Ca Tru Singing - A Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Culture Heritage

Ca Tru Singing - A Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Culture Heritage

A UNESCO-recognized Traditional Vietnamese Form of Art

Rachel Tran Rachel Tran | Published Feb 03, 2020

Perhaps, the most important catalyst in the development of contemporary Vietnamese folkloric performance was the appearance of the call-and-response dialogue song. These kinds of songs have created a significant role in forming the Vietnamese culture values. Witnessing a ca tru play means hearing the beautiful voice of lady singers and at the same time, enjoying the poem written for this style of singing!

Origin of Ca Tru Singing

The traditional Vietnamese folk art – ca tru singing – is believed to have religious origins. In the history book of Hung Yen province, there was a story about Ms. Dao Thi Hue, who utilized her beauty and singing talent to seduce and kill the Ming enemies. People later built a temple called Dao Nuong to worship.

Scholars trace its origins back to a type of female singing known as hat a dao, which was widely performed as an expression of worship during the Ly dynasty (1010-1225). As time goes by, it gradually became popular and eventually changed to alternative name, ca tru (singing for reward).

Until 20th century, ca tru had become a common form of entertainment in the north with Kham Thien Street in Ha Noi as its main urban focus. However, after 1945, ca tru nearly died out. It was systematically suppressed to be associated with the prostitution and the degradation of women. In actuality, men were allowed to marry many wives in the past and having extramarital affairs wasn’t a shocking matter. Thus, it was commonly known that many famous ca tru singers did indeed have affairs with important men but it was accepted as a part of society.

In 2005, ca tru was submitted to UNESCO for recognition as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage. In recent years, ca tru has been rediscovered and developed by a number of clubs; the most famous one is Hanoi Ca tru Club which opens on the last Sunday of each month at the Bich Cau Dao Quan Temple, near the Temple of Literature. In order to help revive this ancient art form, the club recently launches the annual ca tru festival, which attracts the participation of many performers from Ha Tay, Hai Phong, Thai Binh, Ha Tinh and Nghe An Provinces. The villagers in Lo Khe in Dong Anh District – one of the cradles of the art form- also annually stage festivals on the 6th day of the 4th lunar month and the 13th day of the 10th lunar month. Joining this festival, you can see the local singers from young to old, sit in a circle and perform a ceremony to worship the founders of ca tru.

Ca tru, literally translates as “tally card songs.” This refers to the bamboo cards men bought when they visited ca tru inns where this music was most often performed in the past. Men would give the bamboo cards they purchased to the woman of choice after her performance and she would collect money based upon how many cards given.

Scholar-bureaucrats and other members of the elite most enjoyed this genre. They often visited these inns to be entertained by the talented young women, who did not only sing, but with their knowledge of poetry and the arts could strike up a witty conversation along with serving food and drink. Besides these inns, ca tru was also commonly performed in communal houses or private homes.

Performance of Ca Tru Singing

Ca tru, like many ancient and highly developed arts, has many forms. However, the most widely known and widely performed type of ca tru involves only three performers: the female vocalist, lute player and a spectator. The female singer provides the vocals whilst playing her phách (small wooden sticks beaten on a small bamboo platform to serve as percussion). She is accompanied by a man who plays the đàn đáy, a long-necked, 3-string lute used almost exclusively for the ca trù genre. Last is the spectator (often a scholar or connoisseur of the art) who strikes a trống chầu (praise drum) in praise (or disapproval) of the singer’s performance, usually with every passage of the song. The way in which he strikes the drum shows whether he likes or dislikes the performance, but it must be based on the beat provided by the vocalists phach percussion.

The performing art of ca tru itself is quite complicated requiring the singer to be lofty and elegant in gesture but no less sentimental. The internal breathing is of greatest importance in the singing technique. Also the beating of castanets is very sophisticated; the singer has to express her feelings and sentiments through the sound of castanets.

Quach Thi Ho is one of the few Vietnamese traditional artists recognized internationally. In 1976, Professor Tran Van Khe recorded Mrs. Ho’s ca tru songs to introduce to a global audience. In 1978, she was awarded an honorary diploma by UNESCO’s International Music Council and the International Institute for Comparative Music Studies for her contribution in preserving “traditional music of great artistic and cultural value.” Her recording of ca tru ranked first among songs from 29 other countries in the International Festival of Traditional Music held in Pyong Yang (the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea) in 1983. It won another first prize in a similar festival held in Moscow. UNESCO honored the old artisan with the solemn words: “Thank you for preserving Vietnam’s valuable traditional art heritage, a treasure to mankind”.

Mrs. Ho’s golden voice was second to none. Some said it was as mild as silk, as warm as spring sunlight, and pure like moonlight. With her outstanding talent and great contribution to Vietnamese culture, she was nominated to the list of legendary women of the world.

Until now, there are some famous ca tru songs such as Thu Hung (Inspiration of Autumn), Ty Ba Hanh, Dao Hong, Dao Tuyet (Singer Hong, Singer Tuyet) can still stir a Vietnamese soul. They were written by famous poets who are deeply memorized in listeners’ mind like Nguyen Cong Tru, Cao Ba Quat, Nguyen Khuyen, Nguyen Quy Tan, Chu Manh Trinh, Phan Van Ai and Nguyen Thuong Hien…


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