Ca tru strikes fresh chord with young lovers
Family affair: Ca tru singers perform at an engagement ceremony for Le Sy Tuyen’s family. VNS File Photo
After a century in the wilderness, Ca tru singers are back in vogue and increasingly being hired to perform their ancient brand of chamber music at wedding parties. Ha Nguyen reports.
At the recent engagement ceremony of their friend Le Sy Tuyen’s daughter in Ha Noi’s Nguyen Khuyen Street, Nguyen Van Phuong and his wife were impressed most by the performance of ca tru (an ancient genre of Vietnamese chamber music).
“We are native Hanoians, so we like ca tru very much,” he said. “Sometimes we go to see singers perform at a centre or listen to them on a CD, but this was the first time we saw a live performance at an engagement.”
This art form featuring female vocalists originally entertain scholar-bureaucrats, rich people as well as the royal court.
The three necessary instruments used to perform ca tru included dan day (a long-necked lute-like instrument with three silk strings), phach (a bamboo percussion instrument played with two wooden sticks) and a small drum.
Phuong recalled that when he was a boy, his grandfather often invited a ca tru troupe to his house on special occasions such as birthdays or Tet (Lunar New Year festival). They played for one or two whole days.
Artists at work: The Thang Long Troupe during a ca tru session. VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Tung
In the 19th century, rich people in urban areas often invited ca tru troupes to play at wedding ceremonies, said Phuong’s 90-year-old grandfather.
Tuyen said he thought for a long time of inviting the Thang Long Ca Tru Troupe to play at his daughter’s engagement party.
“I intended to invite ca tru artists to play at my house when we held a party to celebrate my grandmom’s death anniversary, but the plan did not work out. Now I’m very happy to invite them to my first daughter’s engagement party. I think the traditional music is perfect for a wedding,” said Tuyen.
At the party, five ca tru musicians sat on a long, ornate bed in the centre of the room, surrounded by guests.
“There was almost no distance between the artists and fans, so they could hear the singers up close,” said Tuyen.
One of Tuyen’s guests, Hoang Minh, said he had only come across ca tru on TV and in newspapers.
“This was the first time I got to enjoy ca tru directly. I was very impressed by it,” he said. “We should invite these musicians to more local parties to preserve and develop the art.”
After enjoying ca tru at Tuyen’s house, he plans to invite the troupe to play at his mother’s birthday party this month.
Singer Pham Thi Hue, head of the Thang Long Ca Tru Troupe, said she was very happy to be invited to perform at the engagement party.
“We are very proud to perform real Vietnamese songs and it’s a relief that many local people still respect this traditional music,” Hue said. “Playing at Tuyen’s house was a challenge for us because it is different from the stage. We sat very near to the audiences and could experience their feelings and their enjoyment, which motivated us to perform our best.”
Disciples: Two young girls learn how to play ca tru instruments.
The lack of microphones was another challenge – as was the obligation of performing songs by request.
“That meant we had to be prepared to sing any songs the audience requested,” Hue said.
Still, the party was a success and the troupe received Tuyen’s request to play at his daughter’s official wedding party early next month.
Nguyen Phu De, 90, Hue’s teacher, said he has not played at a wedding party since he was 15.
“Ca tru’s return to wedding parties after nearly a century is a good sign for both singers and fans in the capital,” De said.
Also known as hat a dao, the traditional art has been performed in Viet Nam’s northern region since the 15th century, according to De.
The teacher said that it was once a favourite music of the imperial palace, adored by people in intellectual circles for its combination of poetry and music.
In 2009, ca tru was recognised by UNESCO as an intangible heritage of mankind that needed to be urgently protected.
Pham Tuan Long, deputy head of the Ha Noi Old Quarter’s Management Board, said that after ca tru was recognised as a world intangible heritage, many Vietnamese both inside and outside the country became familiar with the art form, as did international visitors to Viet Nam.
Asked about his ca tru career, De explained that he was born into a long line of musicians. His parents earned a living from ca tru, just like the generations that preceded them.
“When I was 10, my father taught me how to sing ca tru songs and play dan day, phach and drums. We often spent six months working in the fields and the other six months playing ca tru in many provinces and cities, such as Ha Noi and Thai Binh,” he recalled.
Back with a bang: Ca tru’s return to wedding parties after nearly a century is a good sign for both singers and fans. VNA/VNS Photo Minh Duc
De said that Hai Duong’s Cao La Commune, his native village, is a centre for the art.
“I have played ca tru for more than 70 years and have trained many students. The two best were Pham Thi Hue and Pham Dinh Hoang,” he said.
After nearly a century as a ca tru singer, De feels anxious about the future of the art.
“I have passed on my skills to 30 students, but I still worry that work to preserve ca tru is still inadequate. I hope Government agencies implement a policy to keep ca tru’s soul alive, which could include the construction of a training centre for young performers,” said De.
To preserve the art, De and his student Hue produced a joint CD, “Ca Tru Singing.”
Hue said she would never forget the image of her teacher training young performers in the Thang Long Ca Tru Troupe.
“He is always ready to train those who wish to learn the art at his home in Cao La Commune in Hai Duong, even young children,” said Hue.
Overseas Vietnamese Le Dung, 60, said that while her family is based in Ha Noi’s Old Quarter, she didn’t know anything about ca tru until she moved to live in Australia in the 1980s, when a friend gave her a ca tru CD.
“Listening to ca tru singing helped me feel less homesick. Now, every year when I return to Ha Noi, I always go to 87 Ma May to enjoy ca tru,” said Dung.
Her Australian friends told her that they enjoyed the profound ancient melodies, she said. They suggested that if Viet Nam were to develop this kind of music, more visitors might be drawn to the country.
Before 2009, when the Thang Long Ca Tru Troupe was established, traditional music fans had to travel around the city to hear ca tru performed in various locations.
Now ca tru lovers can enjoy the troupe’s performances every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the old house at 87 Ma May. In addition, the songs are performed by the Ha Noi Ca Tru Club every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at Kim Ngan Communal House at 42-44 Hang Bac Street. — VNS