Saturday, July 10, 2010

More cheo

Earlier this week I was invited by my former flute teacher, Pham Van Doanh, to see a cheo play at the Kim Ma theatre. The play was called "Nghề nuôi Vẹt", which I think should be translated as "teaching the parrots" or maybe "nourishing parrots". It is a modern play that includes more talking than many of the older cheo plays. Most of the music used for the arias was traditional but the orchestra also played a lot of more western style background music during the performance. I am always impressed by the quality of the performers of the Nha Hat Cheo Viet nam (not to be mixed with Nha Hat Cheo Ha Noi), the singers as well as the musicians are really good! I am well aware that some traditional musicians in Viet Nam regard these modern cheo plays as being non authentic and boring, but even though I do really enjoy listening to more down scaled and "authentic" cheo, the parrot play was pure entertainment! It was probably the most queer thing I have experienced in Vietnam this far. If I understood the plot correctly with my limited knowledge of Vietnamese, it was about a family that owned 4 parrots, Illustrated beautifully by two men and 2 women all dressed in white tights, mini skirts, colourful feathers around ankles and wrists, sparkly silver belts and shiny makeup, all topped off with feather hats. The husband in the family wanted to train them to speak different languages and sing songs. After they have been offered a lot of money for the birds from a rather silly man with a bald cap (who also danced and made out with himself at the same time at one point) the wife joins in and everything turns rather crazy. They get more offers on the parrots and eventually they are offered a billion VND for the birds. At the same time the parrot are not at all keen on being sold as they want to stay with the daughter of the family and they refuse to sing. In the end the husband realises that if he threatens to hit the girl the parrots will do as he says. Of course it all ends well and the play ends with a moral twist were the parents don't get any money, the birds escape and the daughter twirls around on the stage in a shower of bubbles and parrots. A very entertaining evening!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Henri Oger - Mechanics and Crafts of the Annamites

Today I bought the recently published new edition of Henri Oger's book(s) with drawings and woodcuts from the early 20th century. I had seen the one of the extremely rare first edition in the collections of the British library and when I stumbled on this new edition in a bookshop next to the post office I just had to buy it! The first edition was only published in 60 copies. The second edition (2000 copies) includes translations from the original Nom and Han character into Vietnamese, French and English as well as a number of chapters about Oger and his works.. The pictures in the books shows a multitude of different crafts as well as gruesome torture scenes, musical instruments, people picking their teeth and loads of other strange, funny and interesting activities! I am very exited that I found it but I haven't got a clue how I will get it back to London, might have to send it separately. Any way if you see it, buy it!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ca tru goes to university

Yesterday I was invited to a ceremony at the FPT University. I wasn't really sure what it was all about but Hue had mentioned to me that they had plans to start a ca tru drum course at the university, however, I had I assumed that this was a bit into the future. As It turned out this was the opening ceremony of the ca tru course. When I arrived (30 min late due to Hanoian traffic and wrong turns) Linh, Thuy and Ngoc from the Thang Long Ca tru club were performing. I was a bit surprised but delighted to see Nguyen Thi Chuc there as well. She also sang a piece on stage before the first group of drum students entered the stage. Together with the vice-rector of the university Dr. Nguyen Khac Thanh they hit three strokes on their drums to symbolise the start of the new course. I had the opportunity to have a chat with Dr. Thanh about the new course when all the students had left. He said that he had always been a bit of a folklore enthusiast and that he felt that in such a theoretical university as FPT (focusing mainly on finance and IT subjects) there was a need for a practical art subject. He thought that there were things, such as for example ethics, that was better taught with music. He and another member of the board, who both knew Hue since before, had suggested that the university should try to have a music course on the schedule. After talking to Hue the ca tru course was put into the range of courses that the students could choose from and they decided that they should start out with a maximum of 15 students. All the positions in the course were taken and these students will have a total of 12 lessons of one and a half hour each. The subject will both include practical drum beating and more theoretical issues such as ca tru history and music structure. The first lesson will start later this week and Hue will be the main teacher. This is not the first experiment the Hue and the Thang Long club have made with audience courses for ca tru, they have had regular free audience classes in the club before. Hopefully their experiences from teaching these classes will make the new university course an interesting and useful one for the students. As far as I am aware this is the first university course entirely devoted to ca tru and it will be very interesting to see how it turns out!

