Et tu, ca tru?

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Quan ho and ca tru, priceless jewels in Vietnam's musical heritage, have achieved UNESCO recognition, but can they survive indifference and the onslaught of pop culture and commercialization?

Vietnam's rich musical heritage has survived decades of war and its deprivations that robbed the nation of resources could have been dedicated to cultural preservation.

Ironically, it is peace-time prosperity ushered in by the market-based economy that is apparently pushing some of the most precious traditional music forms to extinction.

On September 30, UNESCO recognized the 800-year-old quan ho folk music as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind, and followed it up the next day by giving the same recognition to the even older ca tru.

It was the culmination of a ten-year campaign, spearheaded by Professor Tran Van Khe, that united Vietnamese and foreign scholars and received enthusiastic government backing.

The newfound status brings to four the number of Vietnamese members of the exclusive club, the earlier two being the royal court music of Hue and the gong culture of the Central Highlands.

While the UNESCO recognition will direct some attention and resources to preserving these art forms, it is their popular acceptance and reintegration into daily life, especially in the rural areas where they originated, that hold the key, some scholars say.

Hanoi University lecturer Nguyen Hung Vi has said that quan ho's simplistic nature improves its survival in the current, but watching doyens of this art perform in Bac Ninh Province underlines that its rendition takes years and years of practice.

It is said that in the old days village elders would select two pairs of matching voices among four to eight year old children and, hold a ceremony to get their parents' permission for them to sing together. The pairs would then sing traditional songs in perfect harmony and be prepared to participate in contests between villages. Many songs were practiced in secret for the contests to prevent opponents from preparing strong repartees. The contests would sometimes last two or three days, until one of the pairs failed to respond to the other's poser.

Nowadays, most Vietnamese have never seen a traditional performance of quan ho, which is said to date back to the 13th century.

Today, only five of the six singers, honored by the government in 1993 as torchbearers for quan ho, are still alive.

It takes a quan ho artist decades, even a lifetime, to master the sophisticated antiphonal singing, yet even the best of the best can barely make a living from it.

Even in Bac Ninh Province, the cradle of quan ho, appropriate venues are hard to come by as factories replace the paddy fields and bamboo groves that are the art's quintessential stage and backdrop.

Three years ago there were still 49 villages where quan ho was performed, but many of these have since disappeared, as has a cappella singing, lost in a web of microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers.

Today's quan ho performers must oblige thousands of people in well-lit auditoriums and modern theaters in order to make a living, and even the tunes and notes of some of the oldest songs have been changed over the years.

Dr. Nguyen Chi Ben, head of the Vietnam Institute of Culture and the Arts, laments the sorry situation.

He thinks reviving the contests between the villages might be a good way to produce good singers and gain a wider audience for quan ho.

However, outward migration from villages to cities by young people looking for jobs, and the popularity of pop, rock and other Western music that has become mainstream music in the country makes this an uphill task.

Geisha music?


Ca tru used to be mainstream entertainment in the north for centuries before fading into obscurity in the mid 1940s.

It originated in the northern delta in the 11th century and enjoyed great popularity from the 15th century until French colonization in the 1800s. By then, ca tru had degenerated into a type of chamber music for the wealthy.

Based on poetry, true ca tru involves at least two male musicians playing the trong chau (a special drum) and dan day (a long-necked lute with three strings), and a female vocalist who also beats a bamboo phach with two wooden sticks.

The singing, chanting and reciting of the lyrics, many of which were written by famous poets of the past, are stylistic in the extreme.

The bell tolled for ca tru in the 1940s, when it was criticized as being a form of geisha entertainment.

Authentic ca tru performances in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi are few and far between in the 21st century, even on television or radio, though there are clubs trying to revive it.

In Hanoi, the Ca tru Club meets on the last Sunday of the month at Bich Cau Dao Quan Temple near the Temple of Literature.

Another started up in August 2006 and is simply called "Thang Long - Hanoi." The club in Alley 73 off Giang Van Minh Street is open every Saturday night and attracts musicologists from the US, Britain, Germany and Japan.

"Ca tru va Hat Tho" in Tran Te Xuong Street, Phu Nhuan District is the only such club in HCMC. It is struggling to draw young people as they find it hard to appreciate the melodies and the meanings behind the lyrics.

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