by Phuong Lan and Bach Lien
|In the mood: Pham Tai Khoan (centre) performs ca tru along with his wife (left) and son at the national ca truø festival held in Ha Noi in October last year.
|Learning the ropes: Pham Tai Khoan's family take part in a ca tru training course in Dien Chau. — Photos Tran Canh Yen
Professionals perform through the centuries
Nghe An Province is recognised as being a cradle of folk art, including ca tru. In Nghe An, ca tru was first performed in clubs and Vinh City was home to the art. Professional artists used to perform in Cong De Nhi street and gradually ca tru spread to other districts, like Dien Chau, Yen Thanh and Thanh Chuong.
Nghe An's ca truø is different from that in other localities. It is divided into two genres: the tieu hang (small singing club) and the dai hang (big singing club).
The small singing club comprised of two or three artists who belonged to a family and performed during small ceremonies. Big singing clubs comprised of well-known and talented artists who were well-respected and performed everywhere, and once upon a time performed for the King.
From the Le Trung Hung Dynasty of the 17th-18th century to the Nguyen Dynasty of the early 19th century there was a big club of the Tran family in what was then Ke Lu-Yen Ly Village (now Ngoai village of Dien Yen Commune).
Today, for most artists ca tru remains only a hobby. They live mainly off farm or handicraft work.
Having grown up listening to his mother's ca truø (ceremonial singing), Pham Tai Khoan is determined to preserve the family tradition.
"My mother used to lull me to sleep with her sweet ca truø and I am happy that my children can maintain the style. I hope my grandchildren will also be passionate about it," Khoan said.
Khoan's family is among a few in Nghe An Province who still perform ca tru almost every day. In the evening, when his four family members come home from work in rice fields, they gather together for ca tru. The roles are divided – one plays music while others sing.
Not only Khoan enjoys ca tru, his wife, Le Thi Phung, 19-year-old son and daughter-in-law (the wife of his eldest son) have taken to it. Over the weekend, they perform at the Dien Yen commune's ca tru club.
Khoan's neighbours are used to the singing coming from his little house in Dien Chau District.
"My family originated from the Tran Ke Lu ca truø singing club which is famous in the region," Phung said.
The club had been performing ca tru at ceremonies and celebrations since the 16th century, she said.
It was in 2000, that Phung first heard a 90-year-old Dien Yen woman perform in the Tran Ke Lu club and she fell in love with the music and decided to learn it, even though at that time she didn't know anything about its rhythm and technique.
Her husband, Khoan, said he began ca truø when he was only 9 years old, later taking formal lessons.
‘"I came to understand that I had a responsibility to restore and preserve this treasure of my ancestors," he said.
He and his wife practised playing and singing together and later they began to mobilised people in the village to join in.
"At the beginning, it's was very difficult to persuade them to learn to sing. We invited them several times to the club to listen to my wife and me perform. Finally, some of them took to it and joined the club."
So far, Khoan has trained four singers and three musicians who now take part in exchanges with other regions.
He has also encouraged his family to join the club.
"It's good to pass the passion on to my family. It's difficult for adults to learn ca tru, but children can pick it up quite easily from listening to their parents," Khoan said.
Their daughter-in-law Thai Thi Lien can sing well and their son Pham Van Ba can play the dan day (three-stringed guitar) and often accompanies his mother and sister.
"Young people nowadays are not interested in traditional music so it is not easy to teach them, Khoan said.
"At first, my son didn't want to learn but I told him that only this young generation could preserve ca tru and it was his task," he said.
Their efforts were acknowledged at a national ca truø festival held in Ha Noi in October last year, when his son received a prize for promising artist.
In the meantime, Khoan will not rest on his laurels. He wants more people to know how to enjoy the art.
"If ca tru can attract bigger audiences, it will develop," he said.
Other ca truø clubs in the country are facing difficulties and Khoan knows it will not be easy.
Even when he mobilises people to play musical instruments for performances, there are not enough instruments for them. They are also short of costumes.
Khoan said the State should provide funds to help traditional singing clubs co-operate and exchange with other clubs to learn from each other.
"I want to restore ca tru to preserve family values," he said. — VNS