Ca trù became a fully developed music genre in the 15th century. At that time it was often performed in the village communal house on the occasion of worshipping the village tutelary god. Later, it was performed in the royal palace, private houses, “singing bars” (ca quán), and singing competitions (known as Hát thi). About melody/tune, Ca trù musical forms or pieces are referred to as thể cách. Each of these musical forms consists of two components: music and poem. 

Ca trù is a sophisticated art of sung poetry. A Ca trù group usually includes a singer who both sings and plays the clappers (known as the phách), an instrumentalist who plays the đàn đáy three-stringed lute, and a “praise drummer” known as quan viên cầm chầu. The complex music of Ca trù is constituted by a highly ornamented singing voice punctuated by the diverse rhythms on the clappers, the deep tone of the đàn đáy three-stringed lute and the strong sounds of the praise drum. Some Ca trù performances also include dance (please see the supplementary inventory materials). According to folk artists, Ca trù has 56 different musical forms or melodies, each of which is called thể cách.

From the 15th century to the early 20th century, Ca trù developed to become a vital component of the spiritual culture of the Việt people in some provinces and cities of Vietnam. The main categories and functions of Ca trù are outlined below:

Hát thờ (worship singing) was performed in rituals for worshipping the guardian spirit of the village at the village communal houses and in the festivals praising Ca trù’s ancestors.

Hát chơi (singing for entertainment) was performed for the entertainment and aesthetic enjoyment of upper and middle classes in society (e.g. mandarins, noblemen, intellectuals).

Chúc hỗ (singing in the royal palace) was performed on celebratory occasions in palaces of the Kings and Lords such as the birthday of the Kings and his relatives, the birth of princes and princesses, the banquets to welcome honored guests. Ca trù guilds had to select the most skillful singers and instrumentalists to sing at the royal palace.

Hát thi (competitive singing) was held in Ca trù circles to honor, recognize, and rank the skill and talent of singers and instrumentalists.

Presently, there are no longer such functions as hát thờ Thành hoàng (singing for worshipping the guardian spirit of the village), Chúc hỗ, and hát thi, but hát chơi is still organized by Ca trù lovers. The folk artists still keep the traditional way of teaching by oral and technical transmission. Formerly, they only transmitted their career to their descendants within their family; they now transmit their career voluntarily to those who wish to learn Ca trù at all ages.

From 1945 to 1975, Ca trù cultural heritage was fallen into oblivion partly because of insufficient awareness and partly because of the long lasting war. From 1990, Ca trù has undergone a modest process of revival. Gradually the government and society at large have become more aware of the value and importance of Ca trù, and in 2004, 22 Ca trù clubs were established, and seven scientific conferences were held to identify and define the artistic value of Ca trù, and to find the best method for restoration and preservation of Ca trù. Five national festivals on Ca trù had also been held.

Despite these significant activities and efforts, however, Ca trù is still under the threat of being lost in oblivion. By 2004, only 21 old folk artists including 4 instrumentalists and 17 Ca trù singers were still alive. Of them, the youngest was now 78, and the oldest was 100 at that time. Although the folk artists have made a great effort to transmit the old repertoire to the youth, the danger of suffering loss and impoverishment was unavoidable.

Vietnam is entering the integration of multi-communication and multi-information system that creates good conditions for the youth to select many new art forms suitable for their enjoyment easily. It is also a big barrier and a challenge to Ca trù art. Furthermore, Ca trù is a high professional art that requires much time for practicing to be able to play and sing it. The singing lyrics are old poetry and have many difficult Han Nom scripts. Those are large obstacles for the learners and public of today when approaching this art form.

With the preservation plans, it is expected that folk artists will hand down their whole art resources to the youth after three years. The space for hát chơi and hát thờ to worship the guardian spirit of the village in 18 communal houses of 14 cities and provinces across Vietnam will be restored. After five years, the task of collection and systematization of materials related to Ca Trù will be completed, and the number of heritage practitioners will increase by two times as compared to 2009. Also, the number of people who love Ca trù will be estimated to expand at all age and all levels of society.


 (UNESCO, edited by HaiHang)