Quach Thi Ho – The woman faithful to Ca tru

VietNamNet Bridge – People’s Artist Quach Thi Ho not only holds the secret to the almost dead art of ca tru (choral chamber music), but seeks to revive it by sharing her gift with the world.

Ca tru artisan Quach Thi Ho died seven years ago but her wonderful ca tru songs are still preserved carefully by those who loved her. A special program was held on January 13 at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi for the anniversary of Mrs Ho’s death. That night, Nguyen Tuong Lan, Mrs. Ho’s daughter, ca tru artists, Mrs. Ho’s friends and fans told stories about the number-one ca tru singer of Vietnam. “I’m a songstress” In the early 20th century, ca tru singing was considered a bad job and ca tru songstresses were frigid. Most co dau (ca tru songstresses) quit their job, except one, Quach Thi Ho. Her pride in her gift was like her holding a signboard that said “I’m a songstress” and she was ready to sing to everyone. “Many people advised my mother to change her job but she didn’t. She firmly said that she was a songstress, a ca tru artist and she continued to sing,” said Nguyen Tuong Lan.Artist Quach Thi Ho devoted her whole life to ca tru. Her beauty and ca tru talent became better known with time and respected not only at home but abroad. Quach Thi Ho is one of the few Vietnamese traditional artists recognized internationally. In 1976, Professor Tran Van Khe recorded Mrs. Ho’s ca tru songs to introduce to a global audience. In 1978, she was awarded an honorary diploma by UNESCO’s International Music Council and the International Institute for Comparative Music Studies for her contribution in preserving “traditional music of great artistic and cultural value.” Her recording of ca tru ranked first among songs from 29 other countries in the International Festival of Traditional Music held in Pyong Yang (the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea) in 1983. It won another first prize in a similar festival held in Moscow. UNESCO honored the old artisan with the solemn words: “Thank you for preserving Vietnam’s valuable traditional art heritage, a treasure to mankind”. Mrs. Ho’s golden voice was second to none. Some said it was as mild as silk, as warm as spring sunlight, and pure like moonlight. With her outstanding talent and great contribution to Vietnamese culture, she was nominated to the list of legendary women of the world. On the anniversary of her death, her family, friends, and fans gathered to remember her and her music and will become an annual event of the UNESCO Ca Tru Vietnam Center from now on. Ca trusinging grew out of folk festivals in the countryside where dao nuong, female artists, would ply their trade. The troupe comprised two or three singers with a male musician, and they would take it in turns to sing through the night at festivals. By the late 19th and early 20th century, this form of singing had moved from the country to the city. In Ha Noi, Hang Giay and Hue streets resounded with the beautiful melody of these astounding voices. But the owners of the theatres could not always afford the purest ca tru voices, so they made do with a couple of professional singers. To keep their customers interested, the owners hired some “ornamentation” in the form of pretty young girls to serve the wine. These girls, called dao ruou, needed no particular skills – they just had to be beautiful and polite to the many customers. But the life of a dao ruou was not a happy one. Many of the girls were cheated into the trade, or else enslaved by debt and forced to work their youth away in these makeshift bars. The men who owned these bars were often criminals, at best they were gamblers or loan sharks. The girls were often forced to work as prostitutes, they changed their names and left any hope of a normal life behind them. The luckier among them married Chinese exiles in the city, but they were always considered second class citizens. Ha Noi’s Nga Tu So, Vinh Ho, Van Thai and Lang streets were bustling with people drinking alcohol and chatting against the backdrop of ca tru singing at theatres. Kham Thien Streetwas also a famous hangout. The theatres were all thronging when pay day rolled around. But the posterity didn’t filter down to the dao ruou, who were still trapped by their debts. So it was that Quach Thi Ho became a shining light in an otherwise dimly-lit profession. She joined a ca tru troupe in her home province of Hung Yen at the age of seven. By the 1930s, at the tender age of 20, she was already a famous singer. Ho worked at the Van Thai Theatre for 24 years, where she amassed a loyal following and fortunately earn enough money to live a comfortable life and engage in charitable works. In 1945, after the August Revolution, Ho helped to waive the debts of all the dao ruou workers in her theatre – effectively buying their freedom. The ca tru theatres disappeared from view, but the beautiful art suffered a hangover: its image tainted by memories of its seedy past. Many people couldn’t break the association of this beautiful music with prostitution and vice, but singers like Ho worked hard to clean up its reputation and convince audiences of its worth. Nowadays, the seedy past is all but forgotten and people recognize ca tru singing as a pure and classical art form. Ho has won plaudits for her golden voice. In 1976, she took out the first prize at the Teheran International Music Festival and then performed in a number of countries. Even recently, at the age of 80, she has appeared on Vietnamese television and fans thought her voice as sparkling as ever.

Ca tru favorites based on poems by much-loved ancient authors such as Chinese Du Fu and Bai Juyi are still popular.

And a rousing rendition of poems like Thu Hung (Inspiration of Autumn) and Ty Ba Hanh, Dao Hong, Dao Tuyet (Singer Hong, Singer Tuyet) can still stir a Vietnamese soul.

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