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Old 11th Aug 2006, 7:49   #1
rick green
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Default Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry

In 1971 John Balaban went to Vietnam to record ca dao, lyric poems passed down orally through generations. Guided by a sympathetic monk, he traversed the war-torn southern countryside, capturing some five hundred ca dao on tape. Most of these poems had never been written down, not even in Vietnamese. In Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry Balaban presents forty-nine of these stunning, crystalline lyrics in English translation.

The introductory essay suggests that the unassuming, mostly anonymous ca dao are quintessential expressions of Vietnamese culture. “Agrarian dynasties with a cultural continuity of millennia have left few monuments more enduring than the oral poetry and song known today as ca dao.” Linguistic and formal analyses show ca dao to be both ancient (perhaps many thousands of years old) and endemic to Vietnam. In this, ca dao differ from Vietnamese literary poetry, which borrows heavily from Chinese tradition.

As Balaban states in the introduction, “Ca dao are always lyrical, sung to melodies without instrumental accompaniment by an individual singing in the first person…The range of ca dao includes children’s game songs, love songs, lullabies, riddles, work songs, and reveries about spiritual and social orders.” They are informed by a keen, rural sensibility which sometimes appears in brilliant nuggets of folk wisdom.

I am a Mo Village girl.
I wander about selling beer, chance to meet you.
Good jars don’t mean good brew.
Clothes well-mended are better than ill-sewn.
Bad beer soon sends you home.
A torn shirt, when mended, will look like new.
Many of the poems take love as their subject, but patience and duty generally overrule passion. Buddhist notions of karmic destiny foster a romantic quietism and the necessary social coordination of village life makes the fulfillment of individual desire something less than a priority.

In the long river, fish swim off without a trace.
Fated in love, we can wait a thousand years.

Who tends the paddy, repairs its dike.
Whoever has true love shall meet. But when?
A concubine’s bitter lament, a drifter’s carefree song, a jungle soldier’s stoic verse: they are wonderfully varied in tone as well as subject, but all share a vivid sense of metaphor born of the intimate observation of the natural world. Ca dao are miracles of evocative concision. Simplicity and understatement are the rule.

A tiny bird with red feathers,
a tiny bird with black beak
drinks up the lotus pond day by day.
Perhaps I must leave you.
I wonder how the ca dao tradition has fared these past thirty-odd years. Balaban writes that already in 1971, the people of Saigon thought the tradition was dead. It was only when he took to the road and talked with country folk that he discovered ca dao to be alive and well. Hopefully they are thriving still, despite Vietnam’s increasing economic growth. It would be a shame to lose these verbal treasures, honed over generations, washed smooth in the river of time.

P.S. In a moment of pure, internet magic, Google discovered some of Balaban's recordings here. Enjoy them there or go to his own page for a track list, info on his other books, and sundry links.
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