A unique genre of folk singing
Sac bua singing is the oldest genre of folk singing recorded in the Mekong River Delta, and it is now being practiced in Phu Le only. According to folklore cultural researchers, sac bua singing originated in the south-central region, or from Quang Ngai to Binh Dinh provinces. It was associated with the process of land reclamation in the south. It is said that in the middle of the 18th century, a Binh Dinh-based mandarin named Tran Van Hau married a woman in Phu Le commune and taught local people sac bua singing. The singing form then spread widely to neighbouring areas of Ba Tri district, including Phuoc Tuy, Phu Ngai, Bao Thanh, An Binh Tay and Tan Thanh communes of Giong Trom district.
The art form is a combination of the arts of singing, dancing, performing and staging of spiritual rituals. It can be considered as an agricultural ritual and spiritual activity, which delivers people’s wishes for a new year full of good luck, happiness, prosperity and bumper crops on the occasion of Tet (Lunar New Year) festival.
According to Lu Van Hoi, Vice Standing Chairman of Ben Tre provincial Cultural Heritage Association, musical instruments used include a Vietnamese two-stringed fiddle, a drum and coin clappers. In the olden days, sac bua singing troupes used to visit families after the traditional New Year’s Eve to sing songs celebrating New Year.
Each troupe had at least four members, with a maximum of 12. The artists played musical instruments while singing and dancing. The main vocalist is called ‘cai ke’ while the remaining members of the troupe are ‘con xo’ (supportive vocalist). ‘Cai ke’ sings the first line of the song, the second line is sung by one of the supportive vocalists, the third one is sung together by all members, and so on. Lyrics of sac bua songs are long poems written in six-eight, five-word or four-word verse forms.
A sac bua performance comprises of two parts: ritual and entertainment. The performers, who are always warmly welcomed by the house’s owners, first reach the house’s gate, then sing a song while opening the gate, entering the house, and casting spells in front of the altar to dispel evils and bad luck from the family and wishing for peace and good fortune for them. The singing and spell casting ritual take place in a simple way but in a solemn atmosphere. After that, the troupe gathers at the house’s grounds to deliver cheerful songs, wishing the family members and their guests a New Year full of prosperity and happiness.
Phu Le’s sac bua singing is highly appreciated by folklore cultural researchers as its rhythms and lyrics provide a treasured source of documentation on the spiritual life and daily activities of people in the region. The singing not only meets the entertainment demand of the community but also serves as a unique tourist product which has drawn much interest from visitors.
Artisan Nguyen Thanh Quang, head of a Phu Le Sac bua Singing Troupe, shared that when he was a child, he was present at so many sac bua performances that he could learn the lyrics by heart.
When the local authorities made a plan to revive the folk singing, he was invited to serve as the head of the commune’s singing troupe to practice with other artisans in the commune and give instruction to students on the unique art form.
Reviving a heritage of the ancestors
Although it was very popular in the southern region, after many historical ups and down, sac bua singing faced the risk of being lost altogether. From 1985 to 1998, this singing form almost fell into oblivion as many senior artists died without successors. In 1998, the singing was proposed to be registered as part of a project ‘Preserving and promoting value of intangible cultural heritage of Vietnam’s ethnic communities’, which was managed by the Culture and Information Institute under the Ministry of Culture and Information, now the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
Since then, significant efforts have been made to revive sac bua singing. Now, sac bua troupes have been established in Phong Nam commune (Giong Trom district), the Culture and Sports Centre of Ba Tri district, Phu Le commune, Ben Tre museum, and the Phu Le commune secondary school.
According to Chairman of Phu Le commune People’s Committee To Quang Muoi, the commune’s sac bua singing troupe has been invited to perform at many traditional festivals and on Tet holiday. The local authorities have planned to popularise the singing form among the younger generations in order to safeguard and promote the unique art form of the ancestors.
The Phu Le commune Secondary School established its own sac bua singing troupe in 2014 with six students. The school now has tree troupes with 21 participating students. Huynh Kim Thai, the school’s principal, said that the troupes have continued rehearsing regularly, including on summer holidays, and have participated in many communal festivals in the locality. The school’s managing board are now seeking for new talents from classes to enlist in the troupes in order to create a successor generation to maintain the troupes’ operation.
The students are very excited to learn the unique art form of the previous generations when participating in the troupes. From knowing nothing about sac bua singing, now they are proficient in singing and playing musical instruments. Ho Phu Vinh, a seventh grader, said that he wanted to learn more about sac bua singing in order to safeguard cultural identity which has been passed down by his ancestors.
Ben Tre provincial authorities have planned to duplicate the establishment of sac bua singing troupes among schools in the locality and organise contests and exchanges for students to learn more about the art form and show their talents.
The art form of sac bua singing has been a pride and indispensable part in the cultural and spiritual life of local residents. From facing the risk of being lost, this unique folklore performing arts has been revived with an increasing number of master artisans as well as the positive participation of youngsters in this traditional practice.
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