A performance of ca Hue at the Hue Museum of Culture in the former imperial capital of Hue. Nguyen Tan Ton That Tu My (R), who can play various traditional musical instruments, sits next to his mother dan tranh (16-chord zither) artist Ton Nu Le Hoa
Every night, the peaceful silence of Hue's Huong River is broken by small dragon-shaped boats that push slowly through the water.
Mingling with the splashing sounds that the boats make is the sound of a particular kind of music being performed live for guests.
The music is called ca Hue, and it was formerly the music of the royal court.
The river cuts through the former imperial capital, separating the new city to the south from the old city to the north, which is still located in the famous Hue Citadel.
For the dying breed of singers who provide the music along the river, the divide is both physical and metaphorical.
"The Huong River plays an important role in the culture, the spirit of Hue and its people," said veteran singer Kim Vang, 63, who is a member of the Vietnam Association of Stage Artists.
"One flow, but it divides the town into two distinct parts, called the North and South Riverbanks, with different lifestyles and cultures."
North is the old world of bicycles and small noodle shops. South is the new world of fancy hotels and chain franchises.
For Vang and many old artists, the river is part of the music.
Vang said that ca Hue singers and musicians are best when they play "as if they were standing by the riverbank and enjoying the music's melodious waves."
But ca Hue wasn't always sung as folk tunes by the side of the river. It was originally played only in the court and only a certain number of artists were trained to play it.
It originated in Hue about two hundred years ago and the performers were outstanding artists who performed exclusively for royal families, mandarins and other elite sections of the society. It was performed in the royal palace or royal theater or other indoor places. Immaculate, expensive costumes and make up were part of the performance.
The new folk
When Hanoi-based architect Nguyen Tan Ton That Tu My attended his relative's wedding party in Hue last week, he didn't miss out on the opportunity to perform ca Hue at the town's Museum of Culture.
The ca Hue show last Friday evening was quite special for the 27-year-old dan nhi (Vietnamese two-chord fiddle) player. It was his first performance with his mother Ton Nu Le Hoa a senior dan tranh (16-chord zither) artist since he left the town in 2009 to enter the real-estate business in Hanoi after graduation.
Furthermore, it was the first performance at the museum by My, a descendant of the ca Hue artists who sing on the dragon boats.
My had been born into a family of musicians and for many years, he was part of a five-member ca Hue ensemble that performed every night on the tourist boats along the Huong River.
"My whole family lived off these performances," said My, who now runs a Hue cuisine restaurant in Hanoi. "Not only did the music feed us, it also proved sufficient for my college tuition fees."
My said he and other performers were paid around VND30,00050,000 (US$1.52.5) per hourlong show featuring around ten to 12 famous compositions. The current fee is VND150,000 (US$7).
Around 450 singers and instrumentalists are currently licensed to perform the art along the Huong River.
It is estimated that over 10,000 ca Hue performances are held every year on the boats.
Now that My isn't financially dependent on ca Hue, the main reason for performing is to support the museum, which provides two shows for free every Tuesday and Friday since August 20.
The performances are part of an effort by museum director Huynh Dinh Ket and writer Vo Que, president of the Ca Hue Club, founded 30 years ago to promote the art.
Apart from the Friday show on Le Loi Street, My was also performing on Saturday on a river boat with his 58-year-old mother, who has been invited to perform at international traditional musical festivals in the US, Hong Kong, France, and Japan.
The performers were not decked-out like in the old days though the traditional ao dai and khan dong (turbans) were worn. In comparison with the museum show, it disappointed some traditionalists.
Hue native Truong Si Le Minh, a young official with the province's Foreign Office, told Vietweek that he sometimes thought the singers weren't as beautiful as the royal court musicians would have been.
"They are all beautiful ladies with beautiful voices," said Minh, 24, who went to the Saturday night show by himself as his friends find the art boring. "But the authentic feel was missing."
My said he agreed with Minh and others who said there's something wrong with performing the art on river boats, although the themes expressed in the music, especially when it comes to folk compositions, actually suit such occasions.
"The boat show takes place on the river, which fits the songs, however, unlike the sound-proof room decorated in light yellow color, and filled by rows of retro-designed bamboo chairs around the stage... the artists' voices on the boat are not clear, but mixed with sounds of wind and waves, and sometimes a vendor's invitation to buy roses, soft drinks and toys."
My who only listens to ca Hue, western classical music and prewar music said the money issue was a problem and distraction for ca Hue artists nowadays. In the prewar days, ca Hue artists didn't have to worry about money, because they were taken care of by the royal court.
According to museum director Ket, audiences often find ca Hue performance boring because the artists don't perform it with all their heart and soul like their predecessors used to. "Our goal is to narrow this performance gap between the generations as well as the artists and the audience," he said.
Senior singer Kim Vang, whose parents, husband, and children are all ca Hue artists, said the high-brow element of ca Hue is what has made it unpopular.
"The spirit of ca Hue are royal court themed songs that are not easy to understand and enjoy, many therefore are lost or no longer performed, in contrast with the folky, more popular ones today."
Ket said that the three months of free shows are not enough to promote ca Hue effectively. It has to be performed in big auditoriums in order to bring it back to its original "high-class environment," he said.
Still, My hasn't given up on "people power" and sees the music's future in different light.
He cited as an example the Hat Chau Van, a ca Hue goddess worshipping song, which he claimed uses elements of rock and roll.
Hat Chau Van is a combination of "trance" singing and dancing in which listeners often report being "mesmerized" by the more wild, free and psychedelic zither lines, My added.
It therefore has the power to "bring people into high spirits," as does rock and roll, he said.
"So, why wouldn't ca Hue be able to attract young people like me?"
Ca Hue contrasts with the ca tru genre in the North, and the tai tu "gifted scholar" style in the South.
Before and between the solo songs, a traditional ensemble will play instrumental sections to complement the singer. The ca Hue ensemble typically has five instruments the dan tranh (16-chord zither), dan nhi (Vietnamese two-chord fiddle), dan nguyet (Vietnamese two-chord guitar), dan bau (monochord), and ti ba (traditional mandolin). Sticks called phach are used for percussion.
The oldest ca Hue songs were composed two centuries ago.
So far, several workshops and seminars have been held to prepare documents to be submitted to UNESCO for recognition of ca Hue as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.