Saturday, 18 April 2009

Old timers

Two women from different generations who shared a passion for Vietnamese folk music joined forces to open the Ca Tru Thang Long Theatre.

Ca tru is an ancient form of chamber music – normally featuring a female vocalist, percussionists and a lute-player – that originated in northern Vietnam as a form of entertainment for the royal court nearly 1,000 years ago.

As with many of Vietnam’s most precious traditional arts, it has experienced some lean times in the latter half of the 20th century but in recent years there have been extensive efforts to re-invigorate the genre. The latest champion of the cause is the Ca Tru Thang Long Theatre on Tong Dan street in Hanoi, which is the result of a collaboration between the Museum of Vietnam Revolution, where it is located, and Nguyen Lai Trading company.

Rather than simply providing a space where revivalists can play to limited number of purists, the theatre is also partly an exhibition space where audiences can find out more about this traditional form of music with a display of pictures, photos and other items. In the showroom you can also find silk from Van Phuc village, ceramics from Bat Trang village and lacquer decorative items from Ha Thai village.

“My theatre is the first in Vietnam to organise professional ca tru shows. The theatre is well appointed with modern sound system and lighting,” says Nguyen Lan Huong, the 28-year-old director of Ca Tru Thang Long Theatre. After years studying the traditional arts, Huong was impressed by the efforts being made to restore ca tru by clubs in the provinces of Ha Tinh, Thanh Hoa, Hung Yen, Bac Ninh, Thai Binh and Haiphong as well as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

“But performances were not as regular and professional as other traditional folk genres or performance arts such as cheo, tuong or cai luong,” says Huong. “I dreamed of a special theatre for ca tru ever since I was lucky enough to meet the singer Bach Van and now my dream has come true!” An experienced ca tru singer, Bach Van is now the art director of the theatre and is delighted to be able to share her passion for ca tru with younger generations.

“At present, our theatre has 15 young and talented performers. We have also received great assistance from musicologists, cultural experts and old ca tru artists, who are now over 80 years old but their voices and performances are still perfect!” says Bach Van.

“We can recreate the true essence of ca tru with its beautiful rhythms and poetry without having a young lady serving liquor to customers like in the past!” she adds, alluding to ca tru’s reputation as a geisha-like form of entertainment in the 20th century. “We aim to both preserve and develop ca tru as well as build a better society,” adds Lan Huong. “Part of the theatre’s profits is for training potential ca tru artists.

But we will also provide funds for orphans and children from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend vocational training centres so that they can find a good job and contribute to society.” The theatre’s MC, Van Anh is hopeful that the theatre will attract a young audience.

“Ca tru music sounds strange to the uninitiated. Clicks and clacks accompany centuries-old ballads,” says Van Anh, who learnt how to sing and play ca tru tunes as a young girl in Haiphong. “It is not the kind of music that inspires toe tapping or humming. But it can transport you to anotJustify Fullher age, once you start to recognise the art’s fine subtleties.

It can be really intoxicating.” The theatre seats 100 people for each performance. There are three 45-minute shows with 10 different dances and songs daily at 4.45pm, 6pm and 7.15pm. Tickets cost VND35,000 per person.

The origins of ca tru

The origins of ca tru are still the subject of debate. One story goes that a woman named A Dao created the genre, when lulling the enemy into a false sense of security with her sweet singing (ca tru is also sometimes referred to as Hat A Dao).

Another theory is that a woman named Dao Thi, a talented musician beloved by the Ly Dynasty (1009 – 1225), introduced an embryonic form of ca tru music to the imperial court, influenced no doubt by Chinese taste in music. By the 15th century it had become a hobby for aristocrats and scholars and performances could be heard at communal halls, inns and private homes throughout the land.

During a ca tru performance, the musicians – collectively known as giao phuong – stay seated. The singer, always a woman, is called a co dao and she will also play the phach – short drumsticks played off a small block of bamboo. A musician accompanies the singer on the dan day, a long-necked three-stringed lute with 10 frets.

There will also be a drummer, playing a small drum known as the Trong Chau. However by the 19th century ca tru had become a geisha-style form of entertainment. Attractive young female singers would entertain men in a relaxed environment, sometimes serving drinks, snacks and possibly opium.

As a result of these sordid associations after the August Revolution of 1945, ca tru was suppressed as it had come to represent the maltreatment of women for the entertainment of ruling class men. Ca tru quickly faded into obscurity and arguably as an art form it has never truly recovered.


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