MUSIC, GONGS, STONE XYLOPHONES AND MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS FROM VIETNAM

MUSIC FROM VIETNAM

Vietnamese music is incredibly diverse. Many styles are influenced by China. Some forms are linked to tribal music of Vietnam's ethnic minorities. Others sounds jazzy and bluesy. Noticeably absent, though, is the "gong-chime style of music that characterizes Indonesian gamelon music and the music of Cambodia, Burma and thee Philippines. Most Vietnamese music is based on a five note system like Chinese music and American blues. Many of Vietnam's top musicians work out of the Hanoi National Conservatory of Music.

"Vietnamese music prizes the act of improvisation and ornamentation more than a lavish ability to play the melody," wrote the musicologist Eckart Rahn. "Vietnamese musicians share with their south Indian counterparts an apparent suspicion of any long sustained tone; flutes and fiddlers especially will embroider any and all notes, given the chance." Many songs have a prelude that varies in length in which a musicians shows off the his ability on his or her instrument.

Vietnamese music has had a rather long history. Since ancient times, the Vietnamese have had a strong inclination for music. For the Vietnamese, music is considered to be an essential need; therefore, numerous musical instruments and genres intended for various purposes have been developed. Vietnamese people use music to express their innermost feelings, to encourage themselves while working and fighting, to educate their children in good traditions and national sentiment, to communicate with the invisible, and to sublimate their aspirations for a happy life. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Simple and primitive instruments, as well as more sophisticated ones, have been preserved to form a rich musical treasure. Numerous forms of songs and music have also been created and retained. They include lullabies, children’s songs, ritual songs, festivity songs, various work songs, courtship songs, riddle songs, melodies, and poem narration. There are also songs and music for groups, as well as for traditional theater. Vietnamese traditional music is diverse due to the various genres that took shape during different periods of history. Songs of the same genre often differ very much in melody and expression from ethnicity to ethnicity. As a result, lullabies, for example, of the Kinh differ from those of the Muong. ~

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on the Music of Southeast Asia: "Traditional music in Vietnam has always been a convergence of art music and folk characteristics. As the Vietnamese art music was linked to the kings court it surely had to pass away. But the folkloristic element is still alive... Another point is that many ensembles which one might listen to today mix up with instruments of the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. So, speaking about traditional "Vietnamese" music always means speaking about the music of these people too. Sometimes, instruments of these ethnicities just get assimilated and turn into a "Vietnamese" instrument." [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, Music of Southeast Asia blog /-/]

"One interesting fact is, that most of the traditional music of Vietnam is no solo music. Solo pieces may be found for Tranh and Bao, but these are not so old, so these pieces rather belong to the contemporary music. Most instruments belong to an ensemble, and even instrumental music is rare, as traditional Vietnamese music is centered around the human voice and singing. Ensembles appear in many sizes, starting from one instrument to accompany a singer, up to fifty or more for a theater play. If you find yourself in the situation to listen to an ensemble nowadays understood as "traditional", you will also find many "exotic" instruments from the ethnic tribes living in central and northern Vietnam, like the Goong or the K’ny (speaking fiddle). /-/

The Vietnam National Academy of Music teaches traditional Vietnamese music and Western classical music. Describing it, Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times wrote: "The classroom: there "could be almost any place in the world where piano is taught. The furniture and lighting are institutional. The walls have soundproofing. There is a long table for instructors and a decent grand. Down the hall, though, hangs a wacky photo of Ho Chi Minh in band master whites cheerfully conducting an orchestra." The Hanoi National Conservatory of Music and Vietnamese Institute for Musicology have fairly good reputations.

Melody and Rhythm n Vietnamese Music

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on the Music of Southeast Asia: " Traditional Vietnamese music is often experienced as "strange" by Western listeners, because it uses a different basic scale for melodies, the anhemitonic pentatonic scale: Looking at these two modi ("dieu" in Vietnamese), "bac" (1) and "nam" (2), we already mention something which is also different from Western temperized music, and this is the difference between these two most often used modi in Vietnamese music. They seem to be the same, but the red signs +/- indicate the differing of the pitch by a quarter to eighth tone higher or lower. This kind of microtonality is not common to Western ears. If you play both melodies to an unprepared listener he would not recognize a difference. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, Music of Southeast Asia blog /-/]

"If we now keep in mind that most of the Vietnamese music is rather homophone or heterophone than polyphone, but still chords like our "major" or "minor" do not exist as a result of the lack of semitones, we soon know that we have to change our listening habits as much as possible. These modi are fixed and several tones get ornamented. Ornamentations require skilled players (which is not always fact), and a well trained audience will seperate a piece from the North from that one from the South of Vietnam just by listening to the used modus and the ornamentations within. Ornamentations are very important, also if used during improvisations. /-/

"The rhythm instead is mostly quite easy, held in 2, 4 or 8 beat steps. Of course, polyrhythmic elements are usual, and pieces often become faster to the end. Dynamics change within the instrumentation of an ensemble but never overtake the voice of a singer. One more problem for the Western listerner is to divide between the individual pieces, as they first seem to be quite the same. The structures in this music are better described like grown branches of a tree, not like the clear architecture of the form in Western music. Periods and sequences do exist, but they are not obvious and are covered in organical developments." /-/

