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The Development of Vietnamese Cải Lương

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2200 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Much of Vietnamese traditional musical culture has been shaped by the country’s foreign, political and social interactions with countries such as China, Korea, Japan, and Mongolia, as well as native influences (Trân 1978: 48). The arts and culture in Vietnam have been primarily impacted by the Chinese, along with some Indian influence. The Chinese took control of the Vietnamese Red River basin from 111 BCE to 938 AD (Hynson 2016), which is why their influence is still present even now. It was additionally affected by French colonialism from around 1887 to 1954 and American colonialism from 1955 to 1975 (Hays, n.d.). There are three types of theatre in Vietnam, separated by their regions: folk opera in the north, classical theatre of the central (similar to grand theatre of hat boi), and renovated theatre of the south (hát cải lương) (Nguyen 1970: 1). In this paper, I will be exploring the Vietnamese theatre form of cải lương and its development through colonialism and nationalism.

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Cải lương is a type of “reformed” modern folk opera that came from southern Vietnam during the French Colonial period in the 20th century. It seems to have origins from the theatrical genre of melodrama in France in the 19th century, which “affirmed a morally Manichean universe of good versus evil, revolved around relatively unambiguous characters (including the innocent virtuous victim-hero and the villain), and had broad class appeal” (Nguyen 2012: 256). Cải lương is a combination of modern spoken drama, southern Vietnamese folk songs, nhạc tài tử (chamber music), hát tuồng or hát bội (traditional Vietnamese classical theatre which developed from Chinese opera) (Nguyen 2002: 257). By blending dialogue together with singing, it became an international sensation because of its adaptability to modern times, but has digressed in popularity within the last forty years.

Originally, hát bội (also known as hát tuồng) was developed from Chinese opera (Nguyen 2002: 257), whose stories were based on myths and legends (Kalman 2002: 8). It was able to grow in Vietnam because of the integration of Chinese actors and Chinese folk songs that were mixed with Vietnamese lyrics. Characters are recognized by their costumes, gestures, and makeup, which remain the same throughout the whole opera (Kalman 2002: 8). This correlates to the characteristics of ancient cải lương; they use the stories from hát bội and later French literature (Cannon 2012: 127). The actors and actresses are usually dressed in fancy costumes with bright makeup (Kalman 2002: 8).

Modern cải lương consists of romantic love stories fused with family or social relationships, which also explore cultural norms, social norms, and other aspects of modern Vietnamese society (SECC 2015). They focus on issues that are significant to women, such as “arranged marriages, feminine virtue, the cult of the mother-in-law, the strength of patriarchal power, infidelity, premarital sex and pregnancy, and contesting conceptions of traditional Confucian and ‘modern’ femininity” (Nguyen 2012: 261). Throwing in different social themes in the opera was also a way for them to express political concerns about colonial authority under strict censorship.

The main source of the music for cải lương was nhạc tài tử, or “the music of talented ‘amateurs” (Cannon 2012: 123), basically traditional Vietnamese chamber music performed for a small setting for fun, which had developed into a dramatic form of musical storytelling. This type of music was usually improvised instead of notated. However, it was not entertaining enough on its own so they had to add another element to it: singing (Nguyen 1970: 11). The folk music from cải lương was first sung by amateurs in the south (Hays, n.d.), who were able to sing very romantically because of their soft voices. Vietnamese is a tonal language, meaning that the meaning of a word changes depending on its inflection, therefore greatly affecting the melodies within the music (Nguyen 1970: 2).

Cải lương started around the same time as the composition of a Vietnamese love song by Cao Văn Lầu (1892-1976) in 1919 called “Dạ Cổ Hoài Lang”, which translates to “Yearning for Her Husband at the Sound of the Midnight Drum” (Nguyen 2002: 259). It was written from the point of view of a woman who is waiting for her husband’s return from battle:

“Since the day, husband, you

Left on duty

I am consciously looking forward to hearing from you.

