Quan họ songs express the spirit, philosophy and local identity of the communities in this region, and help forge social bonds within and between villages that share a cherished cultural practice.
In the provinces of Bắc Ninh and Bắc Giang in northern Việt Nam, many of the villages are twinned, reinforcing their relationship through social customs such as Quan họ Bắc Ninh folk songs.
The songs are performed as alternating verses between two women from one village who sing in harmony, and two men from another village who respond with similar melodies, but with different lyrics.
The women traditionally wear distinctive large round hats and scarves; the men’s costumes include turbans, umbrellas and tunics.
The more than 400 song lyrics, sung with 213 different melody variations, express people’s emotional states of longing and sadness upon separation, and the happiness of the meeting of lovers, but custom forbids marrying a singing partner.
Quan họ singing is common at rituals, festivals, competitions and informal gatherings, where guests will perform a variety of verses for their hosts before singing farewell. Younger musicians of both sexes may practice the four singing techniques – restrained, resonant, ringing and staccato – at parties organized around singing.
For the above values, UNESCO on September 30, 2009 recognized Quan họ Bắc Ninh folk songs as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for satisfying the following criteria.
Fistly, Quan Họ Bắc Ninh folk songs are performed on various occasions such as the worshipping of protection gods, fertility rituals or village festivals, and are recognized and transmitted by their communities as a symbol of local and regional identity.
Secondly, inscription of the element on the Representative List would contribute to ensuring visibility and awareness of musical traditions on local, national and international levels, promoting social integration and enhancing inter-regional communication, cultural dialogue and respect for diversity.
Thirdly, a set of wide-ranging safeguarding measures, supported by the commitment of the community and local authorities, is proposed to ensure the viability of the element, notably the development of a cultural centre, the inclusion of songs in the local school curriculum, and the establishment of an artists’ association.
Fourthly, the element has been identified and nominated in a process that has widely involved at all stages the local authorities and the communities who provided their free, prior and informed consent in writing.
Fifthly, the element is included in the list of Vietnamese intangible heritage administered by the Việt Nam Institute of Culture and Arts Studies.