Westernization of Vietnam’s Music

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on the Music of Southeast Asia: " There are not so many opportunities left to listen to traditional Vietnamese music: Festivals like new year, weddings and funerals and sometimes shows on TV and radio. Vietnamese theater and opera are, if still alive, more interested in following Western styles, and the other occasions for experiencing music are questionable if to be "traditional", like bigger hotels serving food while ensembles play for entertainment purposes. Even in aspects of folk music like children songs, more and more traditions perish and are hard to be experienced today." [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, Music of Southeast Asia blog /-/]

"Pop music is on its way to dominate the Karaoke sector, and it is this Karaoke virus which we find all over Asia that also dominates the whole Vietnamese music market. In Hanoi and Saigon, Cassettes, Videotapes and CDs are purchased at lowest prices, most of them black copies from Western productions. In tourist locations like restaurants, hotels and discos we find the newest Techno productions from overseas side by side with local Popmusic starlets, which are commercialized like the big stars in USA. /-/

"If we watch Vietnamese TV we do mostly find sounds of Vietnamese instruments like the Dan Bao or Tranh reduced to a background jingle, shows with "real" traditional music are not rare but even commercialized. Whenever you face a TV set in a public place like a restaurant it is getting more and more common to watch CNN and MTV than local stations. This means that American and European Pop music is more and more taking over the average ear of the Vietnamese citizen. In the streets we sometimes find the crashing cymbals and bumping drums of a Chinese funeral - that’s also the sound of Vietnam." /-/

Vietnamese Musical Instruments

Perhaps the most important instrument in traditional Vietnamese music is the dan bua , a lute-like instrument comprised of a 40-x-6-x-4½ inch box with a bamboo rod, a small gourd-shell sound box attached to a single steel string. The soundboard used to be made from bau (melon rind) but is now made of wood. Originally used in north to express the joys and sorrows of farm life, the instrument produces an amazing array of sounds through the manipulation of the "whammy-bar"-like bamboo rod. Up until recently women were not permitted to play the dan bua, but now female dan bua musicians are quite common.

Thee k'ni is sing-string bowed instruments that looks like a rifle. A musician holds it to his mouth, looking as if he is shooting himself, and grips it with his teeth and uses his mouth as a resonator box. Among the Vietnamese percussion instruments are the dan da (a xylophone-like instrument made struck stones); the k'longput (a marimba-like instruments made with bamboo tubes that is played by clapping over the tubes not touching them); the dan r'rung (similar to a k'long put); and various gongs, "mother and child" drums, cymbals, bells and wooden blocks.

Other traditional Vietnamese musical instruments include the dan nguet (moon lute with a long fingerboard and unequal frets), dam bau (another lute that resembles a sitar without a gourd resonator), dan nhi (a two-stringed fiddle of Chinese origin), dan to rung (made of bamboo tubes), sac truc (transverse flute made with a special kind of bamboo), tieu (end-blown flute similar to a Chinese hsaio ), lam kep (a reed flute of Hmong origin), sol (a flute that sounds like a whistle), sao mot lo a bamboo flute with only one hole), khen (pan flute), ken la (leaf clarinet), dan tranh (a 16-string zither-like instrument similar to a Japanese koto) and dan tam thao luc (similar to a dan tranh but has 36 strings).

"On the other hand, there are few instruments which are sure to be truly original Vietnamese, and these are the instruments which you may find at any corner in Vietnam. They are sold as tourist souvenirs and if it comes to the point that somebody wants to learn traditional music in Hanoi, Hue or Saigon, one of these instruments will be in first place of his interest. Nearly all instruments are still made by hand, only few (mainly the tourist versions) get produced in factories. The manufactured ones are of course better in quality and sound, and many of them get ornamented with carvings or inlays." /-/

Vietnamese Fiddles and the Moon-Shaped Lute (Dan Nguyet)

According to ancient carvings, the moon-shaped lute appeared in Vietnam in the 11th century. Intended to be played by men, the lute has maintained a very important position in the musical traditions of the Kinh. Therefore, this instrument is widely used in their folk, court, and academic music. The dan nguyet is distinguished by its pure and loud sound, as well as by its great capacity to express different emotions. Thus, it is heard at solemn and animated ritual concerts, funerals, or refined chamber music recitals. It can be played in solo, as part of an orchestra, or to accompany other instruments. Due to its long neck and high frets, the dan nguyet is also used as an ornament. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Ad

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on the Music of Southeast Asia: "Somehow, every kind of traditional music of a country is bound to one or two instruments which represent this music and are only to be found in this country or region. In Vietnam, it is not that easy, as there are hundreds of them. If we keep in mind that many of the instruments are very old and appear in other Asian countries or other ethnic groups with equal shape but different names, and as we also keep in mind that much of the knowledge about the instruments was lost during the decades of war, we know that it is very difficult to quote whether an instrument is truly "Vietnamese" or not." [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, Music of Southeast Asia blog /-/] ministration of Tourism ~]

The Dan nhi, it is said, is a simple instrument that can achieve miracles. A folksong of the north, a lullaby of the center, or a cai luong aria of the south will lose much of its charm if not accompanied by the dan nhi, a traditional instrument capable of a great variety of expression. The dan nhi is a bow instrument with two strings, commonly used among the Viet ethnic group and several national minorities: Muong, Tay, Thai, Gie Trieng, Khmer. The dan nhi comprises a tubular body made of hard wood with snake or python skin stretched over one end and a bridge. The neck of the dan nhi has no frets. Made of hard wood, one end of the neck goes through the body; the other end slants slightly backward. There are two pegs for tuning. The two strings, which used to