Quan Ho Singing - Hát Quan Họ

Hát Quan Họ in festivals
Familiar Repertoire
Song Text, Verbal and Poetic Introduction
Instrumental Accompaniment


THQH singing "Ba Quan"Hát Quan Họ was born about the 13th century in the Bắc Ninh province and was always heard during spring festivals, especially of the Buddhists. Bắc Ninh is the province where numerous pagodas were built, therefore, big Buddhist offering ceremonies were celebrated each year in spring. Boys and girls came to adore Buddha and after that, gathered together in front of or inside the pagoda orin the field to sing "Hát Quan Họ".

Originally Hát Quan Họ were exchange songs between two mandarins' families. Gradually, it spread out and became popular among the northern people. Groups were formed just for singing, and many marriages were formed at these get-togethers. After centuries, hát quan họ became the most significant vietnamese folk-song type.

Hát 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.

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, elderly singers are quite enthusiastic about singing for guests.

Unlike the simple lullabies, which were inspired by daily works, Hát Quan Họ was always searching for new content and new reforms.
Love in Hát Quan Họ is not sad and pessimistic as it is in lullabies (ru) or in calls (hò). On the contrary, the tunes of this type is rich in tunesand rythms because it received all the influences of lullabies, poem recitation, etc.

There are four major airs in Hát Quan Họ:

  1. Giọng sổng (transitor air)
  2. Giọng vặt (diverse air)
  3. Giọng hãm (recitative air)
  4. Giọng bỉ (tunes borrowed from other sources)

The most popular Quan Họ songs, "Qua Cầu Gío Bay", "Trèo Lên Quán Dốc" (also known as "Lý Cây Ða"), "Se Chỉ Luồn Kim", were sung in Giọng vặt. The singers also imitated the musical sound, the sound of rice grinding, crying, etc. When one of the two singing groups used any specific tune, the other one was to reply in the same tune. The singing ends with songs in the farewell category, a feature that has never been changed giving the singing session a sense of completion.

Hát Quan Họ were spring festival songs. The farmers left their farmings for a while to enjoy the beautiful weather, especially during the New Year (Tết).
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Hát Quan Họ in festivals

For the Bắc Ninh people, festivals not only allow them to highlight their own village's specialties, such as ceramics, folk painting, wrestling, kite parades, or bird contest, among a great many other things, but also their common prized heritage, the Hát Quan Họ tradition.

Hát Quan Họ 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.
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Familiar Repertoire

Considering how extensive the quan họ repertoire appears to be, it is noticeable that songs heard in festivals are rather limited in number and repetitive in titles. Many singers contend that at festivals they prefer to sing songs that are familiar or easy to listen to. Common titles sung in festivals can be divided into two categories.

Co Gai Bac NinhThe first category includes such songs as "Em là cô gái Bắc Ninh" ("I am a girl from Bắc Ninh") which has been considered as the Quan Họ "flag song" or signature song for some time by the younger generations, and "Ngồi tựa mạn thuyền" ("Leaning by the Boat-Side"), perhaps the most favored Quan Họ song across different generations, in spite of generational and village variations which exist in singing practice. These two songs speak both to the locals' perception of regional identity and to their musical affinity to the basic features of quan họ melody.

The second category includes the majority of songs such as "Vào Chùa" ("Entering the Buddhist Temple") and "Khách đến chơi nhà" ("Visitors Are Coming") display a musical contour that bears a strong connection to the official linguistic tonality of North Vietnam, on the one hand, while suggesting some resonance of the Cantonese mode as well as what the Vietnamese music scholars have been calling the "South" mode.
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Song Text, Verbal and Poetic Introduction

Following the textual content of quan họ songs within the festival reveals a striking contrast between the open, public setting and the intimate characteristic of the songs. Virtually all songs heard in festivals express personal subjects such as unfulfilled love, expectation, longing, and intimacy.

Quan Ho songs are unique in the sense that they place men and women on an equal basis, with mutual respect in spite of good-natured teasing, and place a high value on genuine feelings -not money. The songs address the joy of nature and the satisfaction of hard field work when the labour is shared or lightened by singing together.

One of the Quan Họ characteristics that have endured through time is the proper verbal and poetic introduction to each and every tune. Quan họ singers are not only appreciated for their singing ability, but also for their skill in leaving an impression of their gracefulness and literary adeptness on the audience. Usually one of the singers will say something to praise the opposing pair and express how fortunate her/his pair has been to be allowed to sing with them, before she/he goes on to recite the verses of the song. The poetic introduction also provides listeners with the basic content of the song text, which otherwise can be difficult to follow in singing. Not only that, the rhetoric used in the introduction is so polished that it gives the impression of a theatrical act. As a result, singers often try to imitate the speech tonality and pronunciation of official media announcers, even though quan họ researchers have asserted that speeches in the quan họ region vary from one village to another.
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Instrumental Accompaniment

Instrumental accompaniment is slowly creeping in and welcomed by quan họ singers in some villages. The đàn bầu (monochord) is the most common instrument, followed by the sáo trúc (bamboo flute). Other traditional instruments may include the tam thập lục (36-stringed hammered dulcimer), etc. Occasionally the acoustic guitar and even the electronic keyboard are used.

"Ba Quan" (ca.1 MB)
performed by Tieng Hat Que Huong

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