Viet Nam News 13/9/2009
Traditional musicologist Bui Trong Hien, of the Viet Nam Institute for Culture and Arts Research, has helped prepare documents for Viet Nam’s intangible cultural heritage applications for submission to UNESCO. He talks to Trung Hieu about the work.
Bui Trong Hien was born in 1966 and began to study music at the Ha Noi Music Conservatory when he was 10. For a few years, he was also a lecturer at his alma mater, now known as the Viet Nam National Academy of Music.
He began working for the Viet Nam Institute for Culture and Arts Research in 1996. He has prepared the UNESCO application documents for the Tay Nguyen (the Central Highlands) gong culture, ca tru (ceremonial songs) and quan ho (northern Delta love duets).
His most recent documents were for quan ho, which Viet Nam submitted at the end of last year. Results from UNESCO are expected early next month. If quan ho is recognised, it will be Viet Nam’s third art (after Hue royal music and gong culture) to become recognised as a world intangible cultural heritage.
Inner Sanctum: Do you believe that Viet Nam’s quan ho will be recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage?
Compared to our previous documents, such as those for the Tay Nguyen gongs and ca tru, the files for northern Delta love duets were not as perfect.
For example, love duets traditionally consist of ask-and-respond singing sessions between two groups of male and female singers, each group with only five or six people.
However, in the video tapes submitted as part of the file there is a group of a dozen men and another with about twenty women, both young and old.
There are also several other mistakes in the settings.
However, despite these mistakes, I hope UNESCO’s critical expert will be attracted by the sweet and attractive melodies of the art.
Inner Sanctum: As someone who spent many years studying traditional music and directly participated in preparing cultural heritage documents, including Tay Nguyen gongs, ca tru and quan ho, can you point out the difficulties for persuading UNESCO experts to recognise Vietnamese ancient folk music?
The candidates must be really attractive, with implicit values. Particularly for quan ho, as a musical art, the documentation must highlight this value to persuade UNESCO’s critical expert. I think this is the most difficult thing. In a critical role as a scientist, if this expert is persuaded, he or she would explain our proposal to the board of examiners in the best way. UNESCO often selects a board of examiners made up of representatives from many different social classes, such as politicians, royal figures and business people. During the approval process, the examiners will also depend a lot on the critical expert’s report. All of our submissions to UNESCO for recognition as a cultural heritage are traditional music with high artistic values, so I hope everything will be good!
Inner Sanctum: Currently, many localities are trying to lobby for their local cultural heritage to be recognised as a world heritage. It has even become a race. But many of these proposals and ideas are not very practical. What do you think about this situation?
There are two reasons: First, many people are seeking fame, which is common among our wet rice culture. They want their local heritage to be internationally recognised, so that they will have fame in the international community.
Second, the effort involved in collecting and assembling the documentation for submission to UNESCO can create jobs and income for many people. If they are able to implement the projects successfully, they can earn fame and promotion opportunities.
For the researchers, assembling the files also provides a good opportunity because the project would provide them with funds to implement their studies. For example, assembling the files for ca tru for UNESCO approval was a success. Thanks to project expenditures, researchers were able to take historical field trips between 2005-07 in the 14 cities and provinces where ca tru existed.
Actually, we should be aware that local arts, whether they are compiled into files or not, and whether they are acknowledged by UNESCO or not, are still our nation’s heritage, which were nourished by our forefathers for the last several thousand years.
For example, many ethnic minority people in Tay Nguyen I spoke with did not really care if their local art was recognised by UNESCO or not.
When we, the researchers, came and asked them to play gongs for us to record, then okay, they played the gongs. Afterwards they went on with their daily chores and on to their forest gardens. Many did not even know what UNESCO was.
We have our national pride. I think the way we respect our heritage is more important than recognition from the international community.
In our modern integrated world, all values will become mankind’s common assets.
If our heritage’s are recognised by UNESCO, but we could not preserve them, this would be more painful.
Inner Sanctum: A lot of ancient cultural values in many localities are eroding, and the people who are involved in documentation projects only focus on organising festivals, popularisation and tourism development. What is your opinion about the core of this problem?
This situation is obvious. Many people wish to have the “UNESCO heritage” title for both sincere and self-seeking targets. In truth, many people involved in making these files do not have a real love for ancient values. Some of them have to do it because they are required to do so.
In addition to negative elements, position elements are clear: a local art recognised by UNESCO is very encouraging to the local community, especially local artisans who still preserve the heritage.
As for quan ho, you should remember that its traditional singing sessions are no longer held. All the current sessions are recovered versions, performed mostly to entertain tourists.
In the current market, popularisation for tourism is necessary to help preserve quan ho. The taste among the people for entertainment has changed; so it is very difficult to preserve this art.
Inner Sanctum: After quan ho, what other folk music could be proposed to UNESCO for recognition as an intangible cultural heritage?
I think tai tu (amateur’s music) – cai luong (reformed theatre) from southern Viet Nam could be persuasive candidates after quan ho and ca tru. The reason is, among traditional Vietnamese folk music, this represents the top of stringed musical instruments.
Moreover, people in the South still preserve a lot of ancient songs, musical pieces and plays.
Cheo (traditional operetta) and tuong (classical drama) are valuable, but many of their ancient plays have been lost and the modern versions have changed a lot.
Inner Sanctum: What is the last thing on your mind?
Preserving ancient cultural heritage is really very tiring work. I do it because it’s my passion, because I love it. I do not lay much hope on the work. I just feel anxious for these aspects of our cultural heritage – the things I love – and I hope to share my concerns with my friends. I don’t think about anything bigger. — VNS