At the recent engagement ceremony of their friend Lê Sỹ Tuyên’s daughter in Hà Nội’s Nguyễn Khuyến Street, Nguyễn Văn Phương and his wife were impressed most by the performance of ca trù (an ancient genre of Vietnamese chamber music).
“We are native Hanoians, so we like ca trù 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 trù included đàn đáy (a long-necked lute-like instrument with three silk strings), phách (a bamboo percussion instrument played with two wooden sticks) and a small drum.
Phương recalled that when he was a boy, his grandfather often invited a ca trù troupe to his house on special occasions such as birthdays or Tết (Lunar New Year festival).
They played for one or two whole days.
In the 19th century, rich people in urban areas often invited ca trù troupes to play at wedding ceremonies, said Phương’s 90-year-old grandfather.
Tuyên said he thought for a long time of inviting the Thăng Long Ca Trù 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 Tuyên’s guests, Hoàng Minh, said he had only come across ca trù 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 trù at Tuyên’s house, he plans to invite the troupe to play at his mother’s birthday party this month.
Singer Phạm Thị Huệ, head of the Thăng Long Ca Trù 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,” Huệ 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.”
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,” Huệ said.
Still, the party was a success and the troupe received Tuyên’s request to play at his daughter’s official wedding party early next month.
Nguyễn Phú Đệ, 90, Huệ’s teacher, said he has not played at a wedding party since he was 15.
“Ca trù’s return to wedding parties after nearly a century is a good sign for both singers and fans in the capital,” Đệ said.
Also known as hat a dao, the traditional art has been performed in Việt Nam’s northern region since the 15th century, according to Đệ.
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 trù was recognised by UNESCO as an intangible heritage of mankind that needed to be urgently protected.
Phạm Tuấn Long, deputy head of the Hà Nội 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 trù career, Đệ explained that he was born into a long line of musicians.
His parents earned a living from ca trù, just like the generations that preceded them.
“When I was 10, my father taught me how to sing ca trù songs and play đàn đáy, phách and drums.
We often spent six months working in the fields and the other six months playing ca trù in many provinces and cities, such as Hà Nội and Thái Bình,” he recalled.
Đệ said that Hải Dương’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 Phạm Thị Huệ and Phạm Đình Hoàng,” 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 trù’s soul alive, which could include the construction of a training centre for young performers,” said Đệ.
To preserve the art, De and his student Huệ produced a joint CD, “Ca Trù Singing.”
Huệ said she would never forget the image of her teacher training young performers in the Thăng Long Ca Trù Troupe.
“He is always ready to train those who wish to learn the art at his home in Cao La Commune in Hải Dương, even young children,” said Huệ.
Overseas Vietnamese Lê Dung, 60, said that while her family is based in Hà Nộii’s Old Quarter, she didn’t know anything about ca trù until she moved to live in Australia in the 1980s, when a friend gave her a ca trù CD.
“Listening to ca trù singing helped me feel less homesick.
Now, every year when I return to Hà Noi, I always go to 87 Mã Mây to enjoy ca tru,” said Dung.
Her Australian friends told her that they enjoyed the profound ancient melodies, she said.
They suggested that if Việt Nam were to develop this kind of music, more visitors might be drawn to the country.
Before 2009, when the Thăng Long Ca Trù Troupe was established, traditional music fans had to travel around the city to hear ca trù performed in various locations.
Now ca trù lovers can enjoy the troupe’s performances every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the old house at 87 Mã Mây.
In addition, the songs are performed by the Hà Nội Ca Trù Club every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at Kim Ngân Communal House at 42-44 Hàng Bạc Street.