Monday, June 28, 2010

UNESCO Ca tru club

Yesterday morning I went to a performance with one of the newer Ca tru clubs in Hanoi, the UNESCO Ca tru club. As the name implies this group started as a part of the process of getting UNESCO to put Ca tru on its urgent safeguarding list of World Intangible cultural heritage. The performance took place in one of the old Viet houses on the grounds of the Hanoi Museum of Ethnology. The crowd was very small (2-15 people) at times the only audience consisted of myself and one elderly man. I have not met anyone in this group before, but knew that the day player Tùng was a student of Van Khue in the Thai ha ca tru club. Judging from the singing of the two woman singers in the performance I would guess that they also learned from Thai ha, but I will have to look in to that a bit more. When I arrived I was immediately approached by a jolly elderly man called Phạm Lãm. He spoke a bit of English and played the drum in the club. When the performance started it also turned out that he also was a rather skilled dan bau player. The first half of the performance was not Ca tru but Ngam tho, sung poetry accompanied by mr. Lam on dan bau. The woman who sang most of the poems, Madame Nguyen Tuong Lan, turned out to be the daughter of Quach Thi Ho. QTH was one of the most famous ca tru artists of the 20th century. After the poetry singing the ca tu group entered the stage. Together with Tùng there were two singers, Vương Tú Ngọc and Đô Phương Thao. It was apparent that Ngoc had studied longer than Thao but it was nice too see two young singers perform. Everyone on stage seemed heavily affected by the heat and I got the feeling that this might not have been their best performance. This was the first time I heard the UNESCO club and one of the few times I have heard a live performance by any other group than the Thang long ca tru club.The UNESCO club perform the last Sunday of every month at 9 am and If I have the opportunity I will listen to their next performance as well.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Midsummer's day

Yesterday I did my first interview using an interpreter. Cuong Khuong helped me to interview the Vietnamese music researcher Bui Trong Hien. I was a bit worried at first but it worked very well! Khuong is my age and have studied musicology in Hanoi and Saigon (if I am not mistaken). He is also a performer and specialises in Hat Xam. Even though he recently mostly have been singing popular music in Saigon to pay the bills, while studying Tai tu. We talked to Hien about the growing interest for ca tru and his involvement in the application process for the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. It feels good to be on the way with the interviews and I hope this will trigger my writing process as not much has happened there for a while. In the evening Khuong invited me to go and see the national cheo theatre perform at the Kim Ma theatre. It was really nice to see my flute teacher Doanh again and Thanh Ngoan, Pia's teacher, who organised the performance. The performance was a nice mixture of scenes from famous plays, solo arias and instrumentals, a reconstructed ca tru influenced hat cua dinh performance, and everything was topped off with a stage version of chau van. The spirits (hahaha) were high through out the performance with the audience, as well as the musicians, yelling and laughing. During the chau van performance a lot of kids run up to the stage with small bills for which they got a cookie in return. This soon escalated as more and more kids saw this as an excellent opportunity to get sweets and one of the performers almost had to spend more time handing out sweets than taking care of the "medium". In the finishing stage of the performance, when the actor was being "obsessed" by one of the minority spirits and run around throwing sweets at the audience, the kis went crazy and even managed to trip the actor so she fell over. This was immediately illustrated by a cymbal strike by the drummer. The actor managed to get up, the kid she tripped on run of to his mum, and everything ended happily. Definitely an entertaining performance!

