Story: Do Thi Tham
Photos: Bui Trong Hien, Tran Hung, Do Duc, Vu Kien
In Hanoi, trù singer Pho Thi Kim Duc is passing her invaluable skills to younger artists
In Hanoi’s traditional music scene, trù singer Pho Thi Kim Duc is known as a veteran artist and a shining example of devotion and passion who is teaching this art form to young artists. She is respected by both professionals and laymen as a living treasure of trù singing.
Ms. Kim Duc was born and raised in a traditional trù singing family. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ms. Kim Duc’s grandparents – Truong Bay and Pho Thi Yen – founded a trù singing school in Thai Ha Hamlet. Their Hamlet Trù Singing School stressed traditional vocal styles, stringent singing rules and sophisticated, mature trilling skills.
At seven years old, Ms. Kim Duc began lessons with Ms. Pho Thi Yen, and was taught further by her father Pho Dinh On, originally the singing instructor at the Kham Thien Trù Singing Inn. At age 12, she became a professional trù singer who often performed with her father and older brother at established theaters until the country was again at peace. Thanks to her family’s connections, Ms. Kim Duc learned the rich secrets of trù singing from some of the most respected singers of the time, including Chu Thi Bon, Chu Thi Nam, Dam Mong Hoan, etc. This allowed Ms. Kim Duc to enrich the art of trù singing.
Ms. Kim Duc is one of the few remaining trù singers who were properly trained in a traditional manner. Devoted to her craft, she is fortunate to have found gifted students who are equally passionate about the banging and rhyming sounds of trù singing. Particularly, Mr. Hai and Ms. Duong, both laymen, have practiced in Ms. Kim Duc’s Hamlet Trù Singing School for 20 years. Ms. Duong is a singer and Mr. Hai is a đáy lutist. Their son has maturely mastered the drum. Ms. Kim Duc has also trained other vocalists and lutists, including the young singers Nguyen Khanh Linh and Pho Ha Mi, who are blessed with both beauty and talent. They have honed their vocals for over 12 years. Lutists Pho Minh Quang and Truong Thu Huong have also been training with Ms. Kim Duc for the past three years.
Performances by a trù singing inn are usually subject to a theme and Ms. Kim Duc is an encyclopedia of ancient folk repertoires. For instance, she knows hundreds of singing pieces from the Tale of Kieu. Repertoires are chosen to include the most moving words and traditional trù melodies, and to show off the vocalists’ skills, the sophisticated đáy frets of the lutists, and the refined taste of the audience.
Each trù singing session begins with a Bắc Phản tune, alternatively known as the Opening Tune. Bắc Phản is the first tune to be taught in a trù singing school, after the basic tally card and lute skills. The tune starts on a soft, flat and anticlimactic crescendo, only rising to the higher scale at the end to give rise to the next tunes. It is followed by Mưỡu Singing and Talking Singing. Talking Singing is the most popular genre with the largest number of repertoires. Talking Singing may stand alone but is sometimes combined with Mưỡu singing, which refers to singing one or two opening six-eight verses and switching to Talking Singing.
There are also repertoires of ancient verses called Thét Melodies, an old fashioned part of trù singing. Called “Thét” or “Thiết”, this refers to the creation of haunting aftermaths to a melody. This style employs the full five scale in trù singing: South – North – Huỳnh – Pha – Nao (Mournful). Many researchers have noted that the lyrics of Thét Melodies are incoherent and enigmatic, but the sound is so melodic that they might be citations from ancient verses. Thét Melodies are usually cited by female singers, thus attracting greater attention.
Many times in a singing session, acquiescing to requests from her students and the audience, Ms. Kim Duc performs an extremely sophisticated tally cards game. In the space of five minutes, the audience is lulled by the ethereal sounds of falling dewdrops and thunderous rains. One established listener did not exaggerate in proclaiming her act “The Winning Tally Cards”.
Ms. Kim Duc is the fifth generation in an uninterrupted line of trù singers: from the revered artists of the Hamlet Trù Singing School to her father, Singing Instructor of Kham Thien Quarter, and her artist relatives, to her and her older brother’s generation, and finally the generation of her offspring, who Ms. Kim Duc trains in her singing inns. Ms. Kim Duc’s Hamlet Trù Singing Inn is one of a handful of places that is preserving this invaluable and unique artistic genre.