Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring

Phuong Khanh - Huong Giang
Chia sẻ

(VOVWORLD) - In today's fast-paced world filled with top charts and pop and hip-hop music, traditional music genres continue to thrive. As the festive spring atmosphere envelops Vietnam, people seem to cherish the enduring values of national tradition and cultures. Join us on a journey to downtown Hanoi, where we'll delve into the revival of timeless melodies through Vietnamese traditional Ca tru and xam singing.

"I enjoy living in this old-fashioned environment, surrounded by the scent of incense and listening to Dao Hong and Dao Tuyet, the Ca tru songs I occasionally heard on TV. The lead vocalist's lively yet gentle voice gives me a completely different perspective on Ca Tru compared to hearing it on television." 

My favorite part of the show is the vintage setting, simply adorned with sedge mats and traditional musical instruments. It evokes a sense of nostalgia that I truly appreciate.”

Da Phung Minh Ngan and Nguyen Truong Phi from Hanoi, two young attendees at the "Melody of the Old Quarter" show held at the Hanoi Old Quarter Cultural Exchange Center, experienced the tranquil ambiance of the antique space amidst the bustling street. The performers, adorned in traditional ao dai or long dress attire paired with wide-legged silk pants, showcased their talent.

Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring  - ảnh 1Lute player Nguyen Van Khue and vocalist Thuy Hoa in the "Melody of the Old's Quarter" show (Photo: Huong Giang/VOV)  

The show was hosted by the Thai Ha Ca Tru Club, a family-run establishment deeply committed to preserving Ca tru, a unique folk art form in northern Vietnam.

Originating in the 11th century, Ca tru singing was once favored by the elite and intellectuals. This musical style comprises a female vocalist (ca nương), a lute player (kép đàn), and a drummer.

Established in 1993 by Ca tru master Nguyen Van Mui, Thai Ha Ca Tru Club is one of Hanoi's most esteemed Ca Tru family clubs. Club members Van Khue, Thuy Hoa, and Manh Tien are descendants of Nguyen Van Mui. All of them share the common goal of preserving and promoting Ca tru singing. 

Accomplished artist Nguyen Van Khue currently leads the Thai Ha Club. He has devoted the past 60 years to Ca tru and is renowned for his mastery of the "kép đàn," the long-necked, 3-string lute used in Ca tru performances.

Khue said, "My family want to preserve Ca Tru as a tribute to our ancestors. During important occasions like death anniversaries or Tet holidays, we invite esteemed artists from Hanoi, like Quach Thi Ho, Kim Duc, and Nguyen Thi Chuc, to perform. These artists are wholeheartedly dedicated to the art genre."

Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring  - ảnh 2The Thai Ha Club is led by accomplished artist Nguyen Van Khue (Photo:NDO)  

The show “Melody of the Old Quarter” took place in an intimate space that puts performers and audience in close proximity. Inspired by the Lunar New Year theme, the stage was decorated with peach blossoms and calligraphy parallel sentences depicting happiness and prosperity.

As soon as the male lute player began playing the dan day, a Vietnamese plucked lute, to accompany the female vocalist, the audience fell silent, captivated by the music of Ca tru. The highlight was when the audience expressed their appreciation by giving bamboo cards to the female vocalist instead of clapping.

The Thai Ha Ca Tru Club has preserved this cultural legacy through successive generations. They frequently give Ca Tru performances at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the Hanoi Opera House, and around Hanoi’s Old Quarter to popularize the art form to the public.

Mr. Khue said, "We collaborate with the Hanoi Department of Culture and the Vietnamese Institute of Musicology to gather enthusiasts of Ca Tru and promote its practice. Annually, the Hanoi Department of Culture allocates approximately 30 days for the club to teach Ca Tru in communities across Hanoi, including Chanh Thon, Ngai Cau, and Thuong Mo communes. Additionally, they endeavor to revive lost Ca Tru tunes through their learning initiatives."

Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring  - ảnh 3A ca tru singing class by the meritorious artist Nguyen Thuy Hoa

In each commune, Thai Ha establishes two classes for beginners and advanced learners. Each class consists of 10 to 12 members ranging in age from 12 to 70 years old. In addition to teaching people how to play the dan day and the drum and sing the traditional Ca tru melodies, Thai Ha also teaches the rich history of Ca Tru.

Ca Tru songs primarily use a poetic form known as “hat noi”, featuring expressive lyrics recited melodically. These songs delve into profound themes such as love and life philosophy. This beloved singing style revolves around couplets, which encapsulate the essence of the message. Crafting a couplet is challenging, and not everyone can grasp its meaning just by listening to it. 

Nguyen Thuy Hoa is a sixth generation performer of "hat noi." She is known for her pure, gentle, and soulful voice. One of her standout performances is the song "Singer Hong, Singer Tuyet."

Hoa said, "This song, composed by the talented Vietnamese poet Duong Khue, is regarded as a masterpiece in Ca Tru. Its precise and exemplary lyrics make it a mandatory practice piece for anyone learning Ca Tru before they can progress to other tunes." 

What sets Thai Ha apart from other Ca Tru clubs in Vietnam is their emphasis on family performances. In Thai Ha, it's a tradition for a father or brother to be the lute player while the daughter or sister takes on the role of vocalist. This adds a special touch to their performance.

Hoa said. "As a family, we have a deep understanding of each other's habits and the nuances of the Ca Tru music we perform. If I forget the lyrics, my brother can use the sound of the "dan day" to jog my memory. We rehearse frequently, not just on specific days. Sometimes, even during our daily meals, we practice together."

Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring  - ảnh 4Thai Ha group members' first performance in France
(Mrs. Thuy Hoa is the third from right to left) 

The Thai Ha Ca Tru Club engages in numerous activities, not just in Vietnam, but overseas. They have performed in Italy, Japan, and China, with a notable appearance at the World Music Festival in France in 2014. Their performances have been consistently well-received.

Thuy Hoa recalled their first performance in France in 1995, where the Thai Ha group members were nervous about how an international audience would react to Ca Tru. They were initially given just 15 minutes to perform, but the audience's response was so enthusiastic that on the third day they were given 60 minutes – half the show.

Hoa said, "I didn't anticipate that Ca Tru would be so warmly embraced by the audience there. After our performance, particularly for the overseas Vietnamese in France, people approached the group to express how deeply moved they were when the ca nuong sang, accompanied by the sound of the dan day and drums. It evoked strong feelings of nostalgia for their homeland and a connection to their ancestors. Many were moved to tears as they listened."

Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring  - ảnh 5Photo: The Vietnam Intangible Cultural Heritage Promotion Center (VICH)

In Trà Thang, a cozy café in downtown Hanoi, culture aficionados are journeying back to the 1930s and immerse themselves in the traditional art of “Xam” singing, which has its roots in Vietnam’s northern region dating back centuries. Hosted by the Centre for the Promotion of Vietnam’s Intangible Cultural Heritages, the recent “Xam Tonkin” program highlighted the storytelling and singing traditions of blind individuals from the early 20th century.

In the show, four Xam artists wore simple clothes. Three men donned brown shirts, hats, and dark glasses, while the women wore dark shirts with light aprons and knee-length skirts. They sat on a mat, with one artist playing the “nhị”, the two-string Vietnamese fiddle and while others played drums and castanets.

The artists and audience sat close to each other, creating a warm and intimate atmosphere. Before each performance, the audience members shared what they know about xam and then learned the basics through the sharing from the expert artists.

Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring  - ảnh 6Xam artist Ngo Van Hao (R) plays the two-string fiddle (Photo: Phuong Khanh/ VOV)

In the past, Xam artists would bring daily life stories into songs, which would then spread rapidly throughout the town. This made Xam one of the quickest ways to share information.

