Vietnamese Institute of Musicology Website - About the fieldwork and research of folk music

About the fieldwork and research of folk music

Dương Bích Hà

As we know, traditional music which plays an important role in human life, for the worker, is the foundation of music for every country and ethnic. All activities, public ceremonies, customs of humanity need music, especially folk music. Folk music, which is an element in the system of folk art activities (games, storytelling, architecture, painting, etc), has regional nuances, always hides in itself the local culture and ethnic culture with the interference and influence of them. The perception of role of folk music within traditional music “express political views in science ... rooted in the perception of the historical role of the masses, the author and owner of folk music”1.

To be able to understand the important role of folk music, we must research it well. To achieve that, we had to explore, collect, preserve, analyse the music and research the communities from which it originated so that we can promote it in the present life and preserve it for the future. Additionally, this work also shows the attitude manifested and the human perception about the national cultural heritage. In order to accomplish the above requirements, first of all, the researcher must carry out the fieldwork first-hand on location - where one learns, investigates, collects documentation, etc.

On the basis of the actual work which we have been conducting - it is fieldwork that collect information about folk music for the catering to our research. Pleasing to raise some thoughts on the fieldwork and the way of recognition and treatment for folk music such as the researcher, the purpose is just the desired sympathy, understanding and sharing, encouragement for researchers of folk music Vietnam (scarce) that can promote all of their potential for contributing to the preservation and promotion of the identity of traditional music.

According to the list of ethnic groups of Vietnam2, Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups; each ethnic group has specific characteristics of “regional culture, local culture and ethnic culture ...” 3. Through the course of fieldwork to collect the documentation for my doctoral dissertation about folk music from the Nguon people in the mountainous districts of Minh Hoa, Quang Binh, our group found this ethnic group is not on the list above and can only be paired with other ethnic groups (as the Rục, Mày, Khùa, Sách, etc.) living in the same locality in Minh Hoa district with the common name of Chụt. This is a problem that the Nguon residents, the researchers, all levels and departments, as well as leaders of Quang Binh province agree to be urgent. They conducted workshops and requested to the Government for consideration so that the Nguon people are recognized as an independent group and as a distinct part of the ethnic cultures of Vietnam. Whether the Nguon people has been recognized as an independent ethnic group or not, the important point is that folk music still exists and goes abreast with their life from past to present. It shows not only the character of the Nguon people, but also the subtleties of the common tonal of original ethnic music of Vietnam (which is indispensable), and nobody can deny.

From childhood, we have been listening to and singing fish drug Ho, but we did not know where it came from, until now: we know that this Ho (chanty) belongs to the Nguon people. The soft, gentle tone and rustic lyrics of Ho compelled us to learn about it. Through the process of learning and researching materials, including related works, we have chosen the theme of The folk music of the Nguon people in Quang Binh province for our doctoral thesis. When we reported our topics, many professors and doctors in the council were very divided, worried about whether there is enough to the genre, the method to meet the requirements and caliber to properly reach doctoral thesis. The Council also has allowed us to change another topic if we was not sure. We were also a little worried, but the passion has overwhelmed all, we boldly asserted the topic and conducted fieldwork after that.

When we were exposed to the artists, the residents of Nguon, and the leadership and staff of the District Cultural Centre, including those doing the scientific work about the Nguon people in Quang Binh province, mostly we just listened to them dealing with fish drug Ho, since they did not mention any genre or method. We then suggested to them a number of genres that we learned from the study of the culture by the researchers Dinh Thanh Du and Dinh Xuan Dinh (Nguon people), and doctoral student Xuan Trang Vo, but they said they did not know. Really, we were very concerned and disappointed! Many times we travelled by motorbike from Hue to Quang Binh, Minh Hoa and visited the neighboring clans of Mày, Rục, Khùa, Sách, Bru - Van Kieu, and Chut people in the mountainous province of Ha Tinh to learn and to record (with high mountain passes where travel is dificult, motorcycles were too weak to climb steep hills, so we had to hire transported cart). Because of the dificult travel conditions and, in some cases, we could not communicate with artisans by phone, we often found that they were away from home when we arrived: someone cut up cloud forest, fuelwood, bee-eaters; some went to streams to fish or gather snails, etc. The researchers would have to come back and listen to the deterrence of family (because this work is very dificult and costly, researchers had to have money to do the work, for which they had not received any financial support) and the gossip from someone; specially the non-cooperation as well as the requirements and demands of artists, friends who are working at the Department of Culture.

