Thursday, 25 February 2016

Hà Nội Report | Hầu Đồng'ed To Max

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Yesterday has been a long day in the saga of building more inventory for my forthcoming photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Việt Nam.

A morning Hầu Đồng ceremony officiated by Nguyễn Sien at her private temple took roughly four hours, then it was off by motorbike to catch a larger ceremony officiated by Phương Hin in the Gia Lam district.

Whilst the fundamentals of these ceremonies are the same, the individual personalities of each medium is reflected in the tenor of the incarnations. Some mediums are more extroverted than others, have more charisma and know how to play the already receptive audience.

During Nguyễn Sien's ceremony, the amplifier used by the chầu văn musicians malfunctioned, and they had to perform without the benefit of electronic amplification. To my ears, this was infinitely better as it did not sound "heavy metal", and was more in keeping with what must have been the sound of this devotional music years ago before the advent of electronics.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Although there were no trances as such during the morning ceremony, I noticed a member of the audience who seemed completely overtaken by Sien's "performance", and by the devotional songs that accompanied the incarnations. Completely oblivious to her surroundings, she started to slowly but surely drift into a pseudo 'trance', mirroring with her fingers the movements of the medium, and keeping time with the music. She then awoke from her dreamy condition, smiled and returned to her full consciousness. She was also amongst the audience at the larger ceremony later in the afternoon, so must be a hard-core devotee of Hầu Đồng.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
The afternoon Hầu Đồng ceremony was held at one of the largest temples in Hà Nội, and was attended by about 30-40 people. It is my understanding that Ms Phương Hin is connected by marriage or by friendship to chầu văn musicians, so they joined the ceremony in force. Ms Hin has been involved in Mother Goddess ceremonies for a number of years, and is also a frequent assistant to other mediums.

The talent of the mediums who officiate these ceremonies lies primarily on their femininity  (if incarnating female spirits) and machismo (when it's male spirits). That said, their incantations and exhortations to audiences are key to their credibility as mediums. I recorded a few moments of Nguyễn Sien's incantations, and although it is a raw recording, the strength of her conviction is quite evident.