Xam artist Ngo Van Hao explained, "In the past, most Xam singers were blind or visually impaired and couldn't read. They learned songs orally, passing them down quietly. Some songs were lengthy and took about an hour to sing. Despite their impairment, they sang passionately, blessed with sharp hearing capability and memory."

Among the traditional Vietnamese art forms, Xam is something quite simple, natural and familiar to people’s life. Xam songs are diverse in content, but all praise love and human values, so it’s loved and treasured by all.

Nguyen Hoang Hiep, a xam artist who prepares the content of a Xam program that before relocating to Hanoi, Xam singers travelled between villages in rural areas to earn a living. However, when the French established Hanoi as the capital of Tonkin, a name used by the French from 1883 to 1945 for the protectorate of Tonkin, part of French Indochina, Xam singers saw it as a promising opportunity and decided to get on the buses and trains to go to the city. Hanoi had numerous trams at the time, providing Xam singers a mobile stage for their performances.

Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring  - ảnh 7(Photo:tuoitre)

Xam singing wasn't just performed on busy trams but also at bus stations, markets, and street corners, as well as during significant occasions like weddings, funerals, and death anniversaries. "Xam cho" is a kind of Xam singing performed in marketplaces to attract listeners. Despite the noisy surroundings, the powerful beats of the drum and the distinctive melodies of Xam songs could still be heard.

In the past, when someone passing by a Xam group wanted to show appreciation, they would toss coins into a bronze pot placed in front of the artists. The louder the coins clinked in the pot, the more excited the Xam artists would become.

Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring  - ảnh 8At the recent “Xam Tonkin” program, there were about 20 audience members, mostly young people, including some children. (Photo:VICH)

Before the show, each person received a red envelope containing several old coins. These coins were given to the Xam artists as a symbolic token of appreciation after their performance.

20 year-old Mai Thi Thuy Hang is the main vocalist of the group. She has been practicing Xam since she was 10 years old. Hang said, "My grandfather has always been passionate about folk music, and he introduced me to Xam singing, which I instantly loved. The lyrics are vivid and depict real-life experiences. My favorite Xam song, and the first one I learned, is “Hanoi is like a fairy land,” which merges various melodies into a single captivating piece. It also depicts the vibrant life of Hanoi in the past.” 

Besides listening to Xam songs and the stories behind them, the audience also learned how to use the musical instruments including a monochord, the two-string fiddle, drums, bamboo tocsin, and castanets.

Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring  - ảnh 9The atmosphere turns warm and friendly as both the artists and the audience shares laughter and joy, feeling deeply moved.(Photo: VICH)

Pham Thi Quynh Lien and Duong Viet Thanh couldn’t hide their excitement.

"Wow, Xam is truly incredible! Through the program, I learned that our predecessors were so talented and adaptable in any setting, whether they performed at markets or train stations. They were versatile, playing multiple instruments and singing. I wish I could hear the Xam singers of the previous generations perform live. Despite their visual impairment, their soulful singing must have been absolutely amazing.”

"I’m a business economics student, but I’m deeply fascinated by Vietnamese culture. I frequently attend folk music performances such as Cheo and Ca Tru singing. I prefer sitting in small venues close to the artists to engage with them. I have many questions for the artists, and I hope to join community classes in the future to gain more experience and knowledge.”

Vietnamese traditional music revitalized during new spring  - ảnh 10The program concludes with artists and audience coming together to sing a Tet Xam song, exchanging lovely New Year wishes. (Photo: VICH)

 Dinh Thao, Deputy Director of the Centre for the Promotion of Vietnam’s Intangible Cultural Heritages, said Xam singing will continue to be promoted on different platforms, adding the center has already experimented with some performances on buses and hopes to expand this initiative in the future.

Thao said, "Soon, we will host Xam shows on buses, traveling around the streets of Hanoi. It’s like a mobile stage, providing a unique and enjoyable experience. It’s reminiscent of the old tram performances in the past.”