Thuong Mo commune preserves ca tru singing

(VOVWORLD) - Ca tru (ceremonial singing), also known as hat a dao, is an ancient genre of music featuring female vocalists. It originated in northern Vietnam and was, like many traditional music genres, a form of entertainment for the royal court. Hundreds of years ago, Dai Phu village in Thuong Mo commune, Dan Phuong district, Hanoi, was a cradle of ca tru singing. During long years of war, the genre faded, but in the last 20 years, local authorities and residents have worked to restore and preserve ca tru singing by opening a club and organizing free classes to teach ca tru to people of all ages.

According to historical records, under the Le dynasty in the 17th century, the Nguyen Duy  clan in Dai Phu village included a talented, gentle, and beautiful woman named Nguyen Thi Hong. She was good at poetry, playing musical instruments, and ca tru singing. She taught the folk art to 12 families in the area and was dubbed “The lady of ca tru singing”. One day, King Le Hy Tong was traveling through Thuong Mo commune and heard her singing. He brought her back with him to his palace and made her a second-level concubine in charge of teaching ceremonial music in the palace. When she died, the king organized a funeral for her in her home village. In memory of her merit, the villagers built a temple to honor her and preserved ca tru singing as a precious heritage.

Thuong Mo commune preserves ca tru singing - ảnh 1The temple worshiping "the lady of ca tru singing" in Dam Gieng, Thuong Mo commune. (Photo:

Nguyen Duy Minh, vice chairman of the People’s Committee of Thuong Mo commune, said: “We are proud to be the cradle of ca tru singing in Dan Phuong district. Although the folk art faded during the war period, in the past 20 years it has been restored through the great merit of singer Nguyen Thi Tam and the efforts of local people.”

67-year-old Nguyen Thi Tam is a member of the Nguyen Duy clan, the same clan as “the lady of ca tru singing”. Tam’s mother was a famous singer in the 1940s. Her brothers were also famous singers. When she was 12, she became a singer like her mother and learned 36 ancient songs from her. She had mastered the folk art by the age of 20. Tam said: “When I was small I performed with my parents. They made beautiful clothes for me for each performance. When my parents sang I played the percussion. Sometimes we performed on five consecutive days. My parents and grandparents have passed away. I think I have to preserve their tradition.”

A plucked lute with three strings is an indispensable instrument in ca tru singing. Tam’s father passed on to her a 200-year-old lute. She associates it with her childhood and consideres it a precious possession. 

“This plucked lute broke into pieces and my parents had to repair it several times. Although it is old, its sound is good. My father was a good instrument player and he repaired it for me. Keeping it, for me, is keeping a memento of my homeland’s tradition for future generations. During the wartime, ca tru singing appeared to die out. But the government has taken action to restore it. That’s why I became determined to learn to play a musical instrument. I practiced day and night, sometimes all night long. It is difficult to play the ca tru instrument, but without it, we cannot sing or teach others to sing or form a club,” Tam said.

Thuong Mo commune preserves ca tru singing - ảnh 2Artisan Nguyen Thi Tam and her 200-year-old plucked lute. (Photo: 

In 2000, Thuong Mo commune founded a ca tru singing club and made Tam its vice president. In the early days, the club encountered difficulties. Now the club has 30 members of various ages. Tam teaches anyone who is passionate to learn. For the last 18 years, the club has held a practice session every Saturday and Sunday at Dam Gieng temple, built to honor “the lady of ca tru singing”.  

Tam teaches 6 classes to sing and play the drum and other percussion. One of Tam’s students, Nguyen Duy Hung, learned to love ca tru singing at an early age. When the club was formed, he got a chance to learn to play the plucked lute. Hung can already play several verses.

“I practice with Tam twice a week. I have learned to play several verses, and I'm helping to preserve the culture of our predecessors. I have participated in this club for more than 10 years. The members are determined to preserve this traditional folk art. Tam is very enthusiastic about teaching her children and the club members,” Hung said.

Over the years, more than 30 students who have learned ca tru singing from Tam have become singers with various clubs nationwide. 

“As a commune resident and the niece of a ca tru singer, I’m very passionate about this folk art. Whenever I have free time, I practice with the club. I practice singing in every moment of my daily life. I sing for my children to instill a passion for ca tru singing in them,” said Nguyen Thi Thuy, one of the best of Tam’s students.

Tam conducts a weekend class for children. Learning to sing and play percussion at the same time is a challenge for beginners, but they are attracted by the melodies of ca tru. In 4 years of study, Ngoc Mai and her friends have learned a lot of ancient tunes.

“I have been learning ca tru singing since I was 13. I really enjoyed listening to Tam's singing. I especially liked the percussion. So I asked my mother to let me learn ca tru singing in Tam’s class. At first, I found it very hard. But thanks to her enthusiastic teaching, I am doing much better. I want to learn more from her because I want to sing and play the plucked lute and the percussion,” Mai said.

Thuong Mo commune preserves ca tru singing - ảnh 3Ms. Tam and one of her ca tru classes in Thuong Mo commune. (Photo:

In Thuong Mo commune today, people of all ages, share an affection for the profoundly philosophical lyrics of ca tru singing. In some families, like Nguyen Thi Hai Yen’s family, three or four people have joined the ca tru club. Whenever they have free time, they rehearse the songs together.

“During our free time, my children and I often sing ca tru. I hope my three children will follow the genre to preserve the tradition of Thuong Mo commune,” Yen said.

It appeared for a while that ca tru singing would fade away, but in the last 20 years, the sound of musical instruments and percussion have once again echoed throughout the village.

“The commune encourages people to support the club’s activities. Since 2005, the club has been recognized as a means of motivating the younger generation to help preserve our folk art,” Nguyen Duy Minh, vice chairman of the People’s Committee of Thuong Mo commune, told us.

For all her contributions to ca tru singing, Vietnam’s President awarded Tam the title “Meritorious Artist” in 2017.