Efforts to preserve traditional Vietnamese xoan singing have received a boost after the art form was listed by UNESCO as an example of world cultural heritage that need urgent protection.

The endangered vocal art from the northern province of Phu Tho is many hundreds of years old, but the art form's professional practitioners now number only 120.

UNESCO listing of xoan singing as a valuable example of Intangible Cultural Heritage that should be preserved was announced on Nov. 23 at the sixth session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Bali , Indonesia .

Rector of the Vietnam National Institute of Music Le Van Toan, a researcher who helped compile the UNESCO submission for xoan singing, said the art form is unique.

"It bears unique features in terms of lyrics and performance style, and the whole cultural space of the art is unique."

Toan said xoan singing is among the oldest forms of Vietnamese performing arts, believed to be first developed during the reign of the Hung Kings (2890 BC to 250 BC).

Xoan singing is not overly complicated, which is an advantage in efforts to popularise the art among the community, said Toan.

Recent work on promoting the art has aimed to halt or reverse the declining numbers of xoan singers. The number of xoan artisans aged over 70 years old is 69, 31 of whom used to perform the art before 1945. However, only eight artisans are skilled enough to teach the art to younger learners. The 30 local temples and communal houses that used to serve as venues for xoan singing reduce to just 13.

Prof To Ngoc Thanh, chairman of the Folklore Arts Association, said xoan singing deserves to be preserved as the art reflects ancient customs and values.

"Through the old words in these songs, which have been handed down throughout generations, we can understand how our ancestors thought," said Thanh.

Xoan singing is also deeply spiritual, he said.

"That's why we should understand and preserve the values of the art as it was in the past, rather than forcing it into the modern context," he said.

Thanh said the art should be preserved in its original setting, which are performances at temples or during festivals rather than on the stage as a form of entertainment.

Field trips

According to Pham Ba Khiem, deputy director of Phu Tho's Culture, Sports and Tourism Department, work on promoting xoan singing has included field trips to localities where the art is still being practised to collect materials and research on the art.

Old xoan songs have been preserved in communities at An Thai village in Phuong Lau commune, as well as the villages of Thet, Phu Duc and Kim Dai in Kim Duc commune, Viet Tri City .

The department has also produced two CDs and VCDs showcasing local xoan singing and plans to teach the art to listeners of a local radio channel.

Nguyen Anh Tuan, director of Hung Vuong Museum in Phu Tho province, has urged the establishment of an annual xoan singing festival, where local singing troupes can perform and exchange experiences while also raising the profile of the art.

Nguyen Thi Lich, head of An Thai Xoan Singing Troupe, has been teaching the art for many years. She said she hopes her students will become master singers and in the future pass the art's skills to the next generation.

Together with teaching local residents, Lich and other artists have joined a project to teach hundreds of school teachers xoan singing so that they in turn can introduce the art at local schools.

"Actually, it's difficult to explain the meaning of the old song words to children," said Nguyen Minh Thinh, deputy head of Tho Son Secondary School, "But we see that students enjoy the lessons and many are gifted Xoan singers."

"We are proud to make a contribution in preserving this endangered art."./.