Vietnamese ca tru

Ca trù is a vocal chamber music genre with a long history in northern Vietnam. Due to war and political tension ca trù was rarely performed from the 1950s to the late 1980s, and much musical knowledge was lost. Since the early 1990s a revival has taken place, and although the number of skilled musicians is still low, the amount of people engaged with ca trù has grown significantly in the last decade or so, especially through the phenomenon of the ca trù ‘club’. Although government institutions have favoured revitalisation projects that showcase ca trù as a proud part of national heritage, ca trù musicians are faced with many difficulties, including basic matters like making a living and having a venue for performing. Sustainability depends on further government support for its infrastructure and on continued development by the performers for the survival of the intricate artistic contents of ca trù in a modern context.

Learning ca trù has typically involved an apprenticeship of some years with a master-musician, generally a relative. During the decades of decline this method of transmission was largely broken and today ca trù clubs represent the primary means for the intergenerational transmission of ca trù outside the traditions of family apprenticeship. There is no set structure for the educational activities of ca trù clubs, but generally group immersion in the genre – where musicians can perform and get formal or informal advice and opinions by other enthusiasts –encourages learning and development.

In one club (Ca trù Thăng Long), which this study followed in some detail, private lessons are given for the students but most of the teaching takes place during group rehearsals for some of the clubs regular performances. During rehearsals, peer learning and teaching is common. Singing and playing in the club are always taught aurally. This specific club is unusual insofar as it puts in considerable effort to teach its young students additional skills to help them make a living as musicians in Vietnam.

At the moment ca trù is not taught at any of Vietnam’s Academies of Music and musicians generally expressed concerns that frequent use of sheet music and set composition rather than aural learning and improvisation over framework melodies would be harmful to the genre. Although tentative suggestions have been made to incorporate ca trù in the Academy curriculum, at the present time and in a foreseeable future clubs and family apprenticeship remain the most important learning institutions for ca trù.


Ca trù is a vocal music genre practiced by the Viet, the largest ethnic group in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The genre is considered a particularity of the northern part of the country, especially Hanoi and the Red River delta. Ca trù is performed by a trio of musicians, and the repertoire consists of poems sung with accompaniment of lute, đàn đáy, and wooden clapper, phách. A ‘praise drum’, trống chầu – in the past played by an audience member rather than a member of the ensemble – is used to comment on the performance of the singer and lutenist. Most often the singer and clapper player is a female, whereas the lutenist and the drummer are male, although there are exceptions to this rule.

Ca trù was originally a rural art form organised in a guild system and tied to ceremonies at village temples and performances for village dignitaries. In the mid 19th century, during the French colonial era, ca trù guilds began to move from the countryside into the cities of northern Vietnam where they set up singing houses, ca quán. These singing houses where at times no more than brothels and drinking dens, which led to the genre becoming increasingly connected to bad morals and illegal activities. After the August Revolution in 1945 and the communists’ final victory over the French colonial authorities in 1954, ca trù was discouraged, and according to some sources even banned, by the new government.

Since the early 1990s, ca trù has gone through a revival with a growing interest from researchers, musicians, and government institutions. A number of public ca trù clubs were established, older musicians were encouraged to teach again, and ca trù for community worship was revived in some rural communities. After a long process of research and education activities ca trù was recognised by UNESCO as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009. Today, the genre is often used as a symbol of Hanoi, with pictures of ca trù singers and instruments used extensively in tourist brochures and other promotion materials. However, even though ca trù has received a great deal of official attention there is still only a few skilled ca trù musicians actively performing and teaching, and the future for the genre is uncertain.

As ca trù lost its importance for rural ceremonies and entertainment in urban singing houses, the knowledge and values of ca trù were kept alive by a small core of dedicated musicians and enthusiast. However, today these musicians, of whom the majority are trained before the 1950s, have become increasingly scarce. A survey from 2005 lists 21 such musicians – most then in their 80s and 90s. Some have since died, and others become too infirm to perform or teach. By contrast, the number of younger people engaged with ca trù in recent years has grown, primarily thanks to targeted initiatives by individuals within the ca trù community and funding from international NGOs. Although some of these younger musicians have achieved a good level of performance skill, the focus among aficionados and researchers is still on the older generation. It remains to be seen how this younger generation will be received as the old masters pass away.

