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  • UNESCO Collection Week 43: Ca trù and Quan họ Traditions of Vietnam

    This week’s UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music release, Viet Nam: Ca trù & Quan họ-Traditional Music, highlights two musical traditions of northern Vietnam. In 2009, quan họ folk songs were inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which aims to raise awareness of the diversity of this particular heritage. The same year, ca trù singing was included on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding to ensure its survivial. More insight into the tradition of ca trù can be found in the latest issue of Smithsonian Folkways Magazine.


    by Gene Lai

    When it comes to Vietnamese culture, the first thing that comes to mind is delicious Vietnamese cuisine: pho noodle soup, Vietnamese spring rolls, and, not to mention, renowned Vietnamese drip coffee. These dishes are staples in Vietnamese restaurants around the world. As an aficionado of Vietnamese cuisines, I found a connection between the simplistic yet flavorful tastes in Vietnamese cuisine and the two Vietnamese traditional music genres featured on the UNESCO album Traditional Music: Ca trù & Quan họ.

    Take pho noodle soup for example: despite being a simple rice noodle soup, the process of making the broth is sophisticated. One needs to gather all relevant herbs and spices, bring them to a simmer, add beef bones, and finally, add beef sirloin and tendons. This mixture will be cooked for hours to produce the savory broth for the pho noodle soup. Similarly, ca trù and quan họ are two of the most unique and “flavorful” Vietnamese traditional musics. On first listen, they may sound simple, but the process of performing these music traditions is as sophisticated as making broth for pho noodle soup.

    Ca trù, or “song with little token,” is a traditional style of Vietnamese chamber music from northern Vietnam. It is known as “song with little token” because singers receive ornamented bamboo tokens from the audience after every well-executed performance. At the end of the performance, singers can exchange their tokens for money or gifts. In a typical ca trù performance, the vocal part is usually sung by women, who may also play the bamboo clappers known as phách. Accompanying the singer is an instrumentalist who plays the trapezoidal three-string lute known as dàn-day. An individual from the audience (usually a male) will play on an auxiliary drum known as the praise drum or trông-châu. This individual will appraise the performance and play specific drum rhythms to praise or to penalize the performers during the performance. Moreover, he will also mark punctuation points and change of phrase in the music with the drum.

    The sonority of ca trù is simple yet sophisticated. It comprises of only three musical parts, but includes complex ornamentation and rhythmic patterns. Furthermore, the sonorities of ca trù seem to bear resemblances to elements from Peking opera, Javanese gamelan vocal, and the oud (Pear-shaped lute) in Arabic music. It is also worth noting that the gesture of having an individual in the audience to appraise the performance by playing on the praise drum is remarkable. All in all, as demonstrated in “Bác Phan" (Track 1), "Muou and Hát Noi"(Track 2), and “Ty Bà Hành" (Track 3), the unique blend of sonorities (which presumably is a hybrid of Chinese, Indonesian, Arabian, and Vietnamese music), the simple yet complex nature of the music, and the unique audience participatory component makes ca trù one of the most outstanding musical practices in the world.

    Similarly to ca trù, quan họ is another northern Vietnamese music tradition. Unlike the ca trù, the quan họ is a form of duet singing that traditionally does not involve any instrumental accompaniment. It comprises of a collection of hundreds of traditional songs that are categorized as soft, romantic, or attractive. Quan họ is usually performed in farmyard or community centers during celebratory occasions such as the spring festival or during the night of full moon.

    Quan họ may be performed for the purpose of leisure or for competition. It involves a pair of female singers and a pair of male singers, alternatively issuing musical challenges and responses. Within each pair, one singer leads while the other supports. Despite the unpretentious melodic contours of the quan họ duets, it is necessary to note that quan họ singing demands great amounts of concentration, and singers must be competent with intricate vocal techniques. Therefore, only talented singers are eligible to sing during quan họ performances. To be recognized as talented, the pair must establish an effectual musical partnership; the singers are required to sing in unison, and in tune. Furthermore, due to the improvisational nature of quan họ, the supporting singer must respond instantaneously to the lead singer’s improvisation.

    A typical quan họ performance comprises of three sections, in which a specific genre of songs is performed during each section to express different feelings. The performance begins with giong lê lôi [songs of standard tune type: “Duong ban kim loan” (Track 6)] and continues with giong vat [songs of varying tunes types: “So câu nhu y” (Track 7)], the performance will reach its climax when giong huynh and giong ham (difficult songs) are performed. The giong huynh and giong ham include newly composed songs, and songs that are improvised on the spot. The performance will conclude with gia ban [songs of farewell tune type: “Dêm Qua Nho Ban” (Track 8)] to bid farewell.

    In recent years, the quan họ practice has undergone several transformations. First, although quan họ songs are originally sung as duets, the number of singers involved in singing has begun to vary. The songs may be sung in solo or by three or more singers in different occasions. Second, instrumental accompaniment is integrated into most quan họ performances. The common accompanying instruments are nhi (two-stringed fiddle), bâu (monochord), têu (vertical flute), sao (transverse flute), nguyêt (moon-shaped lute), and tranh (sixteen-stringed zither). These changes are demonstrated in “Ke Bac Nguoi Nam” (Track 10). Additionally, in rare occasions, western musical instruments such as guitars, electric basses, synthesizers, and drum kits are adopted. Third, quan họ songs are gradually shifting from traditional performance venues to theaters, concert halls, and public television. Consequently, it is common to hear renditions of quan họ songs in concerts, and televised singing competitions such as The Voice Vietnam, and Vietnam's got Talent.

    Traditional Music: Ca trù & Quan họ provides the listener with a comprehensive overview of these two traditions. Although seemingly simple on first listen, the listener will soon discover that these traditions are as flavorful as renowned Vietnamese cuisine.

    Gene Lai is a native of Singapore. He received a BA in Education from the National Institute of Education—Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and a MMus in Historical Musicology from Ohio University with a thesis entitled “The Hindu Fire Walking Festival in Singapore: Ritual and Music of the Tamil Diaspora.” The thesis was awarded the 2014 Most Outstanding Music Graduate Research Award. Currently a MA student in Ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, he is studying the South Indian Urumi Melam musical tradition in Singapore. Other research interests include Southeast and South Asian folk and classical music, with particular interests in Singapore, hybridization in musical practices, impact of technologies on musical practices, and world music pedagogy. Gene is a member of the Society of Ethnomusicology, the International Council of Traditional Music, and the American Musicological Society. He was a recipient of the 2013 American Musicological Society Eileen Southern Travel Award.

    UNESCO Collection Week 43: Ca trù and Quan họ Traditions of Vietnam | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings