A Folk Tradition Fades, but the Melody Lingers On

LO KHE, Vietnam, March 18, 2001 : Late at night, when the silence of the village and the emptiness of her damp stone cottage become too deep to bear, Pham Thi Mui begins to sing familiar songs of her ancestors that transport her back into what seemed a time of certainty.

Her husband dead, her children grown, her era past, Mrs. Mui, 85, is alone in the dark on her broad wooden bed with only her past for company. She sings of mandarins and courtesans, love and loneliness, great wars and teasing dalliances, tapping the jaunty rhythms of her songs with the tip of one finger.

”Daytime is fine,” she said one recent afternoon. ”There are plenty of people around. But at night I can’t keep the sadness away. That’s when I sing. If I had the strength I’d sing all through the night.”

The songs she knows could last her even longer than that. Mrs. Mui is one of the last living masters of Ca Tru, a 600-year-old form of sung poetry that was once hugely popular, inspiring famous poets and drawing lively crowds to musical contests.

It is one of the disappearing traditional art forms that Vietnamese are struggling to preserve as the modern world overwhelms them.

There was a time when great mandarins called Mrs. Mui to their courts to sing, when she was young and beautiful and knew how to play with words and tease her audience. Now her audience is all but gone. And she knows that once she dies, much of her art will die with her.

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Photo by Doan Bao Chau

”There’s almost no one left like me,” she said. ”There’s so much to teach, so much to save, so much work, so many different songs. Even if I can teach some of it, I can never teach it all. And who would come to listen?”

Three decades of war isolated most of Vietnam from the cultural changes that are sweeping it now. But the years of conflict also hastened the death of many of its traditions.

”It was wartime,” said Mrs. Mui’s daughter Nguyen Thi Sen, 43, who lives nearby. ”No one was thinking about singing. If we hadn’t had the war, Ca Tru would be more popular now. Bombs, bullets, where was the time for Ca Tru? It all came to a stop for 30 years.”

Mrs. Mui herself stopped performing, consumed with survival. ”I thought I’d forget everything, but I found that I still remembered,” she said. The warfare also broke a four-generation chain of Ca Tru singers that began with Mrs. Mui’s great-grandmother. Her daughter, Mrs. Sen, never had a chance to learn the art, and today she is a farmer like the other women in the village, tending to her chickens, pigs and cow.

”I can sing some of the songs, but only for myself,” she said. ”It’s like farmland. If I had planted the seeds they would have grown.”

But then, four years ago, something happened that seemed to Mrs. Mui like a miracle. Her 12-year-old granddaughter, Lan, sitting over the cooking pots at her family’s hearth, began tapping the Ca Tru rhythms with her chopsticks and singing to herself.

”I don’t know why,” said Lan, who is now 16. ”I heard my grandmother singing and I just remembered the words. It was easy.”

In this dark cottage, with its smell of mold and its aging calendars, where old women with black head scarves lounge and gossip through the afternoons, Lan is a shaft of sunlight with her crisp white blouse and impulsive smile.

”Wow, I’m tired!” she exclaimed happily the other day as she entered, flopping down on her back beside Mrs. Mui with the confidence of a much-loved grandchild. ”The traffic is awful!” She had just come by motorbike, an hour’s dusty ride into the green rice fields from the bustle of Hanoi, where she had performed a bit of Ca Tru at a trade fair.

Not long ago, she said, she refused to sing at a school assembly because none of her classmates like this old music. ”All they like is pop,” she said. ”The only people who really want to hear me sing are old people.”

And not so many of those. Perhaps two dozen old men and women gather on the last Sunday of every month at a small temple in Hanoi to try their hands at Ca Tru. Mrs. Mui sometimes travels there to perform for them, but what she sees there gives her little hope.

”Please tell me, is this music going to last forever?” she said. ”If I knew it would last, I’d work harder to teach the young people. But I’m afraid it won’t last. I know it won’t last. And even if I teach the youngsters to sing, what audience will they have?”

A dutiful granddaughter, Lan prepared betel nut, a mild narcotic, for her grandmother and her friends, slicing the nut, mixing it with white lime paste and wrapping it in pungent leaves to chew.

As the old visitors drifted off to sleep on the broad wooden bed, Mrs. Mui began quietly to sing, a long-remembered tune about wine, flirtation and the contentment of intimacy.

”Wait, wait!” cried her granddaughter, running to the cupboard for a notebook and a pen. ”O.K, grandma, go on. Do that again.”

As the old woman sang, Lan began to scribble, her lips moving in concentration.

”Slow down,” she ordered. ”You’re singing too fast.”

But Mrs. Mui couldn’t stop. ”I have to sing this way,” she said. ”It’s the only way I can remember the words.”

At last the song ended and Lan laid her notebook on the table alongside the betel nut leaves. And as the old visitors dozed on the bed beside them, grandmother and granddaughter sat back content, sharing a smile.

A cool afternoon breeze drifted in through the small window. In the rich green rice fields that surround the village, amid the murmur of frogs, farmers bent and straightened under their conical hats.

Beyond them, trucks and buses jostled on the dusty road to Hanoi, and the breeze carried the distant sound of their horns.

Copyright The New York Times