People’s Artist Xuan Hoach and Xam singing

Xuan Hoach is known as a veteran artist of the Vietnamese folk music genre who has wholeheartedly devoted his life to Xam singing (ancient folk songs performed by blind beggars) and traditional musical instruments.  

We met People’s Artist Xuan Hoanh when he was busy preparing a traditional music show for foreign tourists in Hanoi. Seeing the way he sang “Xam cho” lyrics and performed with Dan bau (Monochord) which he made, we felt his great zeal for this folk music art.

In his house which was designed in the traditional architectural style of the northern countryside, he told us about his career and creations of traditional musical instruments.

Xuan Hoach began singing Xam when he was a boy. Every time he went to the market with his mother or went by tram, he watched Xam performances and listened to Xam singers. Since then, Xam lyrics have penetrated and permeated the innermost recesses of his soul. First, he learnt by himself and then from other Xam singers. In 1966, he passed the exam for the Vietnam Music School and learnt to play the Dan nguyet (moon-shaped two- string guitar).

People’s Artist Xuan Hoach performsonfolk music instrument at his home in Hanoi.

Xam singers are accompanied on the traditional musical instrument by People’s Artist Xuan Hoach
at a performance in Hanoi Old Quarter.

People’s Artist Xuan Hoach performed in the “Xam dinh” artistic program
held in March, 2016 at Kim Ngan Communal House, Hanoi.

People’s Artist Xuan Hoach has wholeheartedly devoted his life to Xam singing.

People’s Artist Xuan Hoach is famous for his ability to sing Xam and play traditional musical instruments.

In 1970 he graduated from the school and worked as an instrumentalist for the Vietnam National Music Song and Dance Theatre where many Vietnamese artists were trained and became famous such as Tan Huyen, Thu Hien, Kieu Hung, Vu Dau, Manh Ha, Quoc Hung and Tran Hieu.

During his 30 years working in this professional music environment, Hoach, with his inborn aptitude and great passion for traditional music, continually accumulated knowledge and learnt from others so he can now sing both Xam and play some traditional musical instruments.

In wartime, he and the troupe from the Vietnam National Music Song and Dance Theatre had performances for different army units nationwide, such as Quang Ninh, Thanh Hoa and Ninh Binh.

People’s Artist Xuan Hoach acknowledged that Xam singing has eight popular melodies. However, poem verses or lyrics of Cheo (traditional operetta) and Cai Luong (reformed operetta) can be used to bring a fresh breath to the art and offer audiences an interesting discovery of purely Vietnamese traditional music as well as national culture. He wrote some lyrics for Xam using poems by famous poets Nguyen Duy and Nguyen Binh which were enjoyed by foreign tourists. For Hoach, Xam singing is simple and it is does not care much about costumes and stages like other types of traditional arts. It needs folk poems, as its most distinctive trait lies in the simplicity and popularity of its lyrics so it can be performed anywhere, on any street or corner where large number of people pass. However, it requires the great zeal of Xam singers. To have a good accent and breathing and singing skills, the singers can practice and improve with every passing day.

Xuan Hoach is not only famous for singing Xam but also for creating a variety of traditional musical instruments, such as Dan bau (Monochord), Dan nhi (Vietnamese two-chord fiddle) and flutes which are displayed in his sitting room. He said that he first made these musical instruments for pleasure and he uses mainly the natural materials of bamboo, gourds and silk which help give deep-bass, sweet and warm sounds, which are very different from those made by other materials. Not only laying focus on sounds of musical instruments, Hoach also pays much attention to shapes and styles of these musical instruments which convey Vietnamese traditional characteristics. For instance, he decorated his musical instrument with a cute bamboo dragonfly which is hardly seen on others in the world. According to Hoach, it takes much time to make a Dan bau because it needs many stages and playing the Dan nguyet is most difficult.

Besides playing traditional musical instruments and performing Xam,
Xuan Hoach also produces some unique musical instruments.

People’s Artist Xuan Hoach uses silk to make the strings of his musical instruments.
Other details are made from traditional materials.

Although he has been retired since 2012, Hoach continues teaching young artists of the Vietnam National Music Song and Dance Theatre and opens classes of singing Xam and performing on traditional musical instruments for young people at the Centre for Vietnam’s Music Development. He also participated in traditional art performances at Hanoi Old Quarter’s Culture Exchange Centre to promote and introduce the Vietnamese folk music to foreign tourists.

With his great contributions to revitalise the life and soul of Xam in particular and the development of Vietnamese traditional music in general, Xuan Hoach was given the title of “People’s Artist” in 2007 and has become one of three Vietnamese artists who have been recognised as world artisans by World Masters Committee.

Story: Ngan Ha – Photos: Tat Son