam tune was gradually revived and they agreed to name it “Hanoi Xam”. For the first time, Xam tau dien (Xam performed on trams) was mentioned by specialists.

The work of the artist and researchers has gained initial success. The Xam stage has revived the former cultural feature of Hanoi. Listening to Xam songs, people seem to be in a space of Hanoi in the past.