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Songs for the Spirits

Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam

Barley Norton

Publication Year: 2009

Songs for the Spirits examines the Vietnamese practice of communing with spirits through music and performance. During rituals dedicated to a pantheon of indigenous spirits, musicians perform an elaborate sequence of songs--a "songscape"_x000B_--for possessed mediums who carry out ritual actions, distribute blessed gifts to disciples, and dance to the music's infectious rhythms. Condemned by French authorities in the colonial period and prohibited by the Vietnamese Communist Party in the late 1950s, 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 cultural practices over a period of dramatic and often turbulent transition. 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.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

front cover

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. viii

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pp. ix-x

Any study based on field research is inherently collaborative, and this book would have been inconceivable without the generosity of numerous mediums and musicians who welcomed me into the world of mediumship and shared their experiences and...

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Note on Vietnamese Language

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pp. xi-xii

Modern Vietnamese is written with a romanized script called quoc ngu (lit. “national script”). This script was initially devised by French and Portuguese missionaries in the seventeenth century and became the predominant script from...

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DVD Contents

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pp. xiii-xvii

The DVD features video extracts of mediumship rituals and folklorized performances of spirit possession. It also includes audio examples of chau van, revolutionary chau van, neotraditional compositions, and ca tru. It can be played on a DVD...

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Introduction: Encountering Mediumship

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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 van is performed throughout spirit possession rituals, len dong, in which a medium is possessed by a succession..

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1. Mediumship, Modernity, and Cultural Identity

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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...

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2. Experiencing Spirit Possession

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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...

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3. Songs for the Spirits

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pp. 79-107

The sequences of songs or “songscapes” performed by chau van bands 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...

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4. The Musical Construction of the Spirits

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pp. 108-130

This chapter examines the role of music during len dong. It begins with a consideration of rituals conducted without a chau van band. This is followed by a more detailed investigation into how the aural invocation of the spirits relates to possession...

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5. Musical Creativity and Change

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pp. 131-154

In October 1996, I started to study chau van with 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...

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6. Engendering Mediumship

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pp. 155-189

Traversing gender is integral to len 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...

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7. Ritual and Folklorization in Late Socialist Vietnam

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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...

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Epilogue: Thanking the Spirits

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pp. 217-224

A few weeks before I was due to leave Vietnam, Doan insisted she hold a hau ta or “thanking ritual” on my behalf. Hau ta are usually held one hundred days after initiation. They can also be arranged at other times when the expression of thanks to...


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pp. 225-228


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pp. 229-236


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pp. 237-248


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pp. 249-256

back cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252092008
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252033995

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2009