Chatting with a ca tru singer

At the age of 87, Mrs. Quach Thi Ho is one of the few living links to the history of a traditional art form.


Torch singer: Quach Thi Ho, the artist who devoted her life to the nation’s classical art form, ca tru.

As I entered the austere and dim room, I was a little surprised to be welcomed by the modern song "Sorrow in Late Autumn" sung by an old woman who was lifting herself up from a simple bed. That melancholy song of Van Cao exudes a nuance of ca tru style. The singer was Quach Thi Ho.

Quach Thi Ho is one of the few Vietnamese traditional artistes recognized internationally. In 1978, she was awarded an honorary diploma by UNESCO’s International Music Council and the International Institute for Comparative Music Studies for her contribution in preserving "traditional music of great artistic and cultural value." Her recording of ca tru ranked first among songs from 29 other countries in the International Festival of Traditional Music held in Pyong Yang (the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea) in the early ’80s. It won another first prize in a similar festival held in Moscow.

Quach Thi Ho moved about with much difficulty, suffering from her painful arthritic joints. Her three remaining children, long retired, have tried to cure her ailment for years but have not been able to. She has had pains in her calves for more than six years and her left hand fingers are entirely stiff – the hand that used to beat time so skillfully.

Despite her illness, she still maintains a sagacious appearance. Everyday she sings or just hums melodies for fun. She still remembers well every actor and actress who performed in a cheo play 50 years ago to raise money for the starving. She is the only one still alive among these actors. She recalled that she used to be a pretty, slim, quick girl with beautiful hands.

At the age of 15, she made her professional debut with a ca tru song composed especially for her by an admirer. It began with the following words:

Having beauty and talent in this life

It is our fate to be unsettled and to knock about

Ca tru then became the chain linking together different parts of her life. The music helped her to remember everything. She related phrases and poems dedicated to her by famous song writers such as Nguyen Tuan, A Nam Tran Tuan Khai and Tran Huyen Tran, and the happy meetings and interesting conversations from her past. She is a living history of ca tru singing.

Some people have tried to put together the wealth of her past songs. In 1999, a man from a local music recording company made a special effort to collect recordings archived at the Voice of Vietnam radio station and various departments of the Ministry of Culture and Information, and made a 90-minute cassette tape of her special songs, including those composed during the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the Vietnamese Nguyen Dynasty. The man made the tape for distribution to other countries. He gave Quach Thi Ho some copies and VND 2.4 million.

When I asked her why she did not open training courses in ca tru, she retorted, "Training? Who wants to learn and can learn?" She learnt to sing at the age of six from her mother and aunt. At the age of 11, she sang for royal occasions. Skills picked up from informal study are often considered much better than those learned in formal classes. At the age of 87, her singing still rises above her hard conditions.

Nguyen Manh Ha

A harmonious take on history

by Nghia An

In the enchanting world of ca tru singing, Quach Thi Ho is a legend. Her stunning voice and her ability to rise above the sometimes less than savory elements of her craft make her a talking point still.

Ca tru singing grew out of folk festivals in the countryside where dao nuong, female artists, would ply their trade. The troupe comprised two or three singers with a male musician, and they would take it in turns to sing through the night at festivals.

By the late 19th and early 20th century, this form of singing had moved from the country to the city.

In Ha Noi, Hang Giay and Hue streets resounded with the beautiful melody of these astounding voices.

But the owners of the theatres could not always afford the purest ca tru voices, so they made do with a couple of professional singers.

To keep their customers interested, the owners hired some "ornamentation" in the form of pretty young girls to serve the wine.

Hanoi Ca Tru Thai Ha Ensemble - Ca Tru: The Music Of North Vietnam Cover ArtThese girls, called dao ruou, needed no particular skills – they just had to be beautiful and polite to the many customers.

But the life of a dao ruou was not a happy one. Many of the girls were cheated into the trade, or else enslaved by debt and forced to work their youth away in these makeshift bars.

The men who owned these bars were often criminals, at best they were gamblers or loan sharks. The girls were often forced to work as prostitutes, they changed their names and left any hope of a normal life behind them.

The luckier among them married Chinese exiles in the city, but they were always considered second class citizens.

Ha Noi’s Nga Tu So, Vinh Ho, Van Thai and Lang streets were bustling with people drinking alcohol and chatting against the backdrop of ca tru singing at theatres.

Kham Thien Street was also a famous hangout. The theatres were all thronging when pay day rolled around. But the posterity didn’t filter down to the dao ruou, who were still trapped by their debts.

Enthralling: Ca tru lovers, singers and musicians can sit through the night to enjoy Ca tru melodies. — VNS File Photo

So it was that Quach Thi Ho became a shining light in an otherwise dimly-lit profession.

She joined a ca tru troupe in her home province of Hung Yen at the age of seven. By the 1930s, at the tender age of 20, she was already a famous singer.

Ho worked at the Van Thai Theatre for 24 years, where she amassed a loyal following and fortunately earn enough money to live a comfortable life and engage in charitable works.

In 1945, after the August Revolution, Ho helped to waive the debts of all the dao ruou workers in her theatre – effectively buying their freedom.

The ca tru theatres disappeared from view, but the beautiful art suffered a hangover: its image tainted by memories of its seedy past.

Many people couldn’t break the association of this beautiful music with prostitution and vice, but singers like Ho worked hard to clean up its reputation and convince audiences of its worth.

Nowadays, the seedy past is all but forgotten and people recognize ca tru singing as a pure and classical art form.

Ho has won plaudits for her golden voice. In 1976, she took out the first prize at the Teheran International Music Festival and then performed in a number of countries.

Even recently, at the age of 80, she has appeared on Vietnamese television and fans thought her voice as sparkling as ever.

Ca tru favorites based on poems by much-loved ancient authors such as Chinese Du Fu and Bai Juyi are still popular.

And a rousing rendition of poems like Thu Hung (Inspiration of Autumn) and Ty Ba Hanh, Dao Hong, Dao Tuyet (Singer Hong, Singer Tuyet) can still stir a Vietnamese soul. — VNS

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