Nights of Ca Trù: Efforts to Revive Music Heritage Continue in Hanoi

Phú Thị members and some of the audience after the first performance of Night of Ả Đào Khâm Thiên, August 11. ⓒNguyễn Kim Ngọc

On the evening of August 11, 2019, the very first performance of the Night of Ả Đào Khâm Thiên series was held in Cao Sơn Tea Room in Khâm Thiên Street, Hanoi. Performers included Nguyễn Kim Ngọc (female singer), Vũ Thùy Linh (female singer), Phạm Đình Hoàng (male instrumentalist, playing the long-necked three-stringed đàn đáy lute), and Phạm Minh Vẽ (male instrumentalist, playing the trống chầu “praise” drum). All four are in their thirties and are members of a ca trù group named Phú Thị.

Phú Thị was established in 2014 as one among various attempts to revive ca trù (which is also called ả đào, or “song of the songstresses”), an ancient sung poetry and music genre of Vietnam, after it was inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2009. Nguyễn Kim Ngọc, active member of the Phú Thị group, is the daughter of a renowned Hanoi-based folk musician. She herself was a student of the Vietnam National Academy of Music (VNAM), majoring in đàn nguyệt (four-stringed moon-shaped lute), from 2003 to 2010. Vietnamese folk music has always been indispensable to Ngọc’s personal life and her career orientation. Yet, she never thought she would become a ca trù singer until her teacher at VNAM, Phạm Thị Huệ, the first female đàn đáy lutenist in Vietnam, invited her to join the Thăng Long ca trù club founded by Huệ in 2008.

In addition to Ngọc’s participation, Vũ Thùy Linh, another student from VNAM, also started to learn ca trù with the support of Thăng Long. The time Ngọc and Linh spent with Thăng Long was short, and they were only introduced to basic ca trù singing techniques; yet it was so intriguing that it led both of them to a deeper commitment to ca trù. Ngọc and Linh sought to meet and learn ca trù from Master Nguyễn Thị Chúc, who was in her late seventies at that time. Master Chúc used the traditional way of teaching—oral transmission—to hand down her mastery of singing techniques, ca trù repertoire, and song texts to Ngọc and Linh. The young girls gradually learned difficult breathing and vibrato techniques as well as the ability to harmoniously sing and tap out a rhythm on a small bar made of bamboo at the same time. They kept learning ca trù with Master Chúc until 2014 when she passed away. To keep Master Chúc’s artistic legacy alive, Ngọc, Linh, and an instrumentalist, Phạm Đình Hoàng, who learned đàn đáy lute directly from Master Nguyễn Phú Đẹ, decided to found the Phú Thị ca trù group. The Phú Thị name was taken after the middle names of the two Masters — Nguyễn Phú Đẹ and Nguyễn Thị Chúc.

Phú Thị members are performing at Night of Ả Đào Khâm Thiên on September 08 ⓒNguyễn Kim Ngọc

While Phú Thị has performed at many cultural events, and they were even honored with several awards at national festivals of ca trù, Night of Ả Đào Khâm Thiên marked the first time they performed in Khâm Thiên Street, a location that has long been part of the history of ca trù. During the first half of the twentieth century, Khâm Thiên was home to countless singing bars (ca quán) where urban elites and intellectuals came to seek enjoyment from ca trù singing sessions. The proliferation of singing bars in Khâm Thiên and other streets in Hanoi during that time marked another development path of ca trù as a form of entertainment performed by professional artists beside other preexisting forms such as hát cửa đình (worship singing in village communal house), hát thi (singing contests), and hát cửa quyền (singing in royal palaces).   

The performance venue is somewhat spiritually significant to the members of Phú Thị. “I can feel the continuity with the past while singing beautiful ca trù songs in this teahouse on Khâm Thiên street,” says Nguyễn Kim Ngọc. Moreover, with performance sessions to be held every second and fourth Sunday of each month, Ngọc and Phú Thị consider it an opportunity to meet with the audience more often than they have done before.

At the first two sessions of Night of Ả Đào Khâm Thiên in August (11 and 25), the 55-seat auditorium in Cao Sơn Tea Room was filled to its capacity. Nguyễn Kim Ngọc says: “Even though there are still many challenges to the safeguarding and revival of ca trù, because it had fallen into oblivion for so long, seeing more and more people coming to ca trù performances today makes us happy. We hope people will understand and appreciate ca trù not as something from the past but something that they can enjoy presently.”

The third and fourth sessions of Night of Ả Đào Khâm Thiên were held in September 8 and 22, respectively.