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Poem Singing to Castanets

Tuesday 20 February 2007

According to Đỗ Bằng Đoàn and Đỗ Trọng Huề, co-authors of the "Research on the Vietnam Ca trù", ca trù originated from a combination of Chinese singing-dancing and Vietnam Royal Court music between 111 B.C. and 938 A.D.

Another appellation of this artistic genre is "hát thẻ". Hát means sing, thẻ means plaquette on which is inscribed the amount of money to be awarded to those who are singing best - so it means plaquette-singing.

According to historical records, the earliest existence of Vietnam Royal Court music was under the Lý dynasty (1009-1225) with the nomination of a chief-manager for the royal musical band. This event is of great significance for the formation of the musical school of ca trù. It is under the Lê dynasty (the second half XV century) that musical tunes similar to the present ones in ca trù appeared, such as cung bắc, đại thực, hát tầng, thiết nhạc, hà nam. During the late Lê dynasty (late XVI - late XVIII century), ca trù was known as nữ nhạc (ladies music or chamber music played by ladies) or hát cửa quyền (nobility singing or singing for the nobility). Long afterwards, this style of singing was expanded beyond the court into the populace and performed in festivals, weddings, longevity feasts, etc. Since then, it was called hát ả đào (the song of the lady from the Đào village) with various tunes such as phong yêu cổ, đan điệu cổ accompanied by drums, or địch quản accompanied by a flute. Also taking part in the performance were đàn đáy (a long-necked lute with three strings), phách (a bamboo instrument beaten with two wooden sticks), đàn cầm (a fiddle) and đàn tranh (a sixteen-chord harp).

The singer is generally called ả đào or đào nương (lady Đào) and the whole band of music players is called giáo phường (a music band). The head of the band is called ông trùm (the boss), next comes the quản giáp (the manager). Those bands who specifically perform in the communal house are called hát cửa đình (singing in front of the communal house), those specifically in the service of the nobility are called hát nhà tơ (tơ is a derivation of ty, meaning mandarin’s office), and those performing in guest houses (or play houses) are hát nhà trò (singing by singer).

In the earlier capital city of Thăng Long specialized bands existed such as the Tống Tả Nghiêm Band which became the Kim Liên Band who lived in the area which now includes Lý Thái Tổ, Tràng Tiền and Hàng Khay streets. Before the resistance war, the communal house remained there dedicated to the originator of this band. Other localities such as Khâm Thiên, Thái Hà, Ngã Tư Sở had once been centers for ca trù. One site of ca trù that still exists is located in Lô Khê village, Liên Hà commune, Đông Anh district. Here the training and the preservation of ca trù art has been handed down from generation to generation. The artistic group in this commune very often obtains great success in various rounds of performances with its ca trù number.

Starting from a global cultural activity in the Lê period (XV century), which included singing, dancing and music, continuing up until the early Nguyễn period (XIX century), ca trù had been gradually changing into a kind of chamber ca trù, dancing being subdued while music and singing were enhanced. As time has passed, chamber ca trù has been much appreciated and has become a refined entertainment for the capital city’s singers.

Witnessing a seance of ca trù means hearing the beautiful voice of lady singers performing beautiful songs of their elders and at the same time enjoying the poem written for this style of singing. They sing while sitting and beating the phách with two hands, musicians accompany the song with the three-cord lute, and customers sit cross-legged with a tambourine in front of them, so that they can beat it sometimes to appreciate the beautiful voice of the singers and the melodious sounds of the music.

The main tunes, among the many others being played in ca trù, are: thét nhạc (howling), ngâm vọng (reciting), bắc phản (northern), nhịp ba cung bắc (northern triple time), gửi thư (sending letter), đọc thơ (reciting poem) and hãm (detaining). Famous Chinese poems such as Tỳ bà hành (guitar’s song), Tiền Xích Bích phú, Hậu Xích Bích phú (rhythmical prose on the Xích Bích River) are the most appreciated.

The characteristic of ca trù is hát nói, the song being taken from traditional poems set to music. So the number of songs in hát nói is very large and most of them are anonymous. On the other hand, authors of the most appreciated musical poems are mostly famous poets from the capital, such as: Nguyễn Công Trứ, Cao Bá Quát, Nguyễn Khuyến, Nguyễn Quý Tần, Chu Mạnh Trinh, Phan Văn Ái and Nguyễn Thượng Hiền. This is also the kind of singing that patriotic scholars in the early XX century often used, to disseminate patriotism among the masses.

The performing art of ca trù itself is quite complicated, requiring the singer to emit words clearly and distinctly, to be lofty and elegant in gesture but no less sentimental. The internal breathing is of greatest importance in the singing technique, especially important is the tremolo and how to be discrete whilst at the same time correct and decent. Also the beating of castanets is very sophisticated, the singer has to express her feelings and sentiments through the sound of castanets.

It is notable that the tambourine and the tambourine player are of great significance for the success of performing a seance, they ensure spiritual and intellectual harmony amongst the audience and encourage the sharing of enjoyment between the artists and customers. The tambourine should be of springy wood and easy to handle. The player is not just a customer but a man with a high aesthetic sense of literature and music (sometimes he himself is the author of the poem performed). He should be sensitive enough to be able to put his soul into the beat, making the singer much more passionate. The beating includes two sounds: tom and chat. Tom is the sound of the stick on the tambourine disc, and chat is the sound it makes on the tambourine side. Many beautiful names were given to the various sounds, for instance thuỳ châu (pearl dropping), lạc nhạn (lost swallow) and hạ mã (off the horse) for the chat, and phi nhan (flying swallow) and thượng mã (on horse) for the tom. Thus the sense of participation is very high in ca trù performing. The audience, particularly the tambourine beaters, are the ones who enjoy the performance, and at the same time are the participants in creating the enjoyment. The singers are performers and they also enjoy the performance. The atmosphere of communion is spread throughout the performance chamber.

The đàn đáy (three-chord lute) is of no less significance in the performance. It is a unique musical instrument linking the voice and the beating of castanets by the singers and the tom chat of the tambourine beater. The sound of the đàn đáy is sometimes soft, sometimes hard from the skillful fingers of the player, it has the effect of embellishing the singers voice.

Many ca trù halls were closed in the colonial period. They fell into depravity, especially after the performing of seance. The hát ả đào had become so distorted, even though the ca trù performers had always kept the traditional style and practice.

Today ca trù has been restored to its rightful position as chamber music in Vietnam. Ca trù artists in the capital city have got together to form the Hanoi Ca trù Club. Performances are held regularly every month at Bích Câu Hall, and every year, ca trù is always present at the Văn Miếu and Ngọc Sơn Temple Festivals.

(HISEDS 01/03/2004)