In 2009, UNESCO recognised ca tru as an intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding. It is now making a comeback into Vietnamese society, but what happened to this once popular, enchanting style of musical entertainment that brought it to such dire straits?
From the court to the bars
The origins of ca tru are, like many traditional art forms in Vietnamese culture, subject to debate. There is a popular myth that suggests it was created by a woman whose voice bewitched her people’s enemies, allowing them to be killed. However much truth there is in that story, it seems likely that the style of singing was developed as a form of worship called hát khuôn and performed in the royal courts from the time of the Ly Dynasty (1010 – 1225).
For some time, musicians only performed for people in the higher echelons of society. They would sing and play at court or for nobles at their estates. These forays into society eventually led to invitations to perform at special occasions and, finally, performers found their way into the inns and taverns where the term ca tru became attached to the style of music.
The name ca tru means ‘tally card songs’. When artists performed their music, the establishment that housed them would sell small, rectangular pieces of bamboo, known as tally cards, to its patrons. They would, in turn, give them to the artists who they particularly appreciated and the artists would get paid in correlation with the amount of tally cards they collected.
How do they do it?
Ca tru ensembles are traditionally made up of three performers. They are:
- the singer, who also plays the phach – a wood block;
- a musician, who plays the dan day – a three-string, ten-fret lute; and
- a percussionist, who plays the trong chau – a praise drum.
Becoming a ca tru singer is something that requires a lot of dedication and, traditionally, the luck to be born into it. The art has been passed from generation to generation within families, who pride themselves on perfecting it. Ca tru singers are required to learn to have very strict control over their voices, but they must also gain a great understanding of the poetry and music to be able to get the best out of their performance. The lyrics of the songs are written in traditional Vietnamese poetic forms and the music follows the rhythm of the poetry, rather than the other way around.
The singer also plays the main beat on a wooden block using two sticks of different sizes that produce differing percussive sounds. The lute player, using a style of lute that is almost exclusively used for ca tru, plays an accompanying melody. Together, the lute player and the singer provide the body of the performance. The third member of the ensemble, playing the praise drum, does not provide the rhythm, as might be expected. The drum is used to round off phrases and to ‘applaud’ the other musicians during the performance.
Degradation and decline against Ca Tru
Unfortunately, during the 19th Century, the art became associated with prostitution. The singers, who had traditionally spent time conversing with their more generous patrons, were sometimes ‘bought’ for other reasons. The decline of ca tru appeared to be confirmed in the 1940’s, when the communist regime came into power. The bars where the patrons gathered to listen to the beautiful, relaxing sounds of the musical ensembles were shut down, because of their reputation for encouraging morals that did not line up with the strict communist ideals.
The sounds of singing return
More recently, efforts have been made – including getting UNESCO support – to revive the art of ca tru and it is beginning to prosper once more. There are now clubs in Vietnam that have live performances and festivals where the musicians can be seen. Also, the addition of ca tru to the UNESCO list is likely to expose people around the world to this delightful form of entertainment.