Courageously, with the passion and determination to learn about the genre so it would not be forgotten, and with thanks for the enthusiastic help of friends and former students in Quang Binh, Ha Tinh, we had to mobilize all family members (including a child, a sister, and a grandchild) to join and help. We continued meeting and learning from the artisans, and our effort and enthusiasm were unflagging. While we chatted ... we realized that the Nguon people had not only one tune for fish drug , but there were so many methodical genres existing in their life; however, when we asked someone about it, they did not remember immediately, especially some artists can sing but do not know its name! We were so surprised, thrilled and excited that all of our fatigue and hardship virtually disappeared; we continued to make many journeys from Hue to Minh Hoa to record (sometimes we went to the field to meet artisans and recorded on the spot, sometimes we had to look for them like hide-and seek), we almost did not care about the dificult geography and other problems on the way, or the obstacles in the process of recording!

After two years of field work, we have collected almost all of the genres, such as lullabies, children’s songs, Hò tunes (fish drug Ho, drag slope Ho, common aphid Ho), Đúm, Đàn, Nhà trò singing, Sắc bùa singing, Kiều singing, and Hát bội múa tiên, as well as some of the genres of the neighboring clans. When we sang some tracks, an oficer of the District Cultural Centre was surprised: “Where did you find this great song? I lived here since I was a child, but I did not know that songs!”, or when some people helped us on the fieldwork and saw and heard an artist singing, they exclaimed: “This job is too hard, but it is too wonderful”. This made us more confident, and we worked harder!

Having data in hand, we had to read, search, research documents and relating projects to learn, synthesize, and compare. Currently, we are conducting musical notation of genres - an interesting job, but it is very dificult and time-consuming, almost every night the research group awakened; sometimes we were shocked and our blood pressures were inconstant. We only relaxed a bit, then got up and tried to make sure the job was on schedule. Because of the conditions of time and artisans, we could not check on the spot when we recorded and shot; at the process of musical notation, many artists did not play musical instruments and sing to follow a beat, so we had to replay many times and strain eyes to look into their mouths to guess at letters to which tears overflowed profusely, eyes blurred. I became lightheaded, but everything was still incomprehensible! There are a number of articles, we have lost nearly a month to complete the musical notation! The next job really makes us have a headache: it is an in-depth analysis of musicology including all the structure, content, lyrics, melody, diapason, on the basis of which we compare with the folk music genre of the neighboring clans, and including the relationship with other scientific fields such as literature, architecture, history, and culture. During fieldwork, we not only found that the folk music genre of the Nguon people is in other districts of Quang Binh province, but also there were many genres which existed in the lives of the people who like to sing Cau Ngu, Ho khoan Le Thuy, and Ve, Tuong. Also special is that each district has an oratorio method, a different tone, which are very diverse. Remarkably, we still have not mentioned the neighboring provinces, such as Ha Tinh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien Hue, which also have some genres and melodies which had not been collected. The way of the researchers is not only long, but also there are many obstacles!

Refering to some highlights at work “cooking” of study of folk music, to mention the views and perspectives towards folk music profession in particular and musical research profession in general. Not to mention to the recognition and evaluation of some people who do not work in music field, even some researcher also had superficial notions and perceptions; therefore, there were the treatment, and distinction, especially the concept of “mainstream” often disregarded folk music, and vice versa.

We often read or hear an eloquent preamble and assessment, such as, “Vietnam folk music is extremely rich and diverse ... as the precious ancient equity of our ancestors legated, which need to be respected, preserved, promoted; and need attention, giving a hand and joining effort of people ... do not lose their identity”. In fact, the ancestors did not care, or cared half-heartedly. In particular, they did not understand or know how it is very diverse and important as such, or how they should join hands to preserve and promote! I must say frankly that, with folk music, the creators are the masses, and the researchers in this field have not been treated as the words above exclaim. For everyone, folk music is only “sketchy songs, monotonous songs”; the studies are “the youngest brother is behind performer and composer ...”, so the presence is not important, and “no man is indispensable”! There are many times when we ourselves have been heard speaking harsh words: “Oh good, the research career is only copy and rumination”! In fact, it exists, and it is also true with some the sedentary researchers who do not understand or underestimate the fieldwork, they are only on the ofice to look up, “digging, cooking” available documents on the shelves, then they also “molded” into a book, article, and also became famous and strutted to “speak”.