Monday, June 21, 2010


Yesterday I was invited by Pham Thi Hue to see her pi ba and dan day student Nguyen Thu Thuy's exam performance. It was an interesting performance. I saw four last year students perform all girls. However, the exams had been going on all week so most of the teachers looked rather tired. With the exception of Thuy the girls did more or less exclusively play "neotraditional music" (see earlier post). Every student has to play one Cheo, one Hue, and one Cai luong tune as well but it was quiet obvious that most did not spend that much time on learning these rather difficult styles. Instead they seemed to have focused on the fanzy, cuba-russian-chinese-ompaa-ompaa tunes that the academy is famous for. I feel strangely ambiguous towards this music. A part of me want to join some of my Vietnamese musician friends and just hate it, and another part thinks, "Hey, this is rather fun!". I was rather relived that a three-year old boy got up from his chair during one of the most crazy ompaa-ompaa pieces and just went for it! He danced his heart out in the aisle between the chairs stuffed with bored students, half a sleep teachers and serious looking examiners! That's the way to do it! But back to Thuy's performance. I was really impressed by her pi ba playing and it was obvious that she had spent considerable time practising Cheo, Hue and Cai luong. Especially the Hue, and the Cai luong tune (I think it was Vong Co she played) was beautiful! Knowing Hue's bias for Tai tu/Cai luong music, maybe her student's skill in that genre should not come as a surprise! On these three traditional tunes she used an older style pi ba; more drawn-out and with fewer frets than the Chinese inspired model more commonly used at the Academy. I also got the feeling that it had a lower tuning than the modern one. Anyway, after the three obligatory pieces she continued to play a piece of neotraditional music using the bigger "academy model" pi ba. This was still good even though as I implied earlier I would have preferred it if I was three years old (or drunk) and wanted to do a bit of crazy dancing. This was followed by a rather "contemporary" sounding piece together with a string quartet. I can't claim that it was the most inspiring piece I have heard, but still a nice break from out-of-tune bamboo flutes, electric bass and drum kit. The last piece was very interesting. As far as I could understand it was a rather organised improvisation, performed together with other members of the Thang long ca tru club, using sounds and licks from ca tru and other Vietnamese music but without conforming to that at all. If it reminded me of something it would be my some of my "free" improvisation classes when I studied at the academy of music in Malmö. In all it was a good 4 hours spent and it was interesting to get another glimpse of the Hanoi Academy's priorities for their last year students as well as hearing Thuy’s beautiful playing!

Monday, June 14, 2010

The sustainable futures project, January trip

On my last trip to Hanoi, ten days around the (western) new year 2009-2010, I did interviews for the Sustainable futures project that i mentioned in the previous post. It was a rather improvised trip where I did some interviews with teachers at the national Academy of Music and people at the Thang Long Ca tru club. Together with Pham Thi Hue I also went to Ninh Binh, a provins a few hours south east of Hanoi, and interviewed Xam singer Ha Thi Cau. Xam is a kind of singing accompanied by the dan nhi, or dan bau, and percussion, it was in the past played by groups of beggars in the Hanoi area. Cau is probably the most famous Xam singer still alive in Vietnam. Having listened a lot to the CD the Vien Am Nhac has produced with her singing and playing I was very keen on meeting her. She is in her 80s but she claimed that she was unsure of exactly how old she was when we talked to her. She lives with her daughter ad son-in-law and she was rather tired when we met her. Hue did the interviewed and translated occasionally my additional questions. Her daughter was very concerned that we should feel welcome and made us dinner, unfortunately I was not feeling great so she seemed a bit worried that I mostly ate peanuts and rice (as did Cau, combined with rice wine). After dinner Cau agreed on playing a tune for us. She used her husbands (dead since many years) old dan nhi and spent a lot of time trying to get the sound right before she started. We recorded Thap an, a tune I know she has recorded before, It sounded good even though her voice was tired. When a tractor on the street started to make too much noise she stopped and put the nhi away. By the she had been singing thap an for 7 minutes and was a bit tired. When we was going to leave and get back to Hanoi, Cau's daughter brought us a live hen as a gift. We managed to get the hen back to Hanoi wrapped in a plastic bag and when I left for Sweden it was running around in front of Hue's house as her dad didn't want it and her daughter didn't want Hue to kill it and cook it.