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Ca Hue: Old Music, New Ears

Ca Hue is an ancient form of music that is catching the interest of the new generation, a delightful surprise for both its propagation and preservation.

Ca Hue is an archaic form of music which dates back 500 years ago. Also known as “The Hue Tune,” it is said to be similar to other Vietnamese traditional music forms such as the Don Ca Tai Tu (Southern folk music) and Ca Tru (ceremonial singing) of the northern region; and Nha Nhac, the music of the royalty. It had 60 original basic tones and developed into many more for the purpose of entertaining the royal family and mandarins during gatherings. The addition of new tunes and lyrics but still with the elements of traditional Hue folk songs earned its definition as chamber music which became accessible to other classes in the feudal system.

Dan Tranh (16-string zither), Dan Nguyet (moon-shaped flute) and Sanh Tien (wooden clappers) are some examples of the mixed music between new and old forms. Later on, teacups were added in the instruments, originally strange but effective and eventually popularly growing. The lyrics are said to have been innovated from the local Hue dialect while the singing form makes use of modulation effects by using the same sound on different words.

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Through time, Ca Hue became available not only to the locals but also to foreigners. They are performed on home stages and “dragon” boats as welcome performances to visitors wherein the boats sail through the famous and peaceful Huong (Perfume) River with the musicians dressed in the traditional costume ao dai, giving guests a one-of-a-kind experience of hearing cultural music and witnessing the beauty of the place all at the same time.

In order to preserve Ca Hue, family training is seen as one and perhaps the most important way to pass on the traditional music to the new generation. It has also been added as a major subject in the music academy wherein veterans of the ancient art form serve as teachers to the young music students. However, it is not the quantity of people to be taught that is the challenge but the process of doing so. Complaints have been emerging about low quality and even fake shows showcasing the supposed authentic traditional music. Organisers are said to overcharge patrons during and even after-show activities like lantern-floating on the river.

In order to address these alarming problems, the government has issued licenses only to professional performers to ensure authenticity. It also imposed regulations on the pricelist, artist’s salary and other concerning issues like cutting a show short in order to make more shows in other boats and therefore earn more.

Regular inspections and strict implementation of regulations have to be practiced in order to maintain the quality of Ca Hue in the region. Especially since the new generation is learning to appreciate the traditional music, the government has to make sure that it is preserved so that even the next generations will have the privilege of witnessing Ca Hue, which is not only music per se but a rich culture and history of Hue all in all.


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