Traditional folk music doesn't usually get widespread attention, especially among the young generation, so Xam (blind busker’s singing) is even stranger to them.
Despite this, over the last decade Thu Phuong has become known as one of the leading xam artists, spreading the traditional folk art to a wider audience in Vietnam and around the world.
|Singer Thu Phuong hopes to spread xam folk singing to both local and international audience. Photo courtesy of Thu Phuong|
Born to sing
Phuong was born in 1986 into a family with no history of the art in Quang Ninh Province.
The little girl, however, loved music especially folk songs and performances. She spent hours listening to the rhythms and lyrics on TV and radio.
"I loved it, really loved it. I never missed a program about traditional folk songs aired by the Voice of Viet Nam at lunch time. I was so deep in that world that I was usually late for school," Phuong told VGP.
"At that time, there were no recorder or smartphone so I could only take notes of all the lyrics, wait for the program and sing along with them," said Phuong.
In 2009, she heard about a free class for people who were interested in traditional folk songs at Hanoi's Vietnam Music and Art Development Centre.
Phuong persuaded her parents, who strongly objected to her idea at first because they said singing was not a job that would lead to a prosperous life for their daughter.
One week after joining the class, Phuong was allowed to perform with her teachers on a TV program. Her parent could not believe their eyes when they saw her name on screen.
"I was lucky to be taught by musician Thao Giang. He listened to my story, tested my voice and accepted me in his class," said Phuong, whose alto voice is rare in Vietnam.
"I had to work really hard because I started with music a little late. During my time at the centre, I found that I was born to sing xam and my life should contribute for this art," said Phuong, adding that through xam she learnt about life's values and good behavior.
|Thu Phuong (centre) with her fans and xam singing lovers. Photo courtesy of Thu Phuong|
She spent three years sharpening her skills in Hanoi with Meritorious Artists Van Ty and Hanh Nhan and People's Artist Xuan Hoach before learning at a higher level at the Hue Music Academy.
"Inborn talent is important but if you do not work hard and follow a methodical path of studying it will be hard to be successful," said Phuong, who also sings chau van (trance ritual singing), trong quan (folk singing alongside drum) and other kinds of folk songs from the Northern region.
"Apart from my profession, I like to learn about general music, history, architecture and Vietnamese sayings and proverbs which will nurture my love for traditional values and support my singing career," she said.
Due to the COVID-19, Phuong has introduced xam on Spotify, a digital music service, which is a good way to bring her music to about 160 countries in the world.
She said Facebook, Instagram and Zalo were also great channels to tell people about xam.
Talking about his student and now colleague, Thao Giang said: "Thu Phuong is a talented singer with a beautiful voice and great passion for singing. I am really lucky to have worked with her."
"With her love for xam, Phuong shows the beauty of folk singing through her voice and wants to spread it to a wider audience who will take care of it in the future," said Giang.
|Singer Thu Phuong (centre) seen during a xam performance. Phuong has offered free classes for people who are interested in folk song singing. Photo courtesy of Thu Phuong|
Free xam for everyone
Like her teachers, after remarkable achievements in her career, Phuong is focused on finding her successors.
"My project began more than one year ago with 12 students in the first class in Quang Ninh. The second one was planned in Nam Dinh Province but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not done yet," said Phuong.
In her class, students learn singing and instruments such as drums and dan nhi (two-chord fiddle) with senior artisans.
"I believe that, learning must be fun and interesting first, and then they can understand the lessons. I create best conditions for them to play with and research instruments," she said.
"Xam songs for children are often about cute topics and themes which are close and familiar with childhood. I try to connect them with their memories and experiences, and then we sing together.
"With older students, I tell them about the history of xam and how to practise their singing skills. Working with them is more comfortable and easier as they are a little bit more mature and their understanding is much better.
"They will learn the beats, the rhythms and different melodies. The most difficult part of xam is how to sing simply but technically to show all the beauty of the lyrics and melodies."
Recently, Phuong have organised online classes for Vietnamese people from communities in the US, Germany, France and Poland, and received great feedback.
"It is more difficult to teach that way but I hope to have around 1,000 people from these communities who would then help to spread xam to other Vietnamese people around the world," she said.
"I also want to open online class to different cities and provinces when the outbreak is over. And I expect to open classes on YouTube too".
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