Jason Gibbs Tradition and Continuities in Vietnamese Social Music Making The Conference of International Musicological Society (IMS),

30.8.2004 Jason Gibbs Tradition and Continuities in Vietnamese Social Music Making The Conference of International Musicological Society (IMS), July 11-16, 2004 

In this paper I’m going to speak of two musical manifestations that couldn’t be sonically more unlike, and couldn’t be more different in their contemporary social valuation. Hat a dao, also known as ca tru, is a refined Vietnamese traditional artform that is perhaps a thousand years old. Karaoke is a medium that is only a few decades old and is not usually thought to constitute a tradition. However, taking a historical perspective and calling on my own experience in Vietnam I find similarity in their social function and believe that the stories I’m going to tell about both forms shed some light on both of them and perhaps on the concept of tradition.

In 2001 the New York Times published an article entitled « A folk tradition fades, but the melody lingers on ». [1] This piece is about 85 year old Pham Thi Mui, « one of the last living masters of ca tru, » which is described as « one of the disappearing traditional art forms that Vietnamese are struggling to preserve as the modern world overwhelms them. » The art of hat a dao was truly a tradition, passed on from mother to daughter; it usually took four to six years of study before a young woman was considered ready to sing. While Mrs. Mui is teaching her traditional art to her granddaughter, she laments: « If I knew it would last, I’d work harder to teach the young people. But I’m afraid it won’t last. I know it won’t last. And even if I teach the youngsters to sing, what audience will they have? »

What today’s Vietnamese call ca tru in the first half of the 20th century was usually called as hat a dao – the term I will use. Ca tru literally means singing with cards, the cards being bamboo tokens given to performers as praise, and payment. Hat a dao means singing of songstresses, a dao being the term for the singers who are always women. [2]Hat a dao is poetry sung to the accompaniment of the dan day, a 3-string lute unique to Vietnam, phach, or a bamboo block, performed by the singer, and the trong chau, a praise drum performed by a listener.
The history of hat a dao is rather murky, but the art appears to have its origins in the court who used it in ceremonies and festivals. It became a music of the regional aristocracy, performed for both kings and mandarins, and was organized according to a guild system. [3] By the 19th century hat a dao moved away from the court and into the private homes of mandarins. This style became known as hat choi or « singing for entertainment » and became the predominant venue for the art. [4] It fostered a style of verse that was individualistic, sometimes expressing discontent with the existing political order; it contained a germ of liberal, independent thought running contrary to Confucianism. [5]

Stephen Addiss has sketched the creative context of hat a dao:
A literatus, for example, might write a verse and dedicate it to a colleague. Instead of simply giving the poem to his friend, he could take it first to a singer. She would scan it for its form and note the tones of each word, and then accompany the poet to his friend’s house with a dan day player. The friend would strike the small drum in such a way that he could rhythmically comment on the poem. The drum part added to the musical totality making the friend both performer and critic. [6]

By the twentieth century, the reception of hat a dao had became confused. The art form had ceased to be exclusive to the educated mandarinate, and had become a form of private enterprise. A whole entertainment district formed on the outskirts of Hanoi on Kham Thien street. Here what had been an exclusive artform became available to all who could pay.
Novelist Thach Lam wrote in 1933:
“Our elders went to [hat a dao] to withdraw for an instant from society’s strictures, borrowing melodies to engender vague sadness, sorrow, and yearning in their hearts. The songs all speak of the discouragements of man’s short life, the transitory nature of beauty, and of happiness being like an ephemeral dream; all in voices of lament, attachment, and pain”. [7]

He thought that this was appropriate for older men who had experience in the matters of the world. The problem at that time was that hat a dao had become popular among a younger clientele, for whom it promoted dissipation. The songstress houses offered women who were attractive, but not literate. Hat a dao by Thach Lam’s time had become a backdoor to social vices, leading men into questionable liasons, and even worse to venereal disease, gambling, and opium addiction. French government reports categorized co dau as a branch of a flourishing prostitution trade in Hanoi. [8]

I would like to present a series of images that illustrate the evolution of hat a dao. Example 1 from a 1890 monograph shows what appears to be a hat a dao guild. Example 2 illustrates the genre’s passing into the world of commerce in a Victor record catalog for the Vietnamese market. Examples 3 and 4 show hat a dao as an escape (unsuccessful in these instances) for men from the « lion » at home. The fourth example shows that the son, dressed in a western fashion, also dallied in these establishments.

