Vietnam Art Books -- To Ngoc Thanh: Voice of folk artists (August 19, 2005)

To Ngoc Thanh: Voice of folk artists (August 19, 2005)

Professor To Ngoc Thanh.
VietNamNet – To Ngoc Thanh – a prestigious researcher on Vietnamese folk arts, who has spent his life preserving the art, told VietNamNet of his opinions and plans on Vietnam’s intangible cultural heritage.

You once said that Nha Nhac Hue would be altered irreparably if it followed symphony? What did you do to prevent this happening?

In 2002, some people in Hue’s Preservation Vestige Centre attempted to play Nha Nhac Hue (Hue royal court music) following Western symphony. Nha Nhac has a limited number of instruments, while Western symphony employs many more instruments. In following symphony, Nha Nhac would no longer be original but altered dramatically.

I think it was an unselected mimicking and I opposed. I also reported it to Nguyen Viet Xe, Ex-president of Thua Thien – Hue City. Fortunately, it never went ahead. Now the Centre has returned to traditional Nha Nhac.

You said that Nha Nhac Hue would attend the Asian Royal Court Music festival? You also said that Vietnam plans to organise an Asian Royal Court Music festival in Vietnam?

Prof. To Ngoc Thanh is son of famous painter To Ngoc Van. Born in 1940, he studied drawing and music from the age of six. Along with Prof Tran Van Khe he promoted the project Recovering, Collecting, Researching and Teaching Hue Court Music to UNESCO.

He was formerly Deputy President of the Vietnam Institute of Culture and Arts Studies (VICAS), and from 1989, he was President of the Association of Vietnamese Folklorists (AVF), and General Secretary Vietnam Union of Literature and Arts Associations.

Prof. Thanh studied at the School of Fine Arts in Vietnam from 1959-1962, and at Prague Fine Arts University in the former Czechoslovakia from 1968-1974.

He has written many books on Vietnamese traditional music, such as Understanding Traditional Music, Introducing Some of Instruments of Vietnamese Minorities, Musical instruments of Vietnam’s Minorities, and Folk Music in North-West
It is not a plan, but my aspiration. We have asked UNESCO’s permission to organise such a festival in Vietnam and they are currently considering it. If it is realised, then it will be a wonderful opportunity for us. Attending the festival is part of a long programme for development of the music. If UNESCO agrees, then Hue’s Preservation Vestige Centre will take it there.

There are many festivals on royal court music in Japan and the Republic of Korea (Rok) already. China, Vietnam, Japan and the Rok all have local versions of royal court music that they have been exchanging with each other since 1995.

Vietnamese Nha Nhac has been well known for a long time. People have learned about Vietnamese Nha Nhac as a version of music, which originated in China, and then spread to Japan, Vietnam and the Rok. Now, Taiwan also plays it too.

In each country, royal court music is adapted to national culture and way of life. Generally, adaptations are according to certain standards. Of utmost importance is the role of royal court music in ceremony. Secondly, royal court music was composed following the harmony of yin and yang. Vietnam follows these standards using the music for court ceremonies such as Le Nam Giao and Le Thai Mieu.

Hue Royal Court Music.

Central Highland gongs are expected to be recognised by UNESCO as Vietnam’s second world cultural heritage, this November. Quan Ho and Ca Tru have also been put forward for submission at a later date. Do you think the chances are of acquiring this prestige? What will be next?

Vietnam has selected the Central Highland gongs, Ca tru (literally song of the women singers), water puppetry, Quan ho (Bac Ninh love duets), and the Central Highlands epic for submission to UNESCO. The Central Highland gongs will be announced in September. The application for Ca Tru and Quan Ho are currently being prepared and will be sent to UNESCO in September 2006. Every two years, UNESCO approves recognition of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This year over 100 proposals worldwide have been submitted.

The cultural area of gong in the Central Highlands, including Lam Dong, Dak Lak, Gia Lai, Kon Tum and Dak Nong, is unique in Vietnam, and I think the Central Highland gongs are a very special component of the area’s cultural heritage.

Few events occur without the appearance of the gong. For example, to welcome a newborn into the world, ethnic minorities perform le thoi tai (blowing in the ears) ceremony. They believe that if a person hears a gong as a baby, he will grow up to be an upright citizen.

At weddings, gongs ring merry melodies and remind the couple to follow cultural traditions. They bid farewell to the dead at funerals and are also played at ceremonies to pray for rain or celebrate a good harvest. They can serve a practical function as well: to warn the community of an imminent threat, gongs at the communal house are used as an alarm, calling all young men to congregate.

Rare culture in threat of disappearance is one standard set by UNESCO for acceptance as world cultural heritage. According to cultural officials of Daklak Province, the number of gongs in Cong – Chieng was reduced from over 10,000 sets to 3,000 sets.

Young people now do not know, and do not want to know how to play the instruments anymore. As a consequence, the music could be lost in the near future. Submission to UNESCO now is very important and opportune. I think the gongs satisfy UNESCO criteria and I think the gongs will be victorious.

Regarding Quan Ho and Ca Tru, I myself think that both of them should be honoured, but UNESCO will select just one. However the other can be sent again, to be announced in 2009. We should not be impatient.

Reprinted from VietNamNet


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