Sitting with her legs crossed, her back bolt upright, and her head tilted upwards, a young Vietnamese woman in a traditional Ao Dai dress lets loose a striking, high-pitched note. To her right, an elderly man strums on a lute, his eyes closed and faced tightened in heavy concentration.
Another young woman slowly and purposefully raps a wooden drum with a stick, her gaze locked on something above and beyond me. The trio does not falter, they do not smile, they do not relax. This is a serious activity, one which they clearly treat with reverence.
These musicians are performing Ca Tru, a form of sung poetry which has its origins in Vietnam’s north where the national capital Hanoi is located. Today is their day off from public performances (details below), yet they’ve rushed to their stage in the city’s Old Quarter to give me a demonstration in the hope of increasing awareness of their craft.
What is Ca Tru
You see, Ca Tru is dying out, just like many other ancient traditions across the world. It is in such danger of disappearing that UNESCO placed Ca Tru on its list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding” in 2009.
The folk music style first emerged in the 11th century but did not become broadly popular for another 400 years.
The ravages of war are considered one of the key reasons for its decline in popularity. From the 1950-80s, Vietnam was either engaged in war, readying itself or recovering from conflict. Entertainment and arts were very much sidelined during this period.
As a consequence, many of Ca Tru’s practitioners grew old or died so few were left to pass on their skills and traditions. The Vietnamese Government then embarked on a program to revive traditional arts in the 1990s and Ca Tru went through something of a renaissance.
By the mid-2000s there were more than 20 clubs spread across 14 provinces in Vietnam. The Government funded groups tasked with the preservation of Ca Tru and held national festivals to promote it. Yet its current practitioners still number only a few dozen, and many of them are elderly like Doan Van Huu, the man playing the lute with such conviction.
His offsiders in that performance, singer Dang Thi Huong and drummer Doan Linh Huong are both half his age.
Attracting young people to the art form is a difficult task when it is so far removed from the upbeat pop music that dominates the airwaves in Vietnam.
What they create is slow, gentle music most memorable for its vocal gymnastics. In Ca Tru, the female singer moves frequently from low to high notes, their vibrato sweet and husky. The musical backdrop created by the other two members of a group is sparse. The vocals are complemented by the slow strumming of a Dan Day lute, and the percussive rhythm of a Trong Chau drum.
While it may no longer have great pull with Vietnamese people, particularly children and young adults, Ca Tru is being kept alive, to an extent, by the interest of foreign tourists. The trio performing for me are members of Ca Tru Thang Long, the highest-profile ensemble in Hanoi.
Where to see a Ca Tru performance
The group holds performances at 8pm on Thursdays and Saturdays in the Chinese temple. Known as Quan De temple, it is a small yet beautifully restored structure which frames an intimate venue for these performances.
Audiences of anywhere from a dozen to 40 people can be seated in the temple’s courtyard. The musicians sit on a raised platform in the prayer hall.
Some Ca Tru performances are more lively and include dance. But Ca Tru Thang Long specialises in a more understated style which has its roots in worship singing. And in fact, Ca Tru once was a wildly diverse and came in more than 50 different musical forms, according to UNESCO.
- Ca Tru Thang Long holds its twice-weekly performances inside Quan De Temple at 28 Hang Buom Street, in the middle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a tourist-friendly area filled with restaurants, cafes and bars.
- Tickets to the 8pm shows on Thursdays and Saturdays cost $16 and can be bought at the temple or in advance at catruthanglong.com
- Just a few minutes walk from Quan De Temple is Hanoi’s famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, which holds up to six shows a day.