Resonating Ca tru melodies for Thang Long – Hanoi

In Hanoi, folk artisans are tirelessly striving to preserve ca tru - a valuable intangible cultural heritage of our nation.

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Hanoi’s ca tru folk performances in Lo Khe (Dong Anh District), Thuong Mo (Dan Phuong District), or Ngai Cau (Hoai Duc District), all ancient villages, are well known throughout Vietnam. In the land of Thang Long, the capital of a thousand years of civilization, ca tru tunes still capture the hearts of contemporary audiences.

Golden season of Hanoian ca tru

Ca tru folk singing practice by Hanoi artisans. Photo: VICAS

For centuries, along with Vietnamese art forms like cheo, tuong, and chau van, ca tru has been deeply connected to the land of Thang Long – Hanoi, fostering a close rapport with generations of citizens and becoming an integral part of the nation’s traditional musical treasure.

In the past, ca tru was an exquisite pastime of intellectuals. This distinguished audience, often scholars or connoisseurs of the art, would gather in spring to enjoy tea and engage in poetic endeavors, such as composing couplets or parallel sentences. Simultaneously, they would be entranced by the performances of ca tru singers and lute players.

According to music critic and researcher Nguyen Quang Long, ca tru thrives most vigorously during the spring season, coinciding with the traditional Vietnamese Lunar New Year. “Ca tru contributes to a spiritually vibrant Hanoi and adds a touch of elegance to the city’s traditional arts,” he remarked.

Each year, prior to Tet (the Vietnamese New Year), groups of folk artists from the cradle of Hanoi’s ca tru—Lo Khe, Thuong Mo, and Ngai Cau villages—eagerly don their ancient costumes and instruments for ca tru performances.

Living treasure of ca tru

Nguyen Thi Tam is awarded the title of People’s Artist of the folk performance art form ca tru in 2023. Photo: Thien Tu/The Hanoi Times

In 2024, folk musician Nguyen Thi Tam, hailing from Thuong Mo Commune in Dan Phuong District, Hanoi, turned 75. However, her captivating voice still mesmerizes the audience when she sings the anonymous composer’s “Mung xuan” or “Spring Celebration.” Her articulation is astonishingly clear, while her musical skills remain as flawless as those of young ca tru singers.

Having performed ca tru for over half a century, her high-pitched voice continues to reverberate through spring festivals, resonating with classic ca tru melodies. A few notable examples include Nguyen Khac Hieu’s “Gap Xuan” (Meeting Spring) and “Xuan Tinh” (Spring Love), Nguyen Cong Tru’s “Choi Xuan Keo Het Xuan Di” (Celebrate Spring or Spring Will Pass), Tran Te Xuong’s “Cau Doi Ngay Tet” (Tet Couplets) and “Canh Tet Nha Co Dau” (Tet Scene at a Singsong Girl’s House), as well as compositions by unknown authors, such as “Chuc Xuan” (Spring Wishes).

Ca tru successors

Dan Phuong Commune’s Ca Tru Singing Club. Photo: Thien Tu/The Hanoi Times

Nguyen Thi Tam has devoted herself to “living with ca tru as long as she’s still healthy.”

In 2009, this musical genre was added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage that urgently requires protection. However, the esteemed artist, originating from Xu Doai (one of the four ancient provinces surrounding Thang Long), is no longer haunted by concerns over the disappearance of ca tru due to a lack of successors.

Instead, she now rejoices in the fact that Hanoi boasts over 1,300 members distributed among nearly 20 ca tru groups and clubs, each of which practices and organizes activities regularly. These artists also participate in ca tru festivals nationwide and perform at tourist events.

This constitutes a stark contrast compared to 15 years ago, when Hanoi witnessed only a few monotonous guilds with scarce numbers of artists and audiences.

Throughout the years, People’s Artisan Nguyen Thi Tam has trained many individuals interested in ca tru—both locally and elsewhere. Among her pupils, the veteran artist has discovered numerous young enthusiasts for traditional Vietnamese arts. These individuals learn remarkably swiftly, mastering the phach (a pair of small wooden sticks struck against a small bamboo platform) within a week, after which they embark on learning singing and other instruments.

Young ca tru performers in Hanoi. Photo: Thien Tu/The Hanoi Times

Many are unaware that ca tru singer Nguyen Mai Phuong, aged 14 and affiliated with Thuong Mo Ca Tru Club, enjoys country-wide acclaim. She represents one of Tam’s esteemed apprentices. Thanks to Tam’s dedicated tutelage, the prodigious singer mastered the phach and ca tru melodies in just two years. Her phach sounds are sharp and precisely timed, and her singing voice exhibits clarity and resonance. She is regarded as a ca tru prodigy.

Recently, Hanoi has organized ca tru training courses along with ca tru festivals to cultivate a new generation of artisans specializing in refined vocal and instrumental techniques.

As fresh buds of this folk art spring forth, the capital city of Thang Long – Hanoi witnesses the revival of ca tru. The profound adoration of traditional arts among its youth promises a radiant future for Hanoi’s ca tru.