Music and Media in Modern Viet-Nam, 3-4

pp. 82-83 gendre-distinctions in singers & in musicians

p. 82

"Many musicians told ... they preferred male singers because they were able to "flatter" (ninh) the spirits more effectively than female singers. Female mediums also seemed to like the male-female dynamic between musicians and mediums {the serenading of a female spirit-medium by male musicians}. ...


In the past, the moon lute was known as the instrument "held by noblemen" (quan tu cam) ... .

p. 83

[There are, however, musical] instruments frequently played by women, such as the pear-shaped lute (ty ba) and the sixteen-stringed zither (dan tranh)."

pp. 83-84 musical instruments




"The Vietnamese moon lute, which is related to the Chinese yueqin, has a long neck with between eight and eleven – most commonly ten – high frets. The frets are positioned to produce an anhemitonic pentatonic scale ... . Other pitches can be obtained by pressing the strings more deeply against the high frets. The two strings of the moon lute – the small string (day tieu) and the big string (day dai) – used to be made of silk ... . For most songs the two strings are tuned to the interval of a fourth (day lech) or a fifth (day bang); on very rare occasions the interval is a minor seventh (day to lan) ... . ...


The basic set of percussion used for chau van consists of

the bamboo clappers (phach),

a small two-headed barrel drum (trong), and

a small cymbal (canh).

All of these instruments are placed on the floor and are struck with three wooden beaters (dui). Two beaters are held in one hand -- one used to strike the small cymbal and the other the clappers and drum. To this basic set of percussion instruments a knobless small gong (thanh la) and the "wooden fish" slit drum (mo) are often added."


"the basic rhythmic pattern is sounded on the small cymbal".

"Additional instruments frequently included in larger bands are the sixteen-string zither (dan tranh), the two-string fiddle (dan nhi), and various bamboo flutes, including the sao and tieu."

pp. 85-90 biographies of some ritual musicians




Pham Van Ty :- is depicted "dressed in a tunic and siff turban-shaped hat traditionally worn by Confucian literati. ...


Ty was born in 1956 in a village mear the city of Nam Dinh ... . ... . ... he ... "had a heart" (co tam) for mediumship music. ... . ... he ...was one of the main contributors to the groundbreaking publications on mediumship coordinated by the institute [Folk Culture Institute]. ... His contribution to Vietnamese culture was officially acknowledge in 2001 when he was awarded


the prestigious title of "Artist of Merit" (Nghe Si uu Tu) by the Ministry of Culture. ... Over the years he has acquired an authoritative knowledge of ... music connected to spirit worship, such as the invocation of prayers {prayers of invocation?}, known as doc canh."


Dan Con Hun :- "was introduced to mediumship by his father, who was a ... musician. In the mid-1970s Hung went with his father to len dong ... . ... . It was not until the mid-1980s ... that ... he started to play the moon lute for a spirit priest ... . Since then, he has regularly performed ... at different temples when invited to do so by mediums".


Le Ba Cao :- "follows in a line of five generations of spirit priests. ... he acquired the specialist expertise of spirit priests from his father in the 1940s. As a spirit priest, ... he is also skilled at writing spirit petitions in Sino-Vietnamese characters, reading horoscopes (tu vi), and reciting prayers to the spirits (doc canh). ...


As a young man, Cao performed ... with his father and other spirit priests. He stopped playing at rituals toward the end of 1952 ... . ... He did not start playing again until 1971, ... the song texts they used to sing in the 1940s. Since the late 1980s, Cao has assumed his position as the local spirit priest and regularly officiates at numerous ceremonies."


all these musicians :- "they all share a deep respect for sacred practices and the responsiveness of spirits. Ritual musicians, like mediums, must have a "true heart" (thuc tam) for the spirits. Two female ... musicians, who were ... the band at one of the temples in Phu Giay, ... said the "spirits had entered into their hearts" and taught them to sing and play."

pp. 91-93 repertoire & Hat Tho


singing sessions


"The two terms for mediumship music – chau van (lit. "serving literature") and hat van (lit. "singing literature") -- emphasize the importance of sung text. To be a chau van singer it is necessary to memorize a large body of "literature that serves [the spirits]" (van chau). This "literature" consists of poems dedicated to the spirits. Musicians are skilled at setting poems to songs and adapting the contour of the vocal melody to suit the song text. ...

Chau van poems use conventional forms of Vietnamese poetry : most use luc bat ("six, eight") form, and a smaller number use the song that luc bat ("two sevens, six, eight"), song that ("two sevens"), and bon chu ("four syllables") forms. The names of these poetic forms refer to the number of syllables in each line of text, and each has its own speech-tone and rhyming scheme". "Four melody "groups" (nhom) – "Doc," "Con," "Xa," and "Phu" – are" included in the C^au Van repertoire.


"nhip mot and nhip ba refer to the one-beat and three-beat rhythms, respectively; nam than (lit. "male spirit") and nu than (lit. "female spirit") differentiate between the two versions ... which are performed for male and female spirits."


