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Songs for the Spirits

Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Songs for the Spirits
    Book Description:

    Songs for the Spirits is the first in-depth study of the Vietnamese practice of communing with spirits through music and performance. During rituals dedicated to a large pantheon of indigenous spirits, a band of musicians perform an elaborate sequence of songs--a "songscape"--for possessed mediums who carry out ritual actions, distribute blessed gifts to disciples, and dance to the music's infectious rhythms. Drawing on extensive fieldwork and his experience of learning to perform ritual music, Barley Norton explores the transformative power of song and the multifaceted relationship between musical and ritual performance, emphasizing the importance of musical interaction, creativity, and change._x000B__x000B_The history of Vietnamese mediumship has been marked by considerable controversy. Condemned by French authorities in the colonial period and prohibited by the Vietnamese Communist Party in the late 1950s, rituals were forced underground, and mediumship music underwent a process of modernization. The "songs for the spirits" were incorporated into Western-influenced neotraditional compositions and were transfigured as "revolutionary song" to promote the communist revolution and the war effort. Yet far from being swept away by colonial and socialist exhortations for modernity, mediumship practices have undergone a strong resurgence since the early 1990s, and they are now being drawn upon to promote national identity and cultural heritage through folklorized performances of rituals on the national and international stage._x000B__x000B_By tracing the historical trajectory of traditional music and religion since the early twentieth century, this groundbreaking study offers an intriguing account of the political transformation and modernization of Vietnamese cultural practices over a period of dramatic and often turbulent change. It examines how globalization and recent economic, social, and cultural change have affected the meanings and contexts of mediumship and musical performance. An accompanying DVD contains numerous video and music extracts that illustrate the fascinating ways in which music evokes the embodied presence of spirits and their gender and ethnic identities.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09200-8
    Subjects: History, Music, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Note on Vietnamese Language
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. DVD Contents
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Encountering Mediumship
    (pp. 1-20)

    This book explores the music of Vietnamese mediumship. It attempts to convey the aesthetics of mediumship music,chau van, and its ritual role.Chau vanis performed throughout spirit possession rituals,len dong, in which a medium is possessed by a succession of spirits.¹ It is music of and for ritual.Chau vansongs evoke the spirit world and create a sonic environment for possession; they invite the spirits to descend to the human world and describe their formidable power and beauty; they recall the historic deeds of spirits, vividly bringing the past into the present.

    I first encounteredchau...

  7. 1 Mediumship, Modernity, and Cultural Identity
    (pp. 21-53)

    This chapter provides a historical perspective on mediumship and its music from the colonial period through the cultural revolution to the reform era. The history of mediumship is marked by resilience, despite continued criticism in the name of modernity and progress. Modernity, as “an imaginary construction of the present in terms of the mythic past” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1993:xiv), has often been defined in opposition to “tradition” and “ritual,” and this is also the case in Vietnam. In colonial and postcolonial times, ideologies of modernity, whether colonial, nationalist, or socialist, have been employed as the primary justification for the condemnation...

  8. 2 Experiencing Spirit Possession
    (pp. 54-78)

    The fascination with spirit possession in academia has spawned numerous theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon. Janice Boddy’s review of the literature points out that “spirit possession research has been characterized by a fundamental tension between reductive, naturalizing, or rationalizing approaches on the one hand and contextualizing, more phenomenological approaches on the other” (1994:410). The approach taken here is contextual and phenomenological rather than reductive. Possession experiences are situated within the religious system of the spirit pantheon and are conceptualized in terms of embodiment, as a mode of bodily engagement with the spirits. Based on mediums’ own accounts, the...

  9. 3 Songs for the Spirits
    (pp. 79-107)

    The sequences of songs or “songscapes” performed bychau vanbands create a continually changing sonic environment in which spirits are immersed and their presence is articulated.¹ Songscapes have a temporal as well as a spatial dimension (song-scape: time-space): they structure the flow of ritual time and acoustically mark out the space in which rituals are carried out. By establishing an “atmosphere” (khong khi) within the temple, songscapes also aid the active participation of all who attend rituals.

    Through a system that links songs to ritual action, different songs are performed at each stage of possession. A songscape lasts as...

  10. 4 The Musical Construction of the Spirits
    (pp. 108-130)

    This chapter examines the role of music duringlen dong. It begins with a consideration of rituals conducted without achau vanband. This is followed by a more detailed investigation into how the aural invocation of the spirits relates to possession experiences and emotional arousal, and how music and sung text structure ritual time and entrain bodily movement. I go on to argue that music is constitutive of spiritual presence through various imaginings that relate to place, gender, and ethnicity, and I discuss how these imaginings relate to nationalist discourse. Finally, I illustrate the ways in which song texts...

  11. 5 Musical Creativity and Change
    (pp. 131-154)

    In October 1996, I started to studychau vanwith Pham Van Ty. In the first few lessons I learned instrumental phrases on the moon lute. The format of the lessons consisted of Ty demonstrating instrumental phrases (luu khong) for songs and me repeating the phrases as best I could. No notation was used, and Ty offered little verbal instruction. Ty would simply play a phrase in its entirety and expect me to repeat it. Theluu khongwere typically about thirty seconds in length, and, as I was struggling with the technique of playing the instrument and ornamentation as...

  12. 6 Engendering Mediumship
    (pp. 155-189)

    Traversing gender is integral tolen dong. When possessed by male spirits, female mediums become prestigious scholars, fierce warriors, playful princes, and naughty boys. They wear male tunics, perform vigorous military dances with swords and spears, speak in male idioms, smoke cigarettes, and drink rice wine (see Figure 6.1). When possessed by female spirits, male mediums become beautiful ladies, graceful unmarried princesses, and cheeky young girls. They wear dresses and colorful head scarves, speak in falsetto, dance elegantly with fans, jump vigorously while brandishing ropes set on fire, chew betel, and give out exotic fruit (see Figure 6.2). The cross-dressing...

  13. 7 Ritual and Folklorization in Late Socialist Vietnam
    (pp. 190-216)

    Cultural change has been as dramatic as economic change in late socialist Vietnam. In the realm of mediumship, market capitalism and higher levels of prosperity have most noticeably impacted upon the material conditions of rituals. Contemporary rituals are often opulent, and I begin this chapter by assessing whether the extravagance of rituals has altered the devotional purpose of spirit possession. Displays of affluence duringlen dongare bound up with mediums’ commercial success as traders and entrepreneurs and their infamous reputation for being involved in illicit economic activities like smuggling and gambling. Stories of mediums’ commercial prowess have shaped prerevolutionary...

  14. EPILOGUE: Thanking the Spirits
    (pp. 217-224)

    A few weeks before I was due to leave Vietnam, Doan insisted she hold ahau taor “thanking ritual” on my behalf.Hau taare usually held one hundred days after initiation. They can also be arranged at other times when the expression of thanks to the spirits is deemed necessary. In my case, Doan said I should organize ahau tato thank the spirits for overseeing my time in Vietnam and to pray for their assistance when I returned to my homeland.

    Doan made this assertion at a fortune-telling session one afternoon in December 2004. On that...

  15. Appendix
    (pp. 225-228)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 229-236)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 237-248)
  18. Index
    (pp. 249-256)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 257-263)