Xam Singing: Tracing the Origins and Unique Traits of this Traditional Art
Xam singing, also known as “hat xam” in Vietnamese, is a traditional folk music genre that has been passed down through generations in Vietnam. With its unique combination of music, poetry, and storytelling, “xam” has become a treasured cultural heritage of the country. In this topic, we will explore the origins and evolution of “xam”, as well as the distinctive features that make it stand out from other forms of traditional music. Join me on this journey to discover the rich history and captivating beauty of xam singing.
What is Xam Singing?
Xam singing is a genre of folk music that has developed and becomes popular in the northern flatlands and mountainous regions of Northern Vietnam. Initially, Xam singing was a livelihood for poor people who performed in markets, on the streets, and in other crowded places. The term “Xam” refers to the performer.
According to folk beliefs, Xam singing is closely associated with poor and visually impaired artists who have to wander around and do not have a stable home. They use their singing and musical instrument to make a living.
Origin of Xam Singing Art
Legend has it that during the reign of King Tran Thanh Tong, there were two princes named Tran Quoc Toan and Tran Quoc Dinh. In a struggle for power, Tran Quoc Toan harmed Tran Quoc Dinh, causing him to become blind and abandoned in the deep forest. In sorrow, Tran Quoc Dinh could only lament and cry until he fell asleep and had a dream where a Buddha taught him how to make a musical instrument from ropes and half a bamboo stick.
Upon awakening, he made the instrument and miraculously produced beautiful sounds that attracted birds to bring him fruits to eat. Later on, Tran Quoc Dinh taught poor and visually impaired people how to play the instrument and sing, even after he was brought back to the palace by his father. He is considered the founder of Xam singing.
However, this is just a legend. Historical records indicate that Xam singing emerged around the 14th to 15th century (between the years 1500-1600). Initially, Xam singing was called “singing while walking on the street,” performed by poor and visually impaired people.
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Characteristics of Xam singing
Xam singing is a traditional form of folk music in Vietnam that is characterized by several distinctive features:
- Improvisation: is an improvisational form of music where the performers create the lyrics and melody on the spot. The performers often base the improvisation on a set of themes or motifs that they establish beforehand.
- Call-and-response structure: Xam singing is often performed by a group of musicians, with one singer leading and the others responding in a call-and-response structure. The lead singer sets the tone and melody, while the other performers follow with complementary lines.
- Instruments: Xam is usually accompanied by traditional musical instruments, such as the dan bau (monochord), dan nhi (two-stringed fiddle), and dan nguyet (moon-shaped lute). These instruments provide a rich and expressive sound that complements the vocal performance.
- Themes: Xam singing often tells stories of everyday life, including love, family, and social issues. The lyrics are often poetic and use metaphors to convey deeper meanings.
- Regional variations: Xam singing has different regional variations in Vietnam, each with its unique style and repertoire. Some of the most well-known styles include Ha Thanh Xam, Bac Ky Xam, and Nghe Tinh Xam.
Overall, Xam singing is a vibrant and expressive form of folk music that showcases the creativity and improvisational skills of Vietnamese musicians.
Content and lyrics in Xam singing
Xam singing is a form of music that combines singing and storytelling, characterized by its autobiographical and poetic lyrics. People pass down most Xam songs orally without any authorship. They reflect the thoughts and aspirations of people from different social backgrounds in the feudal society of ancient Vietnam. These songs also reflect the performers’ personal perspectives on society and the state at the time.
There are many optimistic themes in Xam’s songs, such as beautiful love stories and empathy for the poor. These songs depict people who always hope for a better life and appreciate the nurturing care of their parents. During times of war, Xam songs also conveyed messages of patriotism and the struggle for the country and the people.
The system of folk poems, proverbs, and folk music of northern Vietnam deeply influences the lyrics of Xam songs. Xam often uses the six-eight verse form and rhythmic patterns. This art form is not too academic, emphasizing harmony, easy understanding for everyone, and suitable for the performers’ talents. Since its inception, Xam has been like a news channel through music, always carrying messages reflecting the times.
Musical instruments used in Xam’s singing
Xam performances started with only a Dan Nhi (two-string fiddle) for solo performances. Demand for larger ensembles grew. More instruments were added to Xam performances:
- Dan nhi: A two-string bowed instrument in traditional Vietnamese music, similar to a fiddle or erhu.
- Senh: A plucked zither-like instrument in traditional Vietnamese music with 11 strings, commonly used in Xam singing.
- Trong manh (trong xam): A small, handheld drum used in Xam singing, typically made of clay or metal.
- Bo phach: A set of bamboo percussion instruments including clappers and sticks, commonly used in Vietnamese folk music.
- Dan bau: A one-string monochord instrument in traditional Vietnamese music, played by sliding a metal rod along the string to change the pitch.
- Dan giao: A plucked lute-like instrument in traditional Vietnamese music with four strings, commonly used in cải lương (Vietnamese opera).
- Thanh la: A bamboo tube zither with a single string, played by striking the string with bamboo sticks, commonly used in the music of ethnic minority groups in northern Vietnam.
- Dan day: A four-stringed plucked instrument in traditional Vietnamese music, similar to a lute or guitar.
- Trong com: A small, high-pitched drum commonly used in Vietnamese folk music and traditional performances.
Where to listen to Xam singing?
People can hear Xam in various places in Vietnam, especially in the northern region where it originated. Popular locations to listen to Xam include traditional art performances, festivals, and cultural events. Public spaces such as parks or street corners are also popular venues.
There are several places in Hanoi, the capital city, where tourists can listen to Xam. These include the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the Old Quarter of Hanoi, and some traditional art performances organized by cultural centers or travel agencies. Some Xam singing groups also perform on the streets of Hanoi, particularly in the early morning or late afternoon.
There are Xam recordings and performances available online or in music stores. Those who want to listen to them outside of live events can access them through these mediums.
In conclusion, Xam singing is a traditional form of art with a rich history and unique characteristics that reflect the social and cultural context of Vietnam. Despite facing many challenges, Xam singing has been preserved and continues to be appreciated by those who seek to learn about and experience the rich cultural heritage of Vietnam.