Hat Quan Ho was born about the 13th century in the Bac Ninh province and was always heard during spring festivals, especially of the Buddhists. Bac Ninh is the province where numerous pagodas were built, therefore, big Buddhist offering ceremonies were celebrated each year in spring. Boys and girls came to adore Buddha and after that, gathered together inside or in front of the pagoda or in the field to sing "Quan Ho”.
Originally Hat Quan Ho were exchange songs between two mandarins' families. Gradually, it spread out and became popular among the northern people. Groups were formed just for singing, and many marriages were formed at these get-togethers. After centuries, Hat Quan Ho became the most significant Vietnamese folk-song type.
Hat Quan Ho, also called Quan Ho Bac Ninh singing, is an antiphonal singing tradition in which men and women take turns singing in a challenge-and-response fashion drawing on a known repertoire of melodies. Usually a pair of women starts, presenting in unison a complete song called Cau ra (challenge phrase") lasting three to eight minutes. A pair of men of the opposing team responds with another song called Cau doi ("matching phrase"), which must match the melody of the women's song in order to be considered correct. Next it will be the men's turn to challenge the women with a song that can be completely different from the previous pair of songs.
According to the tradition, only young people used to sing Quan Ho songs, as the major body of song texts centers on the subject of love and sentimental desire among young adults. Nowadays, elderly singers are quite enthusiastic about singing for guests.
Unlike the simple lullabies, which were inspired by daily works, Hat Quan Ho was always searching for new content and new reforms.
Love in Hat Quan Ho is not sad and pessimistic as it is in lullabies (ru) or in calls (ho). On the contrary, the tune of this type is rich in tunes and rhythms because it received all the influences of lullabies, poem recitation, etc.
There are four major airs in Hat Quan Ho:
1. Giong song (transitor air)
2. Giong vat (diverse air)
3. Giong ham (recitative air)
4. Giong bi (tunes borrowed from other sources)
The most popular Quan Ho songs, "Qua Cau Gio Bay", "Treo Len Quan Doc" (also known as "Ly Cay da"), "Se Chi Luon Kim", were sung in Giong Vat. The singers also imitated the musical sound, the sound of rice grinding, crying, etc. When one of the two singing groups used any specific tune, the other one was to reply in the same tune. The singing ends with songs in the farewell category, a feature that has never been changed giving the singing session a sense of completion.
Hat Quan Ho were spring festival songs. The farmers left their farming for a while to enjoy the beautiful weather, especially during the New Year (Tet).
Hat Quan Ho in festivals
For the Bac Ninh people, festivals not only allow them to highlight their own village's specialties, such as ceramics, folk painting, wrestling, kite parades, or bird contest, among a great many other things, but also their common prized heritage, the Hat Quan Ho tradition.
Hat Quan Ho in festivals traditionally began either at the communal-ritual house or at the Buddhist temple as early as the night before the main festival day. Nowadays, only a few major festivals continue that tradition, while most villages carry out the singing on the main day.
Considering how extensive the Quan Ho repertoire appears to be, it is noticeable that songs heard in festivals are rather limited in number and repetitive in titles. Many singers contend that at festivals they prefer to sing songs that are familiar or easy to listen to. Common titles sung in festivals can be divided into two categories.
The first category includes such songs as "Em la co gai Bac Ninh" ("I am a girl from Bac Ninh") which has been considered as the Quan Họ "flag song" or signature song for some time by the younger generations and "Ngoi Tua Man Thuyen" ("Leaning by the Boat-Side"), perhaps the most favored Quan Ho song across different generations, regardless of generational and village variations which exist in singing practice. These two songs speak both to the locals' perception of regional identity and to their musical affinity to the basic features of Quan Ho melody.
The second category includes the majority of songs such as "Vao Chua" ("Entering the Buddhist Temple") and "Khach den choi nha" ("Visitors Are Coming") which display a musical contour that bears a strong connection to the official linguistic tonality of North Vietnam while suggesting some resonance of the Cantonese mode as well as what the Vietnamese music scholars have been calling the "South" mode.
Song Text, Verbal and Poetic Introduction
Following the textual content of Quan Ho songs within the festival reveals a striking contrast between the open, public setting and the intimate characteristic of the songs. Virtually all songs heard in festivals express personal subjects such as unfulfilled love, expectation, longing, and intimacy.
Quan Ho songs are unique in the sense that they place men and women on an equal basis, with mutual respect in spite of good-natured teasing, and place a high value on genuine feelings -not money. The songs address the joy of nature and the satisfaction of hard field work when the labour is shared or lightened by singing together.
One of the Quan Ho characteristics that have endured through time is the proper verbal and poetic introduction to each and every tune. Quan Ho singers are not only appreciated for their singing ability, but also for their skill in leaving an impression of their gracefulness and literary adeptness on the audience. Usually one of the singers will say something to praise the opposing pair and express how fortunate her/his pair has been to be allowed to sing with them, before she/he goes on to recite the verses of the song. The poetic introduction also provides listeners with the basic content of the song text, which otherwise can be difficult to follow in singing. Not only that, the rhetoric used in the introduction is so polished that it gives the impression of a theatrical act. As a result, singers often try to imitate the speech tonality and pronunciation of official media announcers, even though Quan Ho researchers have asserted that speeches in the Quan Ho region vary from one village to another.
Instrumental accompaniment is slowly creeping in and welcomed by Quan Ho singers in some villages. The Dan Bau (monochord) is the most common instrument, followed by the Sao Truc (bamboo flute). Other traditional instruments may include the Tam Thap Luc (36-stringed hammered dulcimer), etc. Occasionally the acoustic guitar and even the electronic keyboard are used.