Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Rare Art of Ca Tru (House Singing)

Disappointment about missing out on a classical concert at the Hanoi Opera House turned into an opportunity of discovery when I stumbled upon a restored guild temple (dinh) at 28 Hang Buom Street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter (Hoan Kiem District). The venerable old house was holding an event, an hour-long concert of Ca tru singing, a unique Vietnamese musical artform that dates back to the 11th century.

Held at 8 pm every Saturday evening, the concert setting is a simple yet elegant one. Two or three performers are seated on a mat placed on a low raised platform. The singer is invariably a lady smartly dressed in an ao dai, one who performs a dan day (a three-stringed fretted lute with a wooden sound box which resembles a tissue-paper box) or a phach (a percussion instrument which consists of a wooden board stuck with two sticks). She is accompanied by a drummer on a trong chau, a two-headed drum set placed on an upright position. Occasionally a strummed dulcimer-like instrument is also played.

The songs are slow, elegiac in character, dictated by the slow beat provided by the percussion instruments. The music never goes beyond andante or mezzopiano in dynamics, and the minor modes suggests that the subjects being sung are of a sad, lamentable or serious nature. The language being sung is old 19th century Vietnamese, in which a knowledge of Han writing is imperative. There are no scores on stage as much of the music is improvisatory and transmitted by oral traditions. All the young ladies who sang maintain a modicum of modesty and propriety throughout, never smiling except when acknowledging applause. There is something spiritual, almost religious, in their undertaking.
This highly refined music does not reveal its secrets immediately, but grows on you, taking one gradually into a different world, away from the hustle-bustle (and inescapable vehicular horns) of Old Quarter traffic. It is a magical feeling that is difficult to describe, one that goes beyond the superficiality and surface glitz of many more popular artforms (the water puppets come to mind here).

There is a short intermission where audience questions accompanied by Vietnamese tea are taken by the principal performer Pham Thi Hue, a professor at the Hanoi Conservatory who specialises in traditional Vietnamese music. She speaks good English and readily addresses our queries. The art of Cat tru is unique to central and northern Vietnam, one that is endangered by modern culture and popular entertainment. There are about six groups in Hanoi, which perform on occasion in homes and temples, and her ensemble Ca Tru Thang Long is the only one that performs regularly.

Ultimately a form of hausmusik, the performance was attended by just seven people, all tourists toting cameras and videocams. But this is not your usual crowd of philistines, but one of inquiring minds. Asked one lady tourist, “How do I learn Ca tru singing?” The reply was to first learn playing the percussion. The road to enlightenment is a painstaking and arduous one.

The concert continued with different singers with their showpieces, concluding with a child performer, a 12-year-old who happens to be Pham’s daughter. She was initially shy but soon got into the rhythm of things. Her little voice was tinged with a freshness and innocence that was immediately palpable. With work and time, she will become a master exponent herself. It was gratifying to note that all the other singers, looking mostly in their early-20s, were also students of Pham. This artform, ancient in origin and occupying a precarious position in the grand scheme of things, looks to be in safe hands… for now.

For those who have experienced everything, and lie in search of something different – here is something very different and very special.

A bamboo screen descends before the performers,
bringing the concert to a sublime close.

Ca Tru (House Singing) performances take place every Saturday night, 8pm at 28 Hang Buom Street, Hanoi Old Quarter. Tickets at VND 160,000 (about SGD 10) for adults and free admission for children.

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