"chau van songs are sometimes performed before len dong in order to prepare for the incarnation of spirits or on separate occasions when offerings are made to the spirits. Such performances are known as hat tho, or "worship singing" ... . ... for hat tho sessions to be arranged the day before a len dong ... was commoner in the past. Hat tho sessions, which are organized independently of len dong, are held in temples on important days of the ritual calendar, such as the "death anniversaries" (ngay gio) of spirits {death-anniversaries of deities are commonly celebrated in Taoism and in Aztec religion}, on the first {Latin : Kalends} and fifteenth {Latin : Ides} of the lunar month, and at the beginning and end of the year or summer. ... As a form of devotional singing, the audience for hat tho is divine rather than human. ... The poems sung during hat tho are quite distinct from those used during len dong. They include long texts that pay homage to the mother spirits and Van Cong Dong, a poem dedicated to the whole pantheon ... ... . ... some songs, like "Muou" and "Thong," are unique to hat tho".

pp. 96-99 musical performances for particular deities or ranks of deities




rite for male spirit (Mandarin or Prince)

its melody


invitation to spirit to enter spirit-medium

Thinh Bon


while spirit-medium is being dressed



while spirit-medium is sanctifying incense

Luu Thuy


while spirit-medium is waving lit incense



"the red scarf ... is thrown over [the female spirit-medium]’s head ..., the spirit leaves her body and the musicians sing the phrase xe gia hoi cung, "the spirit’s carriage returns to the palace." This phrase is sung at the close of every possession to mark the spirit’s return to the celestial "palaces" in the other world."



"With the exception of "Thinh Bong," which is used for all spirits at the onset of possession, all the melodies performed for the Second Lady belong to the "Xa" group. [p. 105 : "With the exception of "Thinh Bong," only "Xa" melodies are performed for female mountain spirits."] ... the following melodies are performed ... :"



its melody


while spirit-medium is being dressed

Xa Thuon


while spirit-medium is dancing with lit-rope

Xa Mua Moi


while spirit-medium is distributing gifts

Xa Giay Lec^



"The Third Princess is famous for the Boat Rowing Dance, "Mua Cheo Do," in which the mediums dance with a pair of oars. ..."



its melody


The prelude to the "boat rowing" melody ... is performed at the medium is given the oars by her assistants. This gives the medium enough time to bless the oars with incense and position herself for the rowing dance."

Bi Tho C^eo Do


"This dance is associated with a special melody".

C^eo Do


"put down the oars and dances with empty hands ... to make the conclusion of the spirit possession more animated".

Nhip Mot

p. 103 hand-signals as cues

"If the medium raises her __ hand when being possessed by a spirit,"

"the spirit is __."





"The fingers ... indicate the number {ordinal #} of the spirit. ... because the spirits are ... incarnated in sequence following the hierarchy of the pantheon (i.e., the mothers, mandarins, ladies, princess, [princesses], and young princes), musicians know which male spirit is being incarnated."

pp. 109-110 Hau Vo for Tran Trieu

p. 109

"Len dong conducted without bands {orchestras} were known as hau vo (lit. "serving [the spirits] without [a band]")."

When a spirit-medium "was possessed by General Tran Hung Dao, who is also known as Tran Trieu, the spirit spoke ... of holding a hau vo ... :

Today the wishes in the hearts of the mortals are that ... they address me with their mouths" ...

p. 110

the mortals whose words "cross over" to the spirits and the four palaces. I, Tran Trieu, do not need singing or musical instruments. ... The spirits of the four palaces ... must be presented with ... song, but remember the spirits of the four palaces are different from Tran Trieu."

p. 116, Table 4.1 names of spirit-dances

Mua __ (‘__ Dance’)



Moi (Lit-rope)

female spirits belonging to the Mountains-and-Forests Palace

Xa Mau Moi

Heo (Bell-sticks)

prince-spirits and the young-prince-spirits

Luu Thuy

Kiem (Sword)

2nd & 3rd Mandarins

Tron C^ien

Dao (Sabre)

5th Mandarin

" "

Quat (Fan)

9th Princess

Nhip Mot

p. 117 dances-movements by categories of spirits

dances by __

characteristic movements

females spirits

"a "jogging step" consisting of bouncing from one foot to the other in time with the pulse of the one-beat rhythm."

mandarin spirits

"mediums usually "bob up and own" in the vertical plane by bending their knees, without lifting their feet completely from the ground."

p. 122, Table 4.2 melodies for categories of spirits


category of spirits


female mountain-spirits


female lowland spirits


mandarin spirits

pp. 122, 124 Xa melodies




"For the "Xa" melodies, a small gong, called thanh la, is placed on the face of a small two-headed drum. ... . ... its used was inspired by the gong-chime ensembles of the Muong and Jarai."


" "Xa Quang" ... melody ... had been influenced by folk songs from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, known in Vietnam as Quang Dong. "Xa Quang" is usually performed for the Little Lady; it is appropriate because the temple dedicated to her – Bac Le temple – is in northeast Vietnam near the Vietnamese-Chinese border."

p. 127 beneficent usages of particular spirits

"The Third Princess drifts down from the water palace in a rowing boat and goes up- and downstream saving her disciples from misery;

the Tenth Prince returns to his native province of Nghe An and writes poems to bring peace to the world;

the Third Mandarin is carried in a gold sedan chair by disciples to his temple in Lanh Giang in Ha Nam province;

the Second Lady descends from the Mountains and Forests Palace to dance and sing joyously in the mountainous regions in northern Vietnam."

p. 128 descriptions of particular spirits

2nd Lady :- "She has ivory skin and the sparkling eyes of a phoenix,

A fresh face and youthful, silky hair.

She wears roucge and white powder,

Wrists like ivory, a head of plaited hair."

"In some stories of the Fifth Mandarin, the spirit appears in the form of a snake ... creating a violent storm on the Tranh river in Hai Hung province" .

Barley Norton : Songs for the Spirits : Music and Media of Modern Viet-Nam. U of IL Pr, Urbana & Chicago, 2009.