Dreaming of an authentic performance space for Then singing

Saturday, 2018-05-26 11:49:23
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Artisan Xuan Bach (second row, third from left) at a Then singing show staged at the Kim Ngan temple in Hanoi’s Old Quarter in late April 2018 (Photo: NDO)
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NDO – Born in That Khe town, Trang Dinh district, Lang Son province, one of the cradles of Then folk singing, 29-year-old artisan Nguyen Van Bach (alias Xuan Bach) has developed a strong passion and attachment to the traditional art form of the Tay, Nung and Thai groups.

Bach is currently working as a lecturer at the Thai Nguyen-based Viet Bac Art and Culture College. He was among the participating artists at the sixth national festival to celebrate the art of Then singing and the Tinh gourd lute of the Tay, Nung, and Thai ethnic groups, which was held in the northern province of Ha Giang on May 13-14.

In an interview granted to the Thoi Nay (Present day) publication of Nhan Dan (People) newspaper, he shared his thoughts on the organisation of the festival as well as his aspiration to further promote Then singing.

Question: Did the participating artists and performers at the recent Then singing festival face any difficulty in performing on a modern stage?

Artisan Xuan Bach: It is not easy to create a stage which can facilitate performances of folk arts. In most localities, stages are built to host all genres of performance rather than folk arts only.

We gave a lot of consideration and adjustments to the set-up of the ancient Then songs at the festival, particularly the sound system, speakers and microphones. It is a pity that we couldn’t bring choir performances, which are a typical feature at grand Then singing festivals, to the stage. Selected vocals in the choir were performed using microphones instead.

The art of Then is not simply a singing genre but it also corporates dancing, performance and theatre. We had a lot of difficulties during the performance as we had to keep a proper space between the standing microphone and our mouths in order to ensure the quality of the sound.

The standing microphone also posed challenges for us in moving our body parts for acting, while making it impossible for our troupe members to move far away from the microphone for dancing.

In addition, a traditional Then ritual often lasts at least five hours, thus it was challenging for us to edit and shorten the ritual into a ten-minute performance.

Artisan Xuan Bach (R) at an outdoor arts programme in Lang Son province (Photo: toquoc.vn)

You and other Vietnamese Then artists were invited to perform in Paris, France at the end of 2017. Can you tell us about the show?

We performed 12 performances in Paris, which were extracted from traditional Then rituals in different genres of the practice of Then in the Tay and Nung ethnic communities.

We had arranged to perform at the Centre Mandapa theatre in Paris. Although the theatre’s stage is quite small with around 100 seats, its soundproofing system is very good, in which singers’ voice can be heard clearly without using microphones. Thus, it is a perfect stage for Then singing - a kind of chamber music.

Although the audience couldn’t understand the indigenous language of Then singing, they were attracted by the beautiful musical melodies, lively dances and mythical factors, which can remove the language barrier.

The organising board required us to recreate an authentic Then space full of props. We were very worried, but the mission was a success.

How can we set up an authentic performance space for Then singing, in your opinion?

I think that a concert hall or an auditorium is the most ideal place for Then singing. And more importantly, to honour the essence of the folk singing, the performance space must be equipped with a good soundproofing system so their voices can echo through the auditorium without reverb.

Thank you so much for your sharing.

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