The audience-musician relationship is also important for the genre’s sustainability. In ca trù the audience has traditionally interacted with the performers through the praise drum or by contributing poems directly to the singer. During the 20th century ca trù lost much of its dedicated audience as the closure of singing houses pushed ca trù out of the public eye. With an unaccustomed audience, ca trù concerts become little more than an exhibit of an approved national heritage, where the audience may enjoy the novelty of a performance but not feel the commitment and emotional connection to ca trù and its poetry, which many musicians see as crucial aspects of their art. Educating the audience has therefore become especially important.

Thus, building and maintaining a devoted audience is likely to remain one of the ca trù community’s greatest challenges for years to come. For ca trù clubs in Hanoi free public performances have been a key method to reach out to new and old audiences. The revival of ca trù has followed in the wake of a spiritual revival where communities around Vietnam have attempted to revive ceremonial practices, which were largely discouraged after the revolution. This has reopened a niche for ca trù performances in the temples and village halls, which in the past hosted ca trù troupes for important celebration. It is another context in which ca trù can be heard and seen by the public outside of dedicated concerts, television programmes or heritage festivals.


For much of its existence ca trù was divided into several styles to be performed in a number of different contexts. Whereas the entertainment style of ca trù dominated during the 20th century, the revival has seen an interest in re-establishing ca trù in both spiritual and entertainment contexts. Today, in addition to small-scale private or public performances ca trù clubs are hired to perform at temple and village festivals. Ca trù is also finding a place within larger co-ordinated events such as festivals and competitions devoted to cultural heritage. Other significant trends are the expansions into the tourist market (especially in Hanoi), the commercial recorded music industry, and the Internet.

Although the situation for ca trù today is better than for many years the revival process has led to much controversy within the ca trù community, as well as between researchers and government organisations. The early 2000s saw a proliferation of ca trù clubs in Vietnam, largely encouraged by local culture departments and heritage enthusiasts. In the previous decades, only musicians that had grown up with ca trù in their family learned and performed the genre. However, with the creation of courses and clubs, the field was suddenly open for beginners, amateurs, and musicians without the ‘right’ background. This development intensified a longstanding quality and authenticity debate among musicians and aficionados, which was further aggravated as Vietnamese cultural organisations wanted to quickly train many new ca trù musicians. The direct involvement of international organisations, such as UNESCO, and groups of national and international experts with few, if any, connections to the ca trù community itself, have complicated the revival and led to frequent frustration and misunderstanding.

To attempt to make sense of this complex revival movement the report applies a theoretical framework where the concept of ‘mindscape’ is used to describe different views of the ca trù past and possible futures. We argue that the revival can be seen as a negotiation and shift between three such mindscapes: (1) a transnational ‘heritage mindscape’ consisting of discourse promoted by UNESCO, international NGO’s and Vietnamese culture and heritage organisations with connections to these groups; (2) a national ‘revolutionary mindscape’ promoted by Vietnamese cultural organisations with connections to older Vietnamese nationalist and Marxist-Leninist discourses; (3) and, finally, a ‘ca trù mindscape’, consisting of local discourses related to personal experience and memories shared by musicians and groups within in the ca trù community itself. By comparing and considering the different ways these mindscapes construct the ca trù past and future, it is possible to consider the revival as a complex multilayered movement dependent on negotiation rather than collaboration between different actors.

Vietnamese governmental and institutional attitudes today are generally ideologically favourable towards pre-revolutionary traditional music genres such as ca trù. Yet cultural policies are arguably founded on an overarching aspiration to consolidate a national identity rather than concern about each music genre and its community, and they are manifest by and large without meaningful community consultation. The inscription of ca trù on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list was seen by many as a step towards better infrastructure and opportunities for ca trù musicians, however, this far any substantial benefits have failed to materialise.