In the course of fieldwork, we sometimes go with the students so that they can penetrate the reality and grasp the method to serve their profession later, but a former student who is also learning theory (through our guidance, is at the Academy now), was “pressing”: the fieldwork of student breaks the law! With this opinion, that is really sad for future generations! Especially, a reputable professor (who requested anonymity) told us confidentially: “It is important to be good at the classic segment, we still know about folk without learning”! Morever, nowadays, because society is too focused on qualifications without regarding the substance, the movement of “many masters, doctors and researchers” takes place noisily more than ever! Some people “launch” graduate school, Ph.D., spend money to hire to write essay or thesis, and also has a reputation as a master- doctoral reasoning-and also sit on a par with other professors, Dr., while their knowledge of music theory is not yet “pretty good”; in particular nobody cares to know-they just only know the doctorate, and they are spoiled to be acclaimed! It is easier for them to become a master or doctor than graduation from high school (therefore, a doctorate became worthless!). It was “Scabby sheeps spoil the whole flock”4, making the whole world of the research acquired the reputation unjustly!

According to the educative rule, besides teaching in the amphitheater, the lecturers and staff need to have scientific research projects. So there were the occurrences of “copy and paste” to cope and to be recognized achievements. But they (and some in the other group) underestimated the work of the postgraduate student and had subjective evaluations. It is inevitable. It’s like a taste (delicious and fresh items of Vietnam Television), when they warned the public about the hazards of the preservatives in seafood, that publicized the danger: “To avoid buying the seafood with toxins, we should come directly to place to buy fish”! One person exclaimed incredulously when he heard our presentation about the plan of fieldwork: “One month to finish fieldwork, what a long time”! This suggests that even people in the profession are completely ignorant about the job, let alone another person’s job!

For music workshops (domestic and international) as well, when even the manager set a top priority, although the majority of their speeches were just exhorting generically and the people like us had to give the enthusiastic “grieved” in silence. Even at the music festival in North Central, reasoning was also considered secondary, virtually all funds are given for composing. The majority of festival participants only care if and how their works were shown, but they do not feel the necessity and responsibility to participate in the workshop! For the managers too, as far as we know, provincial scientific works (many panels) are sometimes up to billions in money, but it is only one hundred million around for works of music.What a modest, meager amount to compare with the effort, and yet still be “ignored” mercilessly, it does not mean that the works of music do not have the quality and effectiveness, because they “do not make money”, but their existence does not influence anybody! Only postgraduate in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are often joined in programs or ministerial projects, in the region we have to “give up”! It must be said that, according to Prof., Dr.Sc. To Ngoc Thanh the deviation in their recognization was “the primary cause in awareness of the role and essence of folk music.” Let us not forget that folk music is the voice, the soul, the essence of each nation, and researchers of folk music with their findings give support and play important role for the composers, so that they can compose the effect nationalist writings.

The wide and deep study of the highly scientific and complicated folk music requiries a team who has high quantification, passion, love, and enthusiasm, along with the equipment and the necessary regimes and policies to encourage people to participate. We need young forces who have standard, spirit, and consciousness, along with the artisans and the postgraduates, to collect and systematize the traditional music in general and folk music in particular, for future generations to know and love the ancient culture that our forefathers created and transmitted through many generations.



1. Tô Ngọc Thanh: Thoughts about some concrete problems surrounding the awareness and treatment with folk music. Journal of Music, Vol. 2, 1981

2. General Statistics Ofice of Vietnam issued Decision No. 121 - GSO / PPCD dated March 02,1979.

3. Tô Ngọc Thanh: All led

4. We use the word “sheeps” because in fact, nowadays, that circumstance becomes more and more.