Example 2 – from a Victor record catalog (1925)
EXAMPLE 3 – « Look at that face! And you said you were participating in a rescue benefit! Who are you rescuing? Who are you benefiting? Oo! It’s to rescue and benefit unemployed women. » (Phong Hoa ca. 1932)
EXAMPLE 4 – Top caption: « The young master’s a quick thinker »
Bottom caption: « Good heavens! You’ve come down here, father? Hide, quick, mother’s on the prowl out there » (Phong Hoa, Sep. 1, 1932)

Even much later there were still a few establishments that offered hat a dao as an art. Poet Dinh Hung wrote a memoir of going to a songstress house with the afforementioned Thach Lam, as well as some other writers associated with the Tu Luc Van Doan (the Self-Reliance Literary Group), an active organization promoting literary and social progress in Vietnam in the 1930s. When they came to the songstress house they unexpectedly met up with the famed essayist Nguyen Tuan, a true afficianado of the artform. Dinh Hung, a junior tag-along to his eminent colleagues, described a scene of joviality along with an intense interest in upholding the propriety of the artform. This involved proper execution of praise drum that provides a continous commentary on the vocal performance. He noted everyone’s surprise that Thach Lam’s brother, Nhat Linh, who was educated in Paris and played the clarinet, could play the drum in an uncharacteristic, but appropriate manner. The author was further surprised that Thach Lam who hardly frequented such establishments proved deft at the drum. The overall atmosphere described was convivial, collegial, but also with good-natured competition. [9] Another detail that should be noted is that even though three very esteemed literary and intellectual figures took part in this evening, not one of them ever wrote verse for hat a dao, instead they called for the singers to interpret great poetry of the past. This in itself is an indication the genre’s decline irrespective of its associated social evils.

In 1946 all of Vietnam erupted into the first Indochina War with France. After 1954 the victorious communists unofficially banned hat a dao, which came to be seen as feudal holdover, and representative of decadent living. The Vietnamese government organized research and promoted many traditional musical forms, but hat a dao was relatively neglected owing to the social sphere that it came from. During this there was limited broadcast of hat a dao using revolutionary poetry, but very little live performance.

Novelist To Hoai describes attending one of these rare performances of two esteemed performers during the war, when hat a dao was otherwise proscribed. Organized like a Western-style concert there was an audience, applause between numbers, and the praise drum was omitted. He described his friend, the afore-mentioned Nguyen Tuan, an avid participant in the
art form in former times, walking out on the performance. [10] I view this anecdote as the clearest possible expression noting hat a dao‘s demise as a living tradition. The sound was there, presented by the finest performers. Yet the proper atmosphere was lacking, and, perhaps, by that time was irretrievably gone. The vitality of the artform had depended on an audience that was educated in its intricacies, but that also existed within a society that allowed for leisure and gender relations that weren’t tenable in Vietnam’s Communist society.

In summary, hat a dao, with ceremonial or ritual origins by the 19th century became a refined, private entertainment for Vietnam’s educated elite. With the societal changes brought about colonization, it became a commercial venture which caused it to be associated with social problems. It had always needed a material basis – in the past it was supported by the court, then by the mandarinate, and in the end by the market. It also always needed a social setting – a comprehending audience with leisure time and the musicians who spent years learning the music and the appropriate social interaction. Another important part of the milieu was the male – female dynamic. The audience members were men who acted in a world of men, and who were wed to women they met through arranged marriage. The a dao were possibly women who they had more in common with than their wives. The semantic change from hat a dao to ca tru also entailed the veiling of the a dao, or songstress. Although the literature about hat a dao doesn’t discuss this, and essential aspect of the experience was the relationships – personal, emotional, even sexual (platonic or otherwise) – in this intimate setting between the singers and the audience. [11] I think it’s difficult to imagine such a setting for hat a dao ever returning.

Now I’d like to move to my experiences closer to the present time. During 1996, while in Hanoi tracking down a famous Vietnamese popular singer from the 1940s and 1950s I became acquainted with a journalist friend of his. This journalist, An Binh, took an interest in me, and in having me understand Vietnam. I received a phone call from him inviting me to a « cultural evening » (dem van nghe). I got the particulars of when and where, and on the appointed day came to the appointed destination on a busy block of Nguyen Khuyen street. Here I came to a store front with a couple of young women hanging out at the doorway. This was a karaoke establishment and karaoke was to be the medium of the evening’s culture. The culture in fact consisted of all of us – that is I, my friend, some of his other male friends and the hostesses – conversing, listening to music, and very importantly singing songs. An Binh in particular seemed to be particularly transported by the occasion.

I must confess that my Vietnamese at the time did not match the task of understanding all of the words that were being sung as they appeared upon the video monitor. The songs he sang, An Binh later told me, « are feelings for a friend that are deepest, even more than words. » He described the evening as « memories that I can never forget, the sentiments that I shared with you. » [12] « Tinh cam » is the word that I’ve translated as « sentiments » and is a very important emotion for the Vietnamese – it’s a combination of loving or high regard and strong feelings, and often comes through shared experience. I believe that such an emotion would have been a crucial element in the atmosphere of hat a dao.

A second karaoke experience occured during the same trip. I was invited to a party at the Especen Club (79E Hang Trong Street). The fellow attendees included my friend An Binh, the popular singer from the 1950s, Ngoc Bao, two other journalists, both middle-age women, and a very esteemed songwriter, Van Ky. There were also two young women who may have been college students. In contrast with the karaoke establishments which had young waitresses, we were waited on by young men who worked for the club. This event featured a good deal more socializing, but singing, usually assisted by karaoke was an important element. We all took part in some way. Ngoc Bao sang a new song to guitar accompaniment written for him by the songwriter. [13]
This event was memorialized by a newspaper article written by one of the journalists who conflated my singing of the song « Autumn raindrops » (« Giot mua thu ») [14] into a story about myself as a young man wandering through the rainy Hanoi streets haunted by a lost love – a story that did have a kernel of truth to it. [15] But my singing was significant to the other Vietnamese participants because I was felt to have participated in the « tinh cam » of the event.
Karaoke is popular world-wide, but is especially popular in Asian countries with long traditions of social singing. It’s popularity derives in large part from it’s an inexpensive way to create the right atmosphere for social singing. [16] The Vietnamese government has had an uneasy relation with the medium. At first the only music available for karaoke were recordings created by expatriate musicians who were banned in Vietnam, but they were widespread nonetheless. As time went on, companies in Vietnam produced karaoke videorecordings that were acceptable to the government. Nonetheless karaoke remained questionable to the authorities, as it became associated with the « social evils » (te nan xa hoi) that the people were continually exhorted to fight against. For example this past February the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture and Information proposed that the government shut down karaoke businesses. The reason for this was because these businesses often serve as fronts for criminal activity – primarily prostitution. It should be noted that the Ministry very rapidly backed down from this position owing to a groundswell of public opinion, in particular from young people. [17] The parallel with hat a dao in the 1930s is obvious. In the early part of the 20th century « di hat » (go singing) meant to go to hat a dao; at century’s end it meant to go to karaoke. Just as the first karaoke establishment I visited had young, attractive hostesses, there exist many establishments where the hostesses go beyond hosting. [18]

In an article considering popular music in Japan as Japanese music–as participating in Japanese tradition–de Ferranti distinguishes between the textual and contextual qualities of musical culture. « Text » refers to the music itself in all of its dimensions, « context » to the « social, personal and political conditions that are enabling phenomena for musical experience. » [19] Looked at as text, while a good deal has been lost, much effort as gone into studying, analyzing, and preserving hat a dao. [20] In 2002 the Ford Foundation financed a three month course through Vietnam’s Bureau of Performing Arts (Cuc Nghe thuat bieu dien) to train 80 students to perform this endangered artform. [21] While this falls far short of the four to six years that the great master singers of the past undertook, it does give hope to those who would like to see this unique and wonderful art form continue into the future.

