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Cantonese Naamyam (Chinese: 南音; Jyutping: naam4 jam1) is a unique local narrative singing tradition in Cantonese dialect/language, different from Fujian Nan Yin. A singer would be engaged for a single performance or for regular performances over an extended period of time. Famous naamyam singers included Chung Tak (1860-1929), Dou Wun (1910-1979), Yuen Siu-Fai and Au Kwan-Cheung.


Before the first half of the 20th century, naamyam sung by blind singers was a popular form of entertainment in Canton and Hong Kong. Common venues for performance included public places such as restaurants, teahouses, brothels, and opium dens, semi-public clubs and gathering places that catered to a particular trade or craft, such as butchers or rice merchants, and private households.

Naamyam has rarely been performed in its traditional context since the middle of the twentieth century. The rapidly changing society, with the exploding growth of modern entertainment means, spelled the death of traditional performing genre such as naamyam. However, some Cantonese opera performers borrowed some of the techniques of naamyam singings in their performances.


The singing accompanied by a musical instrument such as the guzheng (bridged zither), yehu (coconut-shell bowed lute), or yangqin (hammered dulcimer), together with the percussion instrument ban (wooden clappers). The instrument or instruments were played either by the singer himself/herself or in duo with a fellow musician.


Some naanyam songs are relatively short, taking about twenty minutes to perform; they are generally lyrical in nature, expressing thoughts and moods rather than relating a complicated story. A common theme in these songs is lamentation over lost love in the houses of pleasure. These songs tend to have a relatively fixed test, very often attributed to a known author of a scholarly bent. The text tends to be literary rather than colloquial, refined in its choice of words and phrases, and regular in its verse structure. Such a naamyam song was sung as a unit in one sitting, with no spoken lines. The best known example is the song Ketu Qiuhen (Wayfarer's Autumn Lament), in which the singer yearns for the love of a courtesan whom he has left behind in his wanderings.

Naamyam songs can also be very long, with hundreds or even thousands of lines, requiring tens or even hundreds of hours to perform. These songs are adapted from well-known historical events, legends, and fictions. In telling these long stories, the singer would alternate between short, spoken passages in verse. These long songs were normally improvised in performance, even though printed texts were published for consumption by readers. By not following a fixed text, the singer gains great flexibility in manipulating the story through the addition, elimination, or rearrangement of plot elements. The singer also improvises in the manner of expressing these plot elements through his choice of words and phrases, giving more or less detailed exposition to the plot elements depending upon the amount of time he has available for singing.


The textual unit in a naamyam song is a quatrain in verse, with verse structure similar to classical poetry. Each line of the quatrain has the basic pattern of seven syllables, with a caesura occurring after the first four syllables. Often some "padding" syllables are freely added. In the quatrains, the final syllable of each line, in particular lines 2 and 4, exhibits rhyme, both within a quatrain and through a number of them. A change of rhyme usually indicates that a new section of the story is beginning. Aside from rhyming, the final syllable of each line must also observe rules governing linguistic tones: the final syllables in lines 1 and 3 must exhibit oblique tones, those in lines 2 and 4 even tones. A further structural rule is that line 2 must end on an upper even tone, line 4 on a lower even tone.

The music of naamyam consists basically of a single tune in four lines, matching the four lines of the text in the quatrain. Subsequent quatrains - and indeed all naamyam songs - are sung to the same four lines of tune. Even though the "same" tune is theoretically repeated every four lines, in practice the tune may vary depending upon the linguistic tones of the text. The singer adjusts to various pitch levels and melodic contours of the tune in accordance with the corresponding linguistic features of the text. However, the tune retains certain distinctive melodic features that give naamyam its stamp of musical identity. The tune may also undergo transformation in terms of tonal and rhythmic modes.


In 1975, Dr. Bell Yung of the University of Pittsburgh recorded Dou Wun's naamyam singings at Fu Long teahouse in Hong Kong, leaving 40 hours of live recordings and valuable photographs.

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