Lauren Meeker, Sounding Out Heritage. Cultural Politics and the Social Practice of Quan Họ Folk Song in North Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013, viii + 192 pages. ISBN 9780824835682. Price: USD 27.00 (paperback).
Quan họ is a form of Vietnamese music whose origins are ascribed to the mythic past of Bac Ninh, a region in the north often referred to as the cradle of Vietnamese civilization. Lauren Meeker’s engaging and thoughtfully nuanced book, grounded in both the rice fields of Viet Nam and the theoretical concerns of Western anthropology, speaks to several audiences. Social scientists will be interested in its attention to the interaction between local practices and the varying intentions of the state, in its exploration of the paradoxes that lie in the slippery terms ‘tradition,’ ‘preservation,’ and ‘modernization,’ and in its meditation on the transformation of long-term singing relationships based on reciprocal exchange into fleeting moments of performance, on the one hand, and into ‘cultural heritage’, on the other. The general reader will find insights into an economy of sentiment in these Vietnamese villages. And anyone with more than a passing interest in music will delight in the intricacies of the histories, sounds, and forms of quan họ, which Meeker treats as both music and social interaction. (For a better appreciation of this work, readers unfamiliar with the music might do well to put down this review and search for quan họ on You Tube—keeping in mind that they will find the performance of quan họ, not the reciprocated practice.)
A disclaimer is perhaps in order: quan họ is not an intellectual interest of mine, but a love. In 1991, it was the soundtrack to my introduction to Viet Nam, or at least, an important part of it. As night fell and the cicadas stilled, the motorbike engines and beeping horns subsided, and the children playing and shouting in the guest house courtyard went home, the sounds of quan họ drifted in through my open window from neighbors’ cassette players. One of those neighbors, who had grown up in Bac Ninh and had nostalgic memories of trading poems and tending buffalo with his childhood friend there, shared stories from the music and introduced me to its patterns of call and response. What I understood most was his great love for those songs and his pride in his que huong. The lyrical beauty, nostalgic longing, and, at times, playful exuberance I could feel in the different pieces of music matched well the moods of a foreigner far from home, now excited by novelty, now longing for the familiar. The music, as interpreted by my friend, also seemed to hold a key to understanding something of this new world in which I found myself.
It was with some trepidation then that I turned to Sounding Out Heritage. I was eager to learn more, but loathe to see something close to my heart dissected on the intellectual operating table, or served up as fodder for theory. My worry was misplaced: Meeker’s book gracefully educates both the head and the heart, bringing the intellect to bear while never losing sight of the feeling, the tinh cam, that quan họ both embodies and calls forth. Here it is important to note the distinction Meeker makes between feeling as emotion, and feeling as sentiment; by ‘sentiment’ she means the social glue of respect and equality, attachment and friendship, that is developed through the reciprocal exchanges of quan họ practice
In this older practice of quan họ that Meeker describes in her second chapter, villagers would refer to ‘playing’ quan họ, not to ‘singing’ or to ‘watching’. This did not mean playing instruments—none were used—but instead referred to social interactions that generated, and were generated by, the music. Through formalized patterns of invitation and response, a woman’s group from one village would form a life-long partnership with a men’s group from another, sealed by offerings of incense and betel, a visit to the village notables, prayers at the communal house, and a shared meal. Body language was to be modest and polite, speech quiet, and the choice of pronouns made to reflect an unusual degree of age and gender equality. The proper song order was to be observed. That these exchanges of song included three categories of ‘voice’ or tunes, with 30–40 variants per category, only begins to hint at the musical complexities Meeker illuminates in this chapter. To this older generation of singers, quan họ was so compelling that they could set out from home at ten at night, after a day in the fields, and walk fifteen kilometers in order to sing with their partnered group until four in the morning. Years later they would remember that in these exchanges they “did not know how to get tired”. (p. 63)
While I have paid most attention in this review to social practices and musical forms, many readers will be equally or more engaged by the historical changes, and by the complex uses of quan họ today, which Meeker presents with rich ethnographic detail in chapters 3–5. Here quan họ may be taken as an example of a phenomenon recognizable the world over, of an older form of art and social practice that is nearly lost for a variety of reasons (the desire to be modern, for example, or war, or official condemnation) then reclaimed and ‘restored’ as national treasure.
The first chapter of Meeker’s work traces the varying valuations of quan họ in the work of musicologists who were intent on creating a new national music after the 1945 declaration of independence from France. By the early 1990’s, in an intersection between renewed state interest, a gradual transcending of the hardships and losses of the war years, and increasing leisure time and money, quan họ festivals began to blossom in Bac Ninh as part of the extended New Year’s celebrations. Schools were created that transformed the practice in the process of preserving it, by fixing on the page, in Western notation, melodies hitherto absorbed gradually and transmitted orally, fluidly. Local and televised performances replaced some of the earlier supporting sounds—syllables devoid of literal meaning but that drove the rhythm—with instrumentation. Songs came to have price tags, and to be counted in minutes, not hours. Costumes were introduced. Sentiment became reduced by professional singers to romantic attachment, and gender roles became emphasized and stylized. Television crews came from afar to instruct local village singers on how they should conduct themselves in order to be portrayed as ‘authentic’.
What is loss? What is the work of translation for a changing world? Meeker continues her exploration of heritage and transmission through the bureaucratic language of UNESCO, and the musings of an elderly quan họ singer from a village in Bac Ninh, both concerned with authenticity. This search for authenticity, Meeker concludes, can reveal much about what is experienced as real and meaningful in contemporary Vietnamese society (p. 149). So does her book, which is well worth reading and teaching, for its information, for its questions, and for its musings.