Folk artist reveals the evolution of her art

Award-winning artist Thanh Ngoan is renowned for her cheo (traditional opera), xam (folk music) and ca tru (ceremonial singing) performances. Ngoan speaks with Hien Ngoc about her passion for her art and her ideas on preserving Vietnamese culture.

Inner Sanctum: When you were 13 years old, you set off from your hometown Thai Binh to pursue a career in cheo performance in Ha Noi. Over the past 28 years, you have become o­ne of the most revered performers in your field, winning a variety of awards. What do you think are the most important things a cheo artist needs to be successful?

Two things: love and passion. When you love you want to learn about what you love. And when you learn about opera, you will have a passion for it.

However, talent is also very important. Besides learning the art from a teacher, an artist needs to be creative and quick-witted so they can capture the soul of a character she or he is assigned to portray.

Each song and role in a play needs the creativity of the artist. Sometimes o­ne portrayal of a role can be successful but another not, it depends o­n the performance.

Inner Sanctum: You have a variety of different characters under your belt, including dao lech (cruel character) and dao thuong (kind-hearted character) as well as comedic roles. Which do you like best?

I love all the characters. That’s o­ne of the secrets of my success. Each role has it’s own idiosyncrasies. The artist must take o­n the life of that character.

On the stage, I give excellent performances of dao lech and comedies, but when singing in accompaniment to other characters I like dao thuong.

Performing dao lech is very difficult. Artists need a lot of energy and creativity.

Many artists find it easier to play dao thuong compared to dao lech. For a long time, I specialised in dao lech but I decided to spice the role up with some comedy, which was very popular with audiences.

Inner Sanctum: Although you are famous for your cheo performances, nowadays audiences are more likely to see you act xam at a theatre o­n Hang Dao–Dong Xuan Street every Saturday. Why do you like xam ?

I still perform cheo but not as much as before. Cheo is being preserved and is developing but xam is o­n the edge of extinction. Xam is a very beautiful form of folk music.

I and my colleagues have set up the Viet Nam Music Development centre which aims to restore and preserve hat xam, ca tru (ceremonial singing) and many other sorts of traditional folk music.

We have travelled to Ninh Binh, Thanh Hoa and Ha Tay, areas considered the birthplaces of hat xam, to see what we can salvage from the history of xam to keep it alive.

For this purpose we set up the Hang Dao-Dong Xuan theatre – to prove that xam is a national art and needs an audience.

Traditionally hat xam was performed by blind beggars as a way of earning money. Led through the streets by their wives and children, the beggars would sing while playing a dan bau (mono-string instrument) or dan nhi (two-string zither).

We’ve met many challenges in our efforts to preserve hat xam. But we love our jobs and rest in the knowledge that we are making a worthy contribution to the restoration of the precious art.

Our performances even attract fans from the south who fly to Ha Noi to enjoy hat xam.

Inner Sanctum: What is the difference between hat cheo, hat xam and ca tru?

Each type of folk music has its own particular characteristics.

Cheo is very popular and can be sung without many accompanying instruments. Ca tru is more mysterious and has to be accompanied by a dan day; a long-necked lute-like instrument with three silk strings and 10 frets, and a phach; a percussion instrument made of bamboo and played with two wooden sticks. Xam is also popular.

It is rather difficult to define specific differences between these three kinds of music.

Inner Sanctum: This spring, the Ha Noi Opera House hosted its first performance of hat xam in honour of artisans involved in preserving and developing national traditional culture. You took the stage with the xam song Lo Lung Con Ca Vang (A Hovering Golden Fish). How did you feel performing for the event?

It was the first and a truly great performance of hat xam, as well as good preparation for the hat xam festival to be held later this year. I myself was very happy because our efforts to bring hat xam to a big audience were finally realised.

We want to call o­n the public and the Government to help support traditional folk artists, whom today are struggling to make ends meet.

Inner Sanctum: How did your Centre for Music Development help 87-year-old artist Ha Thi Cau?

We called for donations to help support Cau in her old age. Now we can provide her with VND500,000 per month. It was a successful move but the State should be doing more to help people like Cau.

Inner Sanctum: As well as performing cheo, you also directed the play Trinh Phu Hai Chong (A Woman with Two Husbands) which proved very popular. Did you have any trouble switching from performing to directing?

The play was o­n the curriculum in a directing course I did when studying at the University of Stage and Cinema. The play was first performed o­n August 25, 2007. Since then, many people have asked me to stage the play again.

But this will take a lot of work because I have very little experience as a director. What I do have though, is experience as a performer and that is very helpful.

I have travelled to many countries performing cheo and many people have told me that although they couldn’t understand the language, they gained a sense of peace and traditional culture. It made them want to come to Viet Nam to see more cheo performances.