Sat, Nov 20, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Bewitched by the two-stringed Chinese violin


With one foot resting on the body of an antique, two-stringed Chinese violin and the other foot tapping out a rhythm, Ha Thi Cau closes her eyes in concentration and plays a few notes of a song, but struggles to remember the words.

Her memory lapse is not that surprising. At age 78, Cau is thought to be the very last of Vietnam's performers of hat xam, a style of music usually performed by blind musicians with origins in a 13th century legend. She has been singing and playing hat xam for nearly seven decades.

Cau is not blind, but both her parents and husband were. She started traveling and performing with her family in 1936 at the age of 10, meeting her husband when she was 12 and marrying him when she was just 16.

"My parents sang. I sang, my mother played the nhi (two-stringed Chinese violin) and my father played the dan bao (monochord). I went everywhere, from north to south. I followed my parents wherever they went," Cau said recently in her tiny two-roomed house in Quang Phuc, a picturesque rural village about 150km south of Hanoi.

Hat xam music had its heyday in the northern half of Vietnam in the 1920s and 1930s, according to traditional music expert Professor Bui Trong Hien, from Hanoi's Institute of Culture and Art.

At that time, there were four groups of hat xam musicians in Hanoi alone, all performing around the picture-perfect Hoan Kiem lake in the center of the city.

Troupes of performers also wandered and performed in all the provinces, from those on the northern border with China down to the center of Vietnam.

"Hat xam songs always kept up with social issues," Professor Hien said recently. "If there was something discussed in society they could make up songs about it, turning the stories into poetry and singing."

In addition to improvised pieces poking fun at authority, there were around 10 traditional themes for songs. Musicians could even be hired by a suitor to go and musically woo a prospective partner.

Subject matter for the songs Cau performed on a recent weekend included the difficulty of life as a woman, filial piety, the problem of lazy sons-in-law and gold-digging women.

Sprightly does not begin to describe the diminutive Cau. With semi-bawdy interludes between songs, she has her small audience guffawing one minute and nearly moved to tears the next with her jokes and songs.

Although she looks fragile and slightly decrepit, her voice is strong and clear, and her violin and drums playing is spot-on.

When she married at 16, she became the 18th wife of Nguyen Van Mau, a famous, blind hat xam performer who had the reputation of a charmer of women.

"My husband was the best xam singer, he was also very handsome," Cau recalled. "I married him when I was 16 and he was 49. There is no way a 16-year-old girl would normally marry a 49-year-old man, I must have been bewitched."

She never met any of her husband's first 15 wives. But at one stage, she played Chinese violin in a group while wife number 16 played drums and her husband played the monochord, an unusual arrangement that Cau said she took in stride.

"We even used to share a bed. What did it matter? He was blind," she said, before bursting into throaty laughter that sent small steams of red betel juice coursing down her wrinkled cheeks.

The origins of hat xam stretches back 700 years to the Tran dynasty of imperial Vietnam, according to Professor Hien.

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