A royal mess

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A traditional form of music that originated and flourished centuries ago is being cheapened to death

Artists perform ca Hue, a centuries-old folk music genre specific to the central town of Hue, on tourist boats plying the Huong River.

When a specialist sees himself as a poverty alleviation official in issuing formal licenses to practitioners of an art form, that art form is in trouble.

"It's heart breaking to say this, but whenever my friends who visit Hue ask me what is the cheapest thing they can buy in Hue, I answer: "˜ca Hue,' " says Kim Vang, a famous ca Hue singer.

Ca Hue is believed to have originated during the reign of the Nguyen Lords, rulers of southern Vietnam, including Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue provinces, from 1558 to 1777.

While it is seen as a form of folk music, ca Hue actually lends itself to poets and writers rather than the common man on the street.

Some experts consider it as a Hue version of ca tru, a genre of chamber music featuring female vocalists with origins in northern Vietnam, which has been recognized as a UNESCO "world intangible cultural heritage."

However, despite its royal leanings, the art is being "sold" at very cheap prices on tourist boats along the famous Huong River every night.

A performer is paid VND50,000 (US$2.43) for each show, but in fact their real pay is VND45,000 ($2.19) because they have to pay fees to show organizers, Vang said.

"Meritorious Artistes [a recognition awarded by the government after at least 15 years of distinguished service] also get the same VND45,000, which is less than what a vegetable vendor earns," she said.

Nguyen Tan Thuong, director of the Center for Ca Hue Performance Management, said that in August 2009, his center had proposed to the Thua Thien-Hue Province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism that the floor wages for performers be raised.

But nothing has been done in two years since, he added.

If provincial authorities do not act, businesses will do so on their own.

"In the end, performers are still the ones who will suffer the most," he said.

However, Cao Chi Hai, deputy director of the department, said the center was supposed to register the wages they proposed, because his department couldn't decide on specific figures on its own.

While the confusion over which agency should deal with the matter of wages continues, Le Hoa, an artist and a former lecturer at the Hue Academic of Music, said it was painful to see an "elegant delight" of Hue being treated in such a "dirt-cheap" manner.

However, cheap wages are not the worst part of what is happening to this art form.

Currently over 400 people perform ca Hue every night along the Huong River on over 100 tourist boats belonging to 13 enterprises. All the performers have been licensed by the culture department after passing a test. 

However, Ngoc Binh, director of Hue Opera Theater and head of the examiners, said 80 percent of current performers do not deserve to receive even VND20,000 ($0.97) for each show.

"In fact, examiners of the regulated test agreed to issue licenses to them so they can earn a living. If I follow expertise standards, only one in every ten performers can get the license," he said.

So, "in some way, I'm the head of "˜the council of poverty alleviation,'" Binh added.

With both professional and amateur performers receiving the same treatment, the art is losing its essence, experts said.

Huu Tho, head of a group of ca Hue performers, said tourism operations along the river are usually disordered and in chaos.

Tourist boat owners in untidy clothes keep nagging tourists to use their services, and even abuse verbally those who refuse their offers, Tho said.

And after enjoying ca Hue shows, tourists are besieged and harassed by cyclo drivers as soon as they leave the boats, he added.

Some officials have said they have acted to stop vendors and others from annoying tourists, but they will see what is actually happening if they visit the ca Hue wharf as a tourist, Tho said.

Respect needed

The only way to address the current plight of ca Hue, said Binh, is to organize two groups of performers one of highly skilful artists and the other of more "common" ones and to ensure they get reasonable remuneration.

He said the agency in charge of assessing an artist's skill level should to the job honestly and competently.

Thuong, meanwhile, suggested police patrols around the port to intimidate tourist boat owners so they don't nag tourists anymore.

Meanwhile, Vo Que, head of the ca Hue club at Hue Cultural House, wrote in a letter to the Tuoi Tre newspaper that experts should cooperate with related agencies to build a concert hall for professional artists to perform.

The halls can also be a rendezvous for them to exchange notes and work together to preserve traditional songs, he said.

An annual festival dedicated to the genre should be held, not to mention conferences on its preservation and propagation, considering the great number of performers, Que wrote.

While ca Hue is a tourism income source for Hue Town, royalties for composers of ca Hue songs are yet to be paid due attention, he said. "It would be fairer to pay composers royalties, as this would encourage them to write new lyrics for the traditional genre," he said.

"Ca Hue needs to be nursed and respected. After don ca tai tu (Southern amateur music which has recently applied for UNESCO heritage recognition) people who love ca Hue also hope to see it recognized as a world intangible heritage by UNESCO," Que said.

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