Pham Minh Huong
Researcher, Vietnamese Institute for Musicology
Nguyen Thuy Tien
Researcher, Vietnamese Institute for Musicology

Of the fifty-four ethnic groups in Vietnam, the Kinh (also known as the Viet) people account for 85 percent of the entire population of Vietnam while the remaining 15 percent of the population is made up of the other fifty-three minorities. Within the group of minorities are the Nung people who have a population of around one million and reside in the northern mountainous provinces on the border with China.

Nung language is in the Tay-Thai language group, which is part of the Tai-Kadai language family, a family of highly tonal languages of southern China, northern Vietnam, and other countries of Southeast Asia. The Nung ancestors were related to Choang (Zhuang) group of China and began immigrating to Vietnam three hundred years ago. These ties to ancient China can still be felt today as the Nung of Vietnam are commonly subdivided into different groups based on their premigration residence in China—namely, Nung An (An Ket district), Nung Inh (Long Anh district), Nung Phan Sl.nh (Van Thanh district), Nung Chao (Long Chau district), Nung Loi (Ha Loi district), Nung Quy Rịn (Quy Thuan district). Another form of categorization is based on the groups’ traditional costume. For example, the Nung Khen Lai are recognized by clothes’ sleeves grafted with colorful fabrics.

Nung people’s diverse treasure of literature and art is teeming with storytelling, narrative poetry, and folk music. The literary themes in these arts include romantic ties, love for country, and ethical lessons. Folk songs play an important role in the Nung’s daily activities, from birth to death. Included in the repertoire are lullabies, love-exchange songs, wedding songs, funeral songs, and more. Even more notable is that music is part of even the most common activities, such as ceremonial prayers for abundant harvests and prayers for safety. While the music of the Nung takes on several forms, two-part singing is among the most prominent.

Two-Part Singing of the Nung Ethnic Group

Two-part singing among the Nung takes on special characteristics among the different Nung subgroups. These differences will be explored in a moment. For now, let us explore some common attributes among the different forms of Nung two-part singing. For example, they all share points in the purpose, time, venue, and texture of the performance as well as in performing methods.

Songs for two-part singing are often performed for love-exchange, on the way to festivals, longevity wishing ceremonies, or on special occasions to celebrate the New Year, moving to a new house, first birthdays, and weddings. A full session of two-part singing takes part in three phases—namely, the greetings, love-exchange singing (the main part), and the farewell. When taken as a whole, the multiple long phases can makes a session last the whole night and day.

Two-part singing always happens between a couple of males and a couple of females without musical accompaniment. A member of each group sings the high part, and the other sings the low part. The two members have to harmonize their vocals with each other and ensure that they both pause at the same moment and on the same note. As is common with other types of love-exchange singing, the lyrics of the Nung’s two-part singing are improvised. In fact, the competition of lyric improvisation is what really fascinates people about two-part singing.

As mentioned, each Nung subgroup has developed its own features in poetry genre, rhyme, expletives, singing style, vocal harmonization method, and so on. For example, the ha leu songs of the Nung Loi subgroup and sli giang songs of the Nung Giang subgroup mostly employ a seven-meter verse, so a singing section is a combination of two seven-meter lines. However, the rhyme styles of ha leu and sli giang are different from each other. In ha leu singing, the fifth word of the second line rhymes with the seventh word of the first line; whereas in sli giang singing, the seventh word of the previous line rhymes with the fourth word of the latter line.

Unlike ha leu and sli giang, heo phjun and phuon ngan singing use a five-meter verse instead of a seven-meter one. Four five-meter lines constitute a singing section, which correspond to a single exchange between male and female singing. The rules for making rhyme in heo phjun and phuon ngan are not as strict as those of ha leu and sli giang, but the relevance in content of the lyrics is more important.

Among the eight subgroups of the Nung ethnic group, there are many other differences like those highlighted here. These specific characteristics of two-part singing among the Nung subgroups of Vietnam contribute to making this form of folk music so diverse.

Challenges Facing Two-Part Singing

Two-part singing of the Nung has long been part of their cultural identity. In the past, all Nung could sing traditional two-part songs, but today few can. Because of changes in social life, economic development, mass media saturation, people now have exposure to different cultural and art products. Along with these changes, people’s tastes in art and patterns of consumption have also changed and have contributed to the decline of this folk singing. The younger generations pay little attention to folk art in general, and they refuse to learn two-part singing because they believe singing these songs makes them oldfangled. So while young people are not learning, the older people who can sing these songs are passing away, so the number of tradition holders is falling.

Scene of a Nung village © Vietnamese Institute for Musicology

The performing space of two-part singing is also different from the old days. Singing sessions were once performed as part of daily life, but today they have become directed performances on the stage. While such a change may seem minor on the surface, it is actually having a major effect on the art. Since the singers are being directed, the audience can no longer enjoy the lyrics through the improvisation competence of two-part singing practitioners.

To preserve and bring two-part singing back to daily life, we need to facilitate transmission from older to younger generations and encourage young people to perceive traditional cultural heritage in a new way. A long-term aim of Vietnamese cultural managers and music researchers is to help the next generation recognize, respect, and love the values of the cultural heritage invented by their ancestors so that the younger generation will voluntarily preserve the valuable cultural heritage and become a new generation of tradition holders who can pass this knowledge into the future.