Against the stigma
Ms Bach Van once learned that a famous Ca tru artist was now a street-vendor at Lenin Park in Hanoi, and she came to the park daily to query vendors of her whereabouts.
Finally, she found the woman, who at first denied her talents. But when she brought with her a musician and his Dan Day (musical instrument of Ca tru), the woman fondled the instrument, reliving her artistic dreams by singing as the musician played it.
By the 1990’s, the yet to be discovered music of Ca tru still carried the heavy stigma of belittling women. The female-only performers were seen as prostitutes in service of ruling class men who frequented their venues for music and to be served.
Going against the stigma, Ca tru artist Bach Van now dedicates her life to reinvigorate the art form.
“Ca tru is the most sacred thing in my life. It is something that I am predestined to pursue,” said Ca tru artist Bach Van.
“All my time is dedicated to performing, teaching, and discovering the heritage of old Ca tru artists… it seems it’s my duty to preserve the art.”
Born in a family with strict Confucian traditions in Can Tho Province (Vietnam's Mekong Delta), Ms Bach Van won a range of local literature contests in her early years.
In 1975, Ms Bach Van was sent to Hanoi to finish high-school, where she continued to win literary awards, but switched gears to become a student of Music Department of the Hanoi Culture University.
Her mother instilled her first love of Ca tru, and without support, she pursued the art form voraciously, she said.
Ca tru artists and families are often unwilling to reveal themselves due to the stigma, although society’s view has changed.
Ca tru teachers - People’s Artists Quach Thi Ho, Nguyen Thi Phuc, Chu Van Duc and Nguyen Kim Duc all refused her requests to revive the lost art at first, Ms Bach Van said.
But eventually, they gave in to the persistent Ca tru artist, who would travel anywhere by bicycle necessary to garner support for her mission.
“I cried the time artist Nguyen Thi Sinh, the woman in Lenin Park, sang Ca tru. I felt as if a river began to run again after prolonged drought. Finally my efforts saw results,” said Ms Bach Van.
She established the Hanoi Ca tru Club on Cat Linh Street, where she invites artists to come and perform.
She said at the time she opened the club, her family and friends dissuaded her, as she had invested a lot of her own time and money.
Every week, she organised commemorations for late Ca tru artists, together with longevity ceremonies and free Ca tru performances in her club to invite the artists to joint, all with her own finances.
“My family and friends though I was crazy, but I understand the importance of honouring the artists and making them feel substantial and important,” Ms Van said.
Due to a Television show about the Club, children of artist Mrs Sinh learned their mother was a Ca tru performer.
For 30 years, the elderly Mrs Sinh had not performed Ca tru, until she met Ms Bach Van.
Race against time
Upon hearing of an elderly man named Ha in Ha Tay Province (60 km west of Hanoi) who was an outstanding Dan Day musician and knew many Ca tru songs, Ms Bach Van got on her bike to meet him.
After hearing her story, the 80-years-young musician kowtowed, thanking her as she could help him revive the joy of the Ca tru performances he had grown to love.
With his elderly wife ill, the man refused, and upon Ms Bach Van’s second visit, his wife had died.
The musician asked her to wait for him, but on her third visit, he too had died, and with his passing, she began a commemoration for the elderly Ca tru musician.
“Most Ca tru artists are now elderly, and with each passing, the rare art has one less practitioner who could help to preserve it. It truly is a race against time,” said Ms Bach Van.
Recently, Ms Bach Van presented her thesis on Ca tru at the Cultural Research Institute.
Besides her own research on the history and position of Ca tru and its artists in society, she also warned of its disappearance, citing it as a lost art from to be listed and preserved as a traditional treasure.
“I hope that government and institutions will share and support in the efforts to preserve this truly traditional and vital art form of Vietnam,” she said.
The Hanoi Ca tru Club located in 15 Cat Linh Street, Hanoi. Guests are welcome to come during 8 - 11.30am every first and third Sundays of the month.