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Ancient art form faces possible extinction

Update: August, 21/2012 - 20:30

 

My Generation: Dan day musician Vu Van Hong, 90, is a master of the craft. However, many ca tru artists are weak and elderly, and struggle to teach the youth. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan
 
Ca tru, a form of traditional Vietnamese music, is an important part of the country's cultural heritage. However, although the artists are striving to preserve the art, without help from the whole community, it still faces the danger of sinking into oblivion. Hoang Duong - Trung Hieu report.

Van Mai, a young ca tru singer, recalls how hard it was to find a teacher when she first started out.

"I used to be a singer in a military art troupe. I often sang folk songs. One day, a researcher told me that my voice would be perfect for ca tru, so I began to look for a teacher.

"I went to see veteran singer Pho Thi Kim Duc three times, but she refused me.

"The first time, she told me: ‘You should go to singing classes held by a ca tru club. That way you'll be able to sing in three months. If you studied with me, it would take a very long time.'

"The second time, I brought a tape recording of my singing and played it for her. After listening to it, she told me: ‘Your singing is fairly good. Perhaps you've been studying with another teacher. If that's the case, I can't teach you.'

"The last time, I begged her: ‘If you don't want to teach me how to sing, can you at least teach me how to beat castanets? I love the way you beat castanets.' Finally, she confessed that she was too old and had no time to teach, but she gave me some CD recordings of her singing. I was very happy to bring them home and teach myself using these songs."

Singing ca tru is extremely difficult, because the art requires many different skills. The elder singers do not easily agree to take on new pupils, Mai says.

Ca tru was recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage that must be urgently protected. It is predominant in 15 provinces and cities in the North and North Central region. But looking at the declining number of ca tru clubs and groups, people who love the art worry that it may not survive.

Ca tru, also called hat a dao or hat noi, emerged from religious singing rituals. It flourished in the 15th century in north Viet Nam among royalty, aristocrats and scholars. In subsequent centuries it reached a wider audience, with performances in communal houses, inns and private homes.

These shows were mostly for men. When a man entered a ca tru inn, he purchased a stack of bamboo tally cards. This action helps explain the meaning of the name "ca tru" in Vietnamese, as ca means songs and tru means card.

When he thought a singer had given a particularly stirring performance, he presented her with a tally card. After the performance each singer was paid in proportion to the number of cards she received.

The art requires at least three performers: a female singer who also beats a bamboo instrument with two wooden sticks (phach), a musician playing dan day (a string instrument of Viet origin), and a drummer. The drummer shows his approval of the singer or the songs by hitting the drum a particular number of times. If he likes a song, he hits the side of the drum several times. If he is disappointed with the singer, he hits the drum only twice.

 

The show must go on: Members of Ca tru Co Dam Club from Ha Tinh Province perform at a national music festival. Unfortunately such events are few and far between, and lack the backing required to create a cohesive scene. — VNA/VNS Photo Minh Duc
Keeping the art alive: Artisan Nguyen Thi Chuc, 81, in Hoai Duc District, Ha Noi, imparts her precious knowledge of ca tru onto a group of young learners. — VNA/VNS Photo Minh Duc
 
Over time, people began to enjoy ca tru as a secular art form. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a lot of demand for ca tru. Performers left their rural homes for the capital city of Ha Noi, where new parlours were opening at a rapid pace.

In 2009, when ca tru was finally recognised as a World Cultural Heritage art form, the country had about 20 clubs, including 13 in Ha Noi, which is considered the birthplace of the art. These include Ca Tru Thai Ha Club, which performs in Thuy Khue and Van Mieu, Ha Noi Ca Tru Club (in Bich Cau Dao Quan), Ca Tru Thang Long (in the Quan De Temple) and UNESCO Ca Tru Club (in the Museum of Ethnology).

However, like many other traditional art forms, ca tru faces a real problem: the performers are aging, and they do not have many younger successors.

"If we cannot create policies to support the artists soon, ca tru may disappear," says musician Dang Hoanh Loan from the Viet Nam Music Institute.

According to Loan, who researched the art form for UNESCO, the number of artists is declining and there are less and less performance spaces available. Other art forms such as cheo (traditional operetta), tuong (classical drama) and cai luong (reformed theatre) all have their own theatres, but ca tru clubs must borrow performance space.

As a result, communities do not have access to performances as they once did.

"I regret that very few young people know or appreciate ca tru. If we want this art to be popular, it must reach a younger audience. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the State should broadcast programmes showing it so more people can become familiar with the art," says Ton That Bay, an 80-year old ca tru lover.

This situation is particularly sad because hundreds of years ago, this art was the first form of traditional music where singers were organised in troupes and performed on professional stages. Now, artists struggle to find a place to perform.

The Cong Vi Communal House in Ba Dinh District, Ha Noi was once the weekly performance place of the Ca Tru Thang Long Club. Their nightly singing sessions attracted widespread attention. However, during a concert to celebrate the art's recognition as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Cong Vi Ward People's Committee officials came to ban the club from performing at this place. This was not only a shock to the club, but also to audience members who had come to celebrate the historic occasion.

"Ca Tru Thang Long Club operated here for more than two years, and we opened for them to practice singing every evening, free of charge," says Truong Van Di, the communal house manager. "But that day, the local authorities did not agree because the organisers put a fund raising box there."

Cultural researcher Bui Trong Hien from the Viet Nam Culture and Arts Institute says: "This action was a slap in the face to this cultural art form. The reason people gave made no sense. They did not realise that this was a session to honour the legacy of our forefathers, a heritage recognised by UNESCO. They did not realise the significance of a unique art form that needs to be protected."

Conservation strategies

After the incident at Cong Vi, these clubs face an even more severe problem: a lack of legal unity. A 2009 lawsuit between two groups that used the same name (Ca Tru Thang Long Club and the Cultural Centre of Ca Tru Thang Long) is a prime example. The latter eventually closed due to "inefficient operations".

These clubs desperately need support from the State's management agencies to function effectively.

"Currently, conservation efforts are limited to individuals and clubs, who can't do much on their own," Hien says.

Immediately after ca tru was honoured by UNESCO as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage that needs urgent protection", the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism announced a national action programme to protect the art (staged between 2010-15) with the contents including: raising awareness and community capacity; helping cultural communities to work together and learn from one another; bestowing titles upon talented individuals who have made marked contributions to preserving and promoting heritage; and enhancing State investment, coupled with social resources. However, these are only words, and without financial resources to back them up, their effectiveness is limited.

"Many of the elderly performers are old and weak, living in difficult conditions. If we want them to train young people, remuneration policies for them are necessary," says Hien. Prof To Ngoc Thanh, Chairman of the Viet Nam Folk Arts Association, says three elements are needed to teach the art successfully. "First, the young learners must see value in the art. Second, localities must support it. Third, major financial investments are necessary."

Singer Vuong Tu Ngoc, from the UNESCO Ca Tru Club, says the artist must also be passionate about the form. "Ca tru is difficult, so the artist must put their heart and soul into it," she says.

Many researchers have proposed that health insurance cards should be given to the elderly artists. However, such a simple proposal was not implemented due to legal barriers.

Threatened with increasing losses of these "living folk treasures" in the last 10 years, the Viet Nam Folk Arts Association has awarded "folk artists" titles to more than 200 elders, including ca tru performers for their meritorious work.

"We know that this title is only symbolic, but they have a real spiritual significance and encourage the artists to continue to protect and teach the art," Prof To Ngoc Thanh says.

If people today do not consciously respect and preserve this cultural heritage left by our forefathers, a vital element of the cultural identity of Viet Nam will soon sink into oblivion. — VNS

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