The music and songs of the Ma Lieng people of the upper Gianh

  • A quiet misty autumn morning in the upper Gianh is transformed by the music and songs of the Ma Lieng singers of Cao mountain village, Lam Hoa Commune, Tuyen Hoa District, Quang Binh Province.

    Ma Lieng women of Cao mountain village sitting around a kitchen fire

    It was early in the morning of the second day of the training course for young Ma Lieng people in how to "make films of our lives" supported by CIRUM. I walked camera in hand towards the village. A dense fog had settled, deadening sound and making it difficult to see more than a few metres. Yet, as I walked the light began to brighten and the fog thin. Now I could see the flickers of cooking fires, dim and trembling through the fog, the signs of a coming breakfast.

    I found myself heading towards the brightest fire. As I drew near I realized the firelight came from the kitchen of Old Luu. The fire was crackling, gnawing at the dry wood, noisily trying to make itself bigger. Early breezes pushed into the kitchen, shaking the fire, making the walls shift and flicker and the shadow of Luu’s thin body dance and leap. Pausing near the kitchen, I greeted her, and she warmly asked me to enter.

    Putting a water pot on the stove, she asked if I liked to listen to music. I felt relieved. I had not found any shooting material that morning so her question became a suggestion. As I hurried to get the camera ready to record anything I saw or heard, I noticed her regarding me with a vague toothless smile lit by the firelight, seemingly full of sympathy.

    Luu walked out of the kitchen a few steps and turned her face to the nearby house calling to somebody in Ma Lieng. Soon Chuc appeared with a fat hand-rolled cigar firmly clamped in the corner of her mouth. Glancing briefly at her eyes I guessed that she was very beautiful in her youth, a maiden full of events and artistic character as well.

    Chuc settled herself on a small stool near the fire, re-kindling her cigar with a red-hot ember from the fire. I then remembered that women of this area smoke a lot, even more than the men. Once I heard a woman saying that, whilst running out of food might be acceptable, running out of tobacco was not.

    Chuc deep in the music of the Ma Lieng people

    Luu gave Chuc a section of tia (a kind of bamboo) with two steel strings running down its length, and a bow also made of tia[1]. Chuc sat comfortably, raising the section of tia. She shifted the cigar in her lips to prevent it from obstructing the ống đớn, and began to calibrate the two strings, by adjusting bamboo ‘bridges’ at the bottom and top of the instrument.

    At last she began to play, the rugged fingers of one hand rising and falling on the two strings whilst the other moved the bow across their base. A stream of sounds gently appeared and flowed, treble and bass, happy and sad; melodious like a nightingale or as strong and moving as a waterfall. At times I imagined children playing hide and seek or their hopping dance and piercing laughter; other times I remembered the sense of loss the adults felt when talking about their past and future.  

    Harmonizing with the stream of music, Luu's singing soared, waking up everybody's heart. I was sure she was over 60 and her body appeared thin and even frail, but her voice was powerful and expressive. She sang with passion and feeling, trifling with happiness and joy before falling into pain and grief.

    At the time I did not understand the lyrics but still realized that the words and music encouraged and stuck to each other tightly, shaking the space and stirring my heart.

    I understood a little of Luu's lyrics later when someone translated for me. The first words of a song were often a greeting: "Good morning cadres, welcome guests". Then the following were about the situation of the people: "as we lack food and drink, we are very sorry for not being more hospitable." Coming next was talk about the livelihoods of the people being so strongly attached to forests and mountains, streams and plants. In one song she sang:

    You, the cadre comes from Ha Noi to work and help the people

    The people are so poor that there is nothing for the cadre to eat

    Maybe we are dying of hunger, we feel so hungry

    Ma Lieng people are not as wise as others, so it’s easy for them to starve

    Not going into the forest or not getting rattan or tiger grass means starving

    The one who goes into the forest and collects them will have something to eat
     The chorus repeated again and again. There were one or two sentences of humour to comfort themselves such as "Everybody going into the forest and getting rattan or tiger grass, sell it to Mr. Binh for sweets to eat and wine to drink and it's fun."

    Whenever pausing in the song, Chuc damped the bow with a scratch on her tongue, ensuring a better contact between the bow and the strings. Uninterruptedly, song after song, the music seemed to flow with the rhythm and tones of heaven and earth, plants and trees, streams, and the joy pain and hope of the people.

    I realized that to listen to the music and singing of Ma Lieng singers is to thoroughly understand their hearts, lives, concerns and wishes for a better and brighter future. I hope that one day their music and songs will be more cheerful and full of the pride of a people living in harmony with nature – at the head of the Gianh River.

    Nguyen Van Su (CIRUM)

    [1] The Ma Lieng name for the instrument itself seems to be lost as they call it the Vietnamese ống đớn, or ‘pipe bow’.