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Listening to old music with young ears

Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao was enjoying a moment of epiphany, almost.

Plucking the right strings: Foreign visitors learn about musical instruments used in a ca Hue performance.
Plucking the right strings: Foreign visitors learn about musical instruments used in a ca Hue performance.

She was a native of the former capital city of Hue, but she’d never really cared or taken the time to listen to ca Hue, a music form that her parents and grandparents were proud of.

“Amazing! It was great to find out that the music has so many different melodies, both sorrowful and cheerful. I could feel the harmony between the music and the lyrics.”

Thao had left Hue for studies as an adolescent, and stayed on to work in HCM City. She would visit home very year, but still had paid no attention to what she considered an archaic form of music.

This April, since a friend was visiting Hue with her, she attended a free ca Hue performance, and it was revelation.

Her friend from HCM City, who accompanied Thao on her visit, said he felt he could glean elements of rock music in some of the songs that the ca Hue artists played in robust fashion.

The exposure that this form of music is getting among the youth could turn out to be crucial in preserving it for posterity, experts say.

Steeped in tradition: A free ca Hue performance in Hue Museum of Culture. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu

Feudal beginnings

Ca Hue, also known as “the Hue tune”, took root in the region about 500 years, and experts say it has similarities to other Vietnamese traditional music forms like don ca tai tu (Southern folk music) and ca tru (ceremonial singing) found in the northern region.

It is also said to be a variation of nha nhac (Hue royal court music). It sets to tune some Hue folk songs and others composed by scholars, mandarins and royal family members used to stage these performances in their homes as an exquisite hobby.

Originally, ca Hue had a total of 60 basic tunes. It is said to have grown out of a need for entertainment among members of the royal family as well as mandarins looking for a more common form of the court music.

The participation of intellectuals in composing new tunes and lyrics earned the art form the title of chamber music. But it also had grassroots features thanks to the use of Hue folk songs for the lyrics. This mixing of different classes in a feudal setting increased the art-forms popularity.

Melodious: A ca Hue song performed in Hue Museum of Culture. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu

This music is typically performed with traditional Vietnamese musical instruments, some of which are used in performances of Hue royal court music, including the dan tranh (16-string zither), dan nhi (two-string fiddle), dan nguyet (moon-shaped lute), and sanh tien (wooden clappers).

Researchers have not been able to ascertain when teacups were included in the instrument line-up for ca Hue performances. However, they have proved to be a highly popular addition, with listeners never failing to be charmed by the rhythms, the skills and the uniqueness of the instrument.

Some experts have said that the song lyrics were basically developed on the Hue dialect locals produced in daily conversations. Another distinct characteristic is that while singing forms in other regions use repetitions of a word for modulation, ca Hue creates modulating effects by using the same sound on different words.

There are many who see the art as quintessentially Hue.

“Visitors cannot get a feel of Hue and understand locals if their visits don’t have time for ca Hue,” asserts poet Vo Que, who formed the Ca Hue Club 32 years ago and has managed it until now.

Rhythmic: Women play teacups and wooden clappers on a river boat in the central city of Hue. — Photo courtesy of HGH Travel

Nowadays, ca Hue performances are a part of visits to the ancient city for both Vietnamese and foreigners. It is performed on modest home stages and “dragon” boats. Listening to this music on the tranquil waters of the Huong (Perfume) River on a moonlit night with a cool breeze is said to be an unforgettable experience, a throwback to another era, with singers and musicians dressed in the ao dai.

Que feels ca Hue has so far been able to hold its own in a modernising nation, and will do so in the future as well.

“I believe the art will be develop well in the future as there are more artists, musicians and vocalists,” he said.

Family training has so far been a crucial factor in passing on the art through generations.

Ton Nu Le Hoa, a 16-string zither musician with more than 40 years of experience, said she learnt the music from her parents. Today, thanks to her training, three of her children are experts in singing and playing several instruments although they do other work.

Ca Hue has also been added as a major in the music academy, with enrollment open every year for both vocalists and musicians. Que says veteran artists, some older than 80, continue to be active in the club, teaching young performers.

With enough people being groomed to take over performances in the future, it is not manpower, but management that is emerging as a problem in preserving the traditional art, artists and other experts say.

They say that local culture authorities have failed to stop very low-quality performances that are not authentic. They say visitors have complained that they’ve had to pay for “fake” shows, including Hue songs.

There are also complaints that organisers sometimes overcharge audiences and try to ask visitors for more money after giving them lanterns to float on the river after a show.

The city’s culture department has said it has licensed 500 performers and attempted to address problems over the last two years. It has issued several regulations as well as a pricelist for the shows that lays out how much an artist should be paid for each show.

Setting the stage alight: Hue artists perform folk songs at the biennial Hue Festival in April last year. — VNA/VNS Photo Tran Le Lam

Inspections have found out that regulations are often violated. Shows are cut short so that the artists can move to another boat. Poet Que, who initiated Hue singingshows on river boats, is distressed. He says the soul of the art should be protected and there is no room for such violations.

It’s free!

Standard ca Hue shows, free, are held at the Hue Museum of Culture at 25 Le Loi Street, Hue City. Shows are held every Tuesday and Friday evening at 7.30pm.

Musician Hoa has appealed to young performers, calling on them to maintain their self-respect.

“I believe that working decently in the shows could earn enough for performers, so there should be no overcharging,” she said.

These hassles apart, experts have hailed the healthy preservation of the art form, deeming it worthy of UNESCO recognition.

“I believe folk tunes can get the recognition if culture authorities work efficiently in developing and preserving the art,” said Que. He also suggested that ca Hue be added to the music curriculum at local primary schools.

Institutional actions and recognitions are one thing, but the art’s sustainable future is likely to depend on increasing the number of young listeners like Thao.

She said: “I used to think it was boring and something only older generations bothered about. But this is really fascinating!”