I can’t sleep well at night

Just because I have not heard anything from you

My heart saddens….” (Pham 1975)

Because cải lương and this song were both inspired by nhạc tài tử (chamber music) around the same time, they blended to become one. The amateur melody developed into a musical form called vọng cổ, which translates to “nostalgia for the past” (Khê and Phong 2001). This is the basis for all cải lương operas and can be heard in all various compositions and performances (Kalman 2002: 9). It is used as a fixed musical cycle or pattern that is similar to South Indian raga, which refers “to a specific collection of pitches that constitute a melodic concept” (Nguyen 2018: 6); this allows for extended improvisation and lyricism over the instrumentation. Usually, characters confess their deepest feelings and sentiments through the vọng cổ (Nguyen 2012: 259) because it presents such a nostalgic mood.

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Depending on the mode that is used, the actual scale degree can differ, which is determined by the different kind of ornamentation (Nguyen 1970: 9). Vọng cổ and other Vietnamese music use pentatonic and heptatonic scales, although Vietnamese solfege does differ from western solfege. There is no absolute pitch like in western music, vọng cổ has much pitch bending and ornamentation involved. According to Luu Trong Tuan, there are three scale systems in which melodies in cải lương are based on: bắc, nam, and oán (2014: 103). This vọng cổ helps to convey a personal story of melancholy and pain by using the oán mode (Cannon 2012: 146), which is a mix of both bắc and nam scales systems. 

Dạ Cổ Hoài Lang” originally contained two beats per measure and twenty phrases (Khê and Phong 2001). Over time, singers changed the lyrics to the melody to fit into different contexts and altered the phrases into longer four-, sixteen-, thirty-two-, and sixty-four beat versions (Nguyen 2012: 259). The most commonly form of vọng cổ used today has six phrases of thirty-two beats. This allowed singers to improvise freely with their own interpretation of the rhythm and ornamentation to the melody. Musicians were also able to improvise freely to “create polyphony with individual heterophony” (Nguyen 2018: 11), and they would meet together at certain cadential points in the piece with the singer with the signal from the song loan instrument (Nguyen 2018: 12).

Because of the way it was adapted within modern society, “Dạ Cổ Hoài Lang” instantly became popular in Vietnam. Some of the instruments that could be used in an ensemble accompanying a singer during the vọng cổ are “the moon-shaped lute (nguyêt kim), the pear-shaped lute (dàn ty ba), the transverse flute (sâo), the end-blown flute (tiéu), the two stringed spike fiddle (đàn nhị), the six-string zither (đàn tranh), the monochord (đàn bầu)” (Nguyen 2012: 257-259). Later, Western instruments, such as the violin and guitar, were also added to the ensemble. However, the guitar (lục huyền cam) was modified “by having the wood between the frets hollowed out to facilitate deep pressing on the metal strings, which were adapted to be softer and more flexible” (Khê and Phong 2001). Because of the many different instruments and their specific tunings, the oán mode had to be refined, which became known as the vọng cổ mode. Every performance of vọng cổ will be different because of all these unique elements. Many songs adapted Western rhythms and melodies with Vietnamese lyrics.

Cải lương is usually performed in commercial theatres and widely distributed on video tapes. I actually grew up watching these on the television screen because of my Vietnamese family. They were very entertaining because of all the drama and singing that were happening. Singers in cải lương use a lot of vibrato; they extend words and vibrato follows them. Therefore, the pitches may not be exact and can vary depending on the female or male voice. These songs would not be able to be played by the piano because it cannot play multiple notes or emulate vibrato. That is why lục huyền cầm (guitar with carved fretboard) are often used in vọng cổ because they are able bend pitch. In modern cải lương performances, different songs can be played during break sections before or after the vọng cổ song (Nguyen 2018: 10). They can be folk songs, famous traditional songs, Chinese folk melodies, poetry declamation, and now even popular music and the combination of pop ballads with traditional vọng cổ.

Cải lương usually focuses on and praises Vietnamese moral values. Back in its early years, it helped to tie the southern Vietnamese people with patriotism while under French colonial rule (Nguyen 2012: 261). Through cải lương, they were able to express their national identity. They caused the audience to become very emotional over issues that greatly affected the people of their country.

Cải lương was able to help the Vietnamese people find a voice within a more modern society in the 20th century. It helped to connect traditional and modern musical ideas by adapting as time progressed. Adaptability is a value that is crucial in Vietnamese society, especially while living under colonial rule. Unfortunately there is a great decline in artists who are involved in cải lương because the younger generations are not so interested in traditional ways anymore, although the genre is barely one hundred years old. Cải lương is quickly fading away because of the assimilation and globalization of Western culture and contemporary styles of music such as pop.


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