The Ca Trù Song Tradition

The ancient Vietnamese singing tradition called ca trù, enjoying a revival in recent decades, is a collection of songs praising the beauty of the countryside and lauding the joys of rural life. The genre is also known as hát ả đào, after a young woman named Ả Đào who sang such songs to the Chinese soldiers encamped by the river. So charmed were they by her voice they kept drinking more and more alcohol to enhance their appreciation until Vietnamese guerrillas suddenly swarmed into the camp and pushed the drunken soldiers into the river, where they all drowned.

Derived from ancient folk ballads of the Red River Delta, the genre had its own rules of composition and performance, based on five regular tones and one supplementary. With various combinations of these tones the hát ả đào singer, always female, can cover a range of forty distinct styles. The singer herself plays a small section of bamboo called a phách, beaten with a pair of sticks, while a cylindrical drum adds extra percussion. Providing the melody is an indigenous, long-necked, three-stringed instrument called the đàn dáy, sounding like a bass lute. Its player has to fit a melody into the rhythmic framework provided by the phách.. The drummer also uses his instrument to make his own comments on the singing. If he likes it he plays a quick roll on the drum several times, as a kind of applause. If he doesn’t like it he merely raps the side of the drum twice.

Hát ả đào was the favorite entertainment at the Lê Dynasty Court, but the general public could enjoy it at special inns. The customers were mostly male, coming to celebrate such occasions as the birth of a son, promotion in the ranks, the conclusion of a successful business deal, etc. In addition to singing, the girls in these inns also served snacks and drinks and would dance in a group if requested.

When the customers entered one of these inns they purchased a number of bamboo tally cards, called trù in the Sino-Vietnamese literary language. At the conclusion of each song they gave some of these to the singer, the number of trù depending on how much they liked the song. When the inn closed for the night the proprietor paid the girls according to the number of trù they received. The singing genre thus acquired another name—ca trù (songs of the bamboo tally card).

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