Sunday, 20 March 2011

1st Vietnam International Choral Festival and Competition 2011

The very colourfully attired Viet-Xo Choir from Hanoi.


One would probably guess by now my habit of chasing music competitions, but this was a complete accident. My family was on a week-long holiday in central Vietnam when we stumbled upon this little gem – Vietnam’s first-ever international choral festival and competition, held in the historic town of Hoi An. Not really knowing what to expect, it was a stab in the dark, and a short bicycle ride along the Thu Bon River to the Hoi An Beach Resort convention centre.

The strains of O Sifuni Mungu wafted through the cold morning air as a choir from Indonesia rehearsed their showpieces. The choirs were just warming up for the actual competition at eleven, but there was no indication of this in the official festival leaflet. There was neither mention of any of the choirs or their programmes, and the schedules were as vague as possible, as we were to find out later. But first, we were witness to two hours of a cappella pleasure by six choral groups competing in the mixed choir and women choir categories. Each choir sang between three and four songs in a 15 minute allotment. The Indonesian and Filipino groups immediately stamped their authority with their confidence, showmanship and sheer attitude.

The Diponegoro University Choir (above) from Semarang, Indonesia were up first, and it was their O Sifuni Mungu that we heard earlier, a performance that truly captured the spirit and soul of its words Praise The Lord. The big surprise: there was only one Chinese face in the choir, mingling comfortably between girls donning hijabs. No taboos, fatwas or Syariah laws here, they really sounded and looked like they meant every word. Only in Indonesia; one doubts whether this could even be possible in Malaysia or Singapore.

The Zamboanga Hermosa Chorale (above) from Zamboanga City, Philippines was a smaller group, and were even more impressive in their cohesiveness and versatility. Francisco Feliciano's Pamugun,  a study in tongue-twisting repetitions and lightness, was delivered in a manner born, like a flight of humming bords. The roll and roll song to close had both panache and was served with an infectious zest. 

Jakarta, Indonesia is home to the Vajra Gita Nusantara Choir (above), peopled by mostly middle-aged tai tais with immaculately coiffed hairdos and their severe-looking businessmen husbands. Their big unison sound was even and homogeneous, suggesting that they have been singing together for years. Unsurprisingly, they did not have the same buoyancy and verve of their younger rivals, but still gelled as a group with a common goal in mind, that is to make music. 

Two groups from Hanoi, Vietnam made up the numbers, the UNESCO Choir (above) and Viet-Xo Choir (below), both of which shared singers and had the same conductor. The women were beautifully outfitted in ao dais of every conceivable shade and design, while the men looked like delegates in some agro-technology and lathe-designers convention. It also seemed that the pre-requisite for membership is to be aged 65 and above. If only the singing matched the ladies' deportment. The accuracy of intonation was only matched by levels of screechiness. As for the songs, there was a cheesy number in Landler rhythm, and does everything else sung in Vietnamese have to be some march-like ode to Dien Bien Phu veterans or the joys of combined-harvesters and Five-Year-Plans?

The women’s choir category will be clinched by the girls from Diponegoro University Choir (below), by virtue of being the only participating group. They nevertheless worked hard for this accolade by being totally disciplined and well prepared in their songs. And they let their collective hair down – tudungs and all - in the oldies favourite Stand By Me, by showering their attention on some lucky guy.

The evening session was supposed to be held at the Song Hoai Square floating stage in the centre of Hoi An itself, but when we arrived, the town square venue was shrouded in complete darkness. What’s going on here? As it turned out, there was a change in venue, and a hurried return to the beach resort was sufficient to get us front row seats. Despite the many banners in town announcing the festival, it seemed like very few people knew about it. The hall was only half-filled, mostly by members of the participating choirs and their friends. However admission to the concerts was free.

It was a riot of colour and sound for the Folklore category, with the Filipinos and Indonesians dominating again. A youth choir from Jakarta opened with some cheery numbers and lifted the spirits. The most colourful group came from Manila, Philippines (above), Coro San Benildo, a choir of youths dressed in a rich smorgasbord of ethnic costumes – from the loincloths of the hill tribes to Marcos-era formal wear. And the singing of Filipino traditional songs - Chua Ay, Dumbele and Ilay Gandangan - matched their appearance with totally convincing performances that lacked nothing in style and flair.

A small group from Pangasinan City, Philippines (above) came completely in tribal attire with simple folk percussion instruments. Their chants were as evocative as their appearance, reflecting a strong pride of their age-old customs and heritage. One wonders what a Singaporean choir would have come in. It was a moot question as we did not get to hear any group from our impoverished republic. The irrepressible Diponegoro University choir (below) made another welcome appearance in different repertoire, and were no less colourful or convincing, and so did the aunties from the Vajra Gita Nusantara choir, cheered on by their videocam toting husbands in the audience.

We left at the interval, sated by the aural brilliance on show, but there was time for another Vietnamese  choir, Quang Nam Choir from Tam Ky (below). Another big ensemble as expected, but this one had younger voices, fresher faces and uniformly colourful ao dais. Unfortunately, their speciality was in singing more foursquare banal Socialist songs, conducted in strict march rhythm and unrelenting fortissimo throughout. Don't the Vietnamese have genuine folksongs they can be proud of? We would have loved to hear some of these.

Unfortunately we had to leave Hoi An on Saturday morning, thus missing out on the grand finale. No doubt it would be a night to remember, but the good impressions we had in just two sessions we attended was reward enough. Let’s hope that the organisers Interkultur improve on the publicity aspects of future festivals, and casual visitors are assured of an even better time. In the meantime, enjoy the many photos I took.

A youth choir from Jakarta.

The singing aunties of the
Vajra Gita Nusantara Choir.

1 comment:

Chang Tou Liang said...

The Diponegoro University Choir of Semarang was eventually judged as the BEST CHOIR in the Festival by a panel of five adjudicators from Vietnam, Sri Lanka, China, The Philippines and Malaysia.

Well done, girls and guys!