Saving 1,000 years of musical history

Marianne Brown opens her ears to the haunting sounds of ca tru at the first-ever theatre dedicated entirely to this 11th century chamber music.

Three musicians sit cross-legged on the stage. The woman in the centre lifts her phach (small wooden sticks, and a bamboo block) and begins to tap a rousing rhythm. She sings a haunting, vibrato melody. The lute-player to her left plucks a dissonant chord, and a small drum is beaten. The layers of hypnotic sound weave in and out, conjuring images of women in silk ao dai serving tea, and men lying in smoky dens.

This is the sound of ca tru, an ancient form of chamber music dating back to the 11th century. The venue is Thang Long Ca Tru Theatre, the first of its kind in the country dedicated entirely to the art form. It was set up by businesswoman Nguyen Lan Huong earlier this year in the Viet Nam Revolutionary Museum.

"I opened the theatre, because there was nothing like it in Viet Nam," Huong says. "There were venues for other traditional arts, like water puppetry, hat cheo and quan ho, but none for ca tru."

Seated in the centre of the stage is star of the show, Bach Van, one of the country’s pioneers in resurrecting the art form. In the words of theatre-owner Huong, Van’s "first love is ca tru".

Even off the stage, it’s still difficult to take your eyes of the energetic and graceful 50-year-old.

"I spent my whole life learning the genre," Van says. "It’s very hard. You have to have the power of an opera singer, but open your mouth just an inch or so."

She sings a melody in ca tru and opera style to prove her point. Both renditions are impressive; the veteran musician studied opera for four years before dedicating herself entirely to the traditional Vietnamese art form.

"I want to create a special performance of artists, so young Vietnamese people and foreigners can understand the real origins of this type of music," she says.

It’s partly thanks to Bach Van and the theatre that the genre is being brought back from the brink of extinction.

Court Music

Part of a peformance at Thang Long Ca Tru Theatre, where ca tru is being resurrected to entertain tourists and keep knowledge of the artform alive for younger generations.

Ca tru is music and poetry combined – "very difficult to understand", according to Van.

"It is made up of many different layers. You have to understand the lyrics, which are classical poems, and learn many different techniques."

The music is believed to have originated as a form of entertainment in the court of Ly Thai To (1010-1028). It was later performed in small inns and at private homes.

The name literally means "tally card songs", (ca is Vietnamese for "song", and tru is Chinese for "card"). This refers to a system of payment for artists. Singers would receive bamboo cards for every performance. These would be exchanged for money at the end of the night.

The female singer uses the phach to tap the beat to the words of her emotional song – usually renditions of famous verses by poets such as Nguyen Du. A very long necked, three-stringed lute known as a dan day is part of the small ensemble. The final member of the ensemble is the spectator, who strikes the trong chau drum in praise or disapproval, but always in time to the phach. All the instruments are unique to the art form.

Unlike hat cheo (traditional opera) ca tru was a diversion for the elite and the rich, not for the masses, in the feudal-colonial era. Its heyday was between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, when it was very popular with scholar bureaucrats.

"Ca tru is similar to Japan’s geisha music," Bach Van says.

"Both are scholarly music, but long ago, ca tru was only taught within families. When the French colonised Viet Nam the genre changed a little bit. In the Western style of ‘entertainment for entertainment’s sake’, musicians performed at theatres. Rich men would come and watch, served by dao ruou, girls who served wine."

With such a history, it is perhaps not surprising that when the revolution came in 1945, precipitating three decades of war, the art form did not have a place in Vietnamese society. Artists scattered across the country and found different kinds of employment. Gradually, the art began to fade into the past.

Its resurrection only seriously began in the mid- 1970s, when professor and musicologist Tran Van Khe recorded the voice of ageing ca tru singer Quach Thi Ho. In 1978, the International Institute on Musical Research awarded the veteran singer a diplome d’honneur for her work to conserve ca tru. But what was significant was that the music began to be broadcast on local Vietnamese radio.

Another milestone in the genre’s modern history came in 1992, when Bach Van set up the Bich Cau Dao Quan, a club that would bring together the country’s 21 veteran artists, only 12 of whom had studied long enough to be able to teach. "There is one lady who is 95 years old. She spent 65 years of her life learning and singing this type of music," Bach Van says.

"So many teenagers are more interested in pop music. Young people are too impatient. Some learn ca tru over just six months and think they can teach it. After studying for 40 days they sing at a competition and get a gold medal. It’s not real! It’s not ca tru! Understanding the music takes years and years. I have been learning and singing for most of my life, and I still don’t understand everything about it."

One teen who is not "more interested in pop music", is 15-year-old Dinh Thi Van, from Lo Khe Village, 15km from the centre of Ha Noi. Young Van has been studying the ancient music for the last three years.

"My village is known as a cradle of ca tru. Mothers sing it to their babies, so it is very special to us. Not many people my age are interested in ca tru because it’s old, but I want to study it after I finish school. It’s part of being Vietnamese. When people understand the poem, they will love the music."

On April 15 this year, Viet Nam sent an updated file of the musical art form to UNESCO asking for it to be recognised as intangible heritage. The results of the application will be announced in September.

In the spotlight

Two performers at the theatre. Veteran artist and teacher Bach Van says it is difficult to find young people who are interested in learning how to play.

Ca tru is performed at Thang Long Ca Tru Theatre three times a day. There is also a small exhibition area where visitors can learn more about the history of the art form through paintings, photos and examples of musical instruments.

Performers and song poems vary throughout the week. Shows last 45 minutes and are divided into five parts, each introduced by a commentator in English and Vietnamese.

"It’s a good idea to explain what each piece is about, but the MC could have been a bit clearer," says Kathy Shea, a project manager from the United States. "There’s a lot of value in preserving traditional art, so I’m glad I was able to support that."

Le Duc Trung, a civil engineer from Ha Noi, was also in the audience. "I don’t usually go to see this kind of thing. I’ve only seen this kind of thing before on the TV. I enjoyed the commentary. It was really interesting. I would come again for sure."

Part of the profits from ticket sales and goods sales go to help disadvantaged children at Bo De Temple in the capital.

To get more people hooked on the evocative sounds of ca tru, the theatre are also planning to open classes on its history as well as training sessions for people who want (and have the ability) to sing or play.

The theatre is at 25 Tong Dan Street, Hoan Kiem District. Tickets are VND35,000 (around US$2). Performances take place at 4.45pm, 6pm and 7.15pm./.

Vietnamplus/Vietnam News