The future context of hat a dao is an entirely different matter. It’s arguable that as living, functioning social organism, it was nearly dead in the 1930s. Western-educated Vietnamese men no longer chose it regularly as a cultural activity, and most importantly had discontinued writing the necessary poetic literature to keep it alive. The societal changes brought about by the Communist state in the North as well as 30 years of warfare further discouraged its traditional performance context. [22] In Vietnam of today, it’s very difficult imagining a return to hat a dao‘s former context – men educated in the classics listening to women sing a traditional artform that takes years to perfect, in an intimate, private setting. Hat a dao is and will no longer be anyone’s first choice for entertainment and relaxation. And the gender dynamics that flourished along side it would no longer condoned in high cultural circles.
So what is hat a dao‘s context today? It is something to be learned and preserved – it is part of the museum. Philosopher Maurice Blanchot states: « … [I]n the museum … works of art, withdrawn from the movement of life and removed from the peril of time, are presented in the polished comfort of their protected existence. » For him the museum means « conservation, tradition, and security » – all of which are being provided for hat a dao. But by bringing them what he calls « pure presence » they are « stabilized in a permanence without life. » [23] In considering the actual art museum, he notes that works that it contains, most obviously religious and ritual objects, have been removed from the setting that they were created for. He writes of the attendant « illusion » – « the mistaken belief that what is there, is there as it was, whereas it is there at most as having been: that is, the illusion of presence. » Art objects in their pasts « were invisible as works of art, hidden in their place of origin where they had their shelter. » But through history they reveal « a presence that was otherwise hidden. » [24]

While this hiddenness in one way means that the objects were in their pasts not yet open to exhibition for a universal public, it also means, I think, that the objects have always been visible, but were hidden in plain sight. By this I mean that before becoming a part of the museum, in some important respect they weren’t really seen. This relates to tradition, the word tradition being derived from « traditio, » meaning delivery, handing down, even surrender. Before hat a dao entered the museum I would argue that it was invisible – it was there, but not seen. It was part of a soundscape. The necessary handing down, particularly the contextual handing down, that allowed it to thrive up until that time happened invisibly as well. The tradition allowed for some aspects of the artform continue intact, some to disappear, some new aspects to appear, without great anxiety because the artform was still hidden within the tradition.

Once, however, tradition became traditional, i.e., once what was « tradition » came to be called « traditional » – it was placed on permanent deposit in the museum, and we the scholars of the past, present, and future, are its curators. The text is recovered according to the best available methods. The context is also well-studied, but the context is gone, it is part of history, it does not translate into contemporary society. Yet the context is not entirely fixed to the text, and in itself is tradition, and because of that it can also be passed along.

My digression into the contemporary world of Vietnamese karaoke is meant to show the some aspects of hat a dao‘s context have been passed along and have aligned themselves with a different text. Viewed in this light, karaoke is tradition, but is not traditional. And because it is not part of the museum, it remains invisible. Of course, karaoke is everywhere – it bellows out from all over Vietnam. But its text is uncollected, and even seems too familiar to be known.

I am interested in hat a dao surviving, but I agree with Pham Thi Mui the traditional singer cited by the New York Times that « it won’t last » – at least not in the way she knew it. But it will survive through the curatorship of educational institutions, government agencies, foundations and scholars, and this contributes to our collective global musical heritage. But I also believe that some part of the tradition is lasting – the desire of the Vietnamese to use music in intimate settings to share feelings and bonhomie. Even if there are instances where the musical text is not felt to be of museum quality.