Intangible cultural heritage in Vietnam is officially protected in the 2001 Law on Cultural Heritage, although our interviews indicated that the knowledge and application of the law is still not sufficient. Since the early 1980s the state has awarded honorary titles to artists and musicians who are considered of national importance. Although one of the first musicians to receive this award was the famous ca trù singer Quách Thị Hồ, they are rarely awarded to artists outside of state cultural troupes. More recently, since the early 2000s, the title, Nghệ Nhân Dân Gian, or ‘Master of Folklore’, has been awarded to a number of ca trù musicians.

Although the Vietnamese government has committed itself to some financial support to ca trù, this far funding for individual ca trù clubs and musicians, as well as educational projects, has largely been coming from non-governmental sources. Funds from the Vietnamese government have primarily supported research and documentation measures, and the organisation of festivals and other larger events. To cover their costs most clubs encourage their audience to give a voluntary contribution to the club’s activities. Tourism is a growing funding source for a number of groups and the ability to market their music as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage has been useful in attracting tourists and tour companies.

The Internet has become an increasingly important way to promote the ca trù; several clubs are active on social media and have their own websites. Typing ‘ca trù’ into YouTube will likewise yield a number of videos, some with subtitles where the viewer can read the poem while it is being sung. In addition to Internet-based articles and reports of various kinds, many sites highlight ca trù as an important part of the national cultural heritage. This is particularly true of advertisements aimed at domestic and international tourism.

Several commercial ca trù recordings exist. However, while some of these are fairly well distributed, the recordings remain targeted to a niche market and most are not readily available, even within Vietnam. Internationally produced recordings are mainly in the form of documentation or cultural information. A few ca trù tracks can thus be found for example on CD anthologies of Asian musics. Although Vietnam has signed international agreements on intellectual property rights, bootleg copies are often the only source of important recordings for ca trù musicians and enthusiasts. Computers and modern digital video cameras have increased the possibility for ca trù performers to create their own audio and video recordings. Such recordings are frequently made for internal use in order to document, analyse and develop performances. Recordings of concerts may also be distributed to club members or friends. Homemade recordings, or more professionally produced ones, are often sold by artists after a performance, generating some additional income.

Today, ca trù and ca trù activities are frequently present in Vietnamese newspapers and cultural magazines. Local and national television also regularly feature performances with ca trù musicians, or short documentaries showing young people learning to sing or play. However, articles or television programs rarely shows the hard reality for many groups and performers, and are often directed and edited in a lighthearted way which gives an overly optimistic view of the state of the genre.


Although the present situation for ca trù is better than it has been for many years, there is cause for concern. Skilled performers are still very few and although much work has been done in educating young musicians, many do not learn enough technique or a sufficient part of the repertoire to be able to pass this knowledge on. Learning ca trù demands long-term devotion, but life in Vietnam rarely allows for young people to focus on a low-profit activity for any period of time. Therefore there has been arguments that ca trù may still have the greatest chances of surviving as a family tradition, where economy is less of an issue than in a club dependent on donations or tickets sales. Although this is true to some extent, the number of families who are keeping their ca trù tradition alive is very small. Furthermore, even within a family context there is no guarantee that the younger generation will be willing, or even able, to learn the family tradition. Therefore it is likely that clubs, or other voluntary organisations, will continue to play an important role.

Another, often overlooked issue, for ca trù sustainability relates to gender. The female voice is the main feature of ca trù performance, however, many families would not consider singing a suitable profession for their daughters, either for socials reasons or maybe more importantly for economic reasons. Thus, due to financial and social restraints, few of the young girls learning ca trù today can be expected to develop their skills in the genre to a high level and keep on performing into adulthood. This suggests that ca trù knowledge will remain in the hands of a small number of performers for the foreseeable future.

Based on our interview material and issues previously raised by ca trù researchers and musicians, we suggest that a sustainable future for ca trù would need gouvernment support for finance and infrastructure as well as performer-led organizations and recruitment of learners as well as audience.


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