© 2004 Jason Gibbs

[1]Mydans, Seth. « A folk tradition fades, but the melody lingers on, » New York Times March 22, 2001, A4.
[2]Do Bang Doan and Do Trong Hue. Viet Nam ca tru bien khao. Ho Chi Minh City: Nha xuat ban Thanh pho Ho Chi Minh, 1994 [1962], 43. The a dao also came to be known as co dau.
[3]Norton, Barley. « Ca Tru: A Vietnamese Chamber Music Genre, » Nhac Viet 5 (Fall 1996), 21.
[4]op. cit., 24. Do Bang Doan, Do Trong Hue, 1962, 35.
[5]Nguyen Van Ngoc. Dao nuong ca. Hanoi: Vinh Hung Long Thu Quan, 1932, XVII, cited in Norton 1996, 26-7.
[6]Addiss, Stephen. « Text and Context in Vietnamese Sung Poetry: The Art of Hat A Dao, » Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology vol. 9 (1992), 205.
[7]Viet Sinh [Thach Lam] and Tranh Khanh. « Ha Noi ban dem (Ve nan mai dam o Ha Noi) » in Phong su Viet Nam 1932-1945, vol. 1, Phan Trong Thuong, Nguyen Cu and Nguyen Huu Son, ed., 2000, p. 702.
[8]From a report by Dr. Joyeux in Vu Trong Phung. « Luc si » in Phong su Viet Nam 1932-1945, vol. 3, Phan Trong Thuong, Nguyen Cu and Nguyen Huu Son, ed., 2000, p. 835.
[9]Dinh Hung. « Thach Lam tham am » in Dot lo huong cu. Saigon: Lua Thieng, 1971.
[10]To Hoai. Cat bui chan ai: Hoi ky. Westminster, CA: Hong Linh, 1993, 212-213. During a UNESCO sponsored recording trip in 1976 Tran Van Khe organized a performance of hat a dao. The performers were overjoyed and remarked how long it had been since they had had an opportunity do perform the old repertoire. Tran Van Khe believes that the interest that he showed help to bring hat a dao back into the open again. Tran Van Khe. Hoi ky Tran Van Khe, tap 3. N.p.: Nha xuat ban Tre, 2001, pp. 50; 58-61.
[11]In recent memoirs, two authors recall and describe extra-marital affairs or polygamous relations of their fathers with singers of hat a dao. See Elliott, Duong Van Mai. The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 219, and Nguyen Long – 79
[12]Conversation between An Binh and Hoang Thanh Thuy sent to me in an email from the latter dated November, 17, 2003.
[13]The song is entitled « Ky niem mua thu » or « Memories of Autumn. »
[14]Dang The Phong and Bui Cong Ky. « Giot mua thu, » Ha Noi: Nha xuat ban Hoang Mai Luu, 1946. This song and many of the songs that An Binh sang are from a musical period called nhac tien chien, or pre-war music. These are the Western-influenced songs from the 1930s and 1940s that in essence appeared as interested in creating new verse for hat a dao faded.
[15]Mai Thuc. « Chang trai My voi giot mua thu Ha Noi, » Phu nu thu do October 9, 1996, 5.
[16]These and other ideas are explored in Lum, Casey Man Kong. In Search of A Voice: Karaoke and the Construction of Identity in Chinese America. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1996; 8-12.
[17]Vo Ba, Nhu Linh and To Tam. « Dep het cac diem kinh doan karaoke: Gioi tre khong dong tinh! » Thanh Nien online Feb. 25, 2004. http://www.thanhnien.com.vn/TinTuc/CuocSong/2004/2/24/9044/ [viewed 5/11/04]
[18]Despite the otherwise wholesome atmosphere of that evening, I had uneasy doubts about the hostesses at this establishments – in any case the dynamic was one of male guests and young women employees. At the later karaoke party, the guests were all from Hanoi’s educated classes, but I was puzzled by the attendence of the two young women, who were more than 10 years my junior, as the next youngest guest at the event, and 20 to 50 years younger than the other guests. I can only make a guess that the invitation of these young women was thought to enhance the evening, but not for any exploitative reason.
[19]De Ferranti, Hugh. « ‘Japanese music’ can be popular, » Popular Music 21/2 (2002): 195.
[20]See for example Norton, Barley. « Ca Tru: A Vietnamese Chamber Music Genre, » Nhac Viet 5 (Fall 1996), 1-103, and Jaehichen, Gisa. Cuoc the nghiem ve hat a dao. Hanoi: Nha xuat ban Am nhac, 1997.
[21]Tran Ngoc Linh. « Ca tru: Di san chang de bao ton, » Talawas: Phong su (October 10, 2003) [Viewed April 20, 2004].
[22]It did continue to be performed in the South Vietnam up until 1975, but those who partook of it were very few in number. The Stephen Addiss article cited above results from his research in this setting.
[23]Blanchot, Maurice. « Museum Sickness » [« La mal du musee, » 1951] in Friendship. Elizabeth Poltenberg, trans. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997, 49.
[24]Ibid., 48.
Nguồn: The Conference of International Musicological Society (IMS), July 11-16, 2004 Bản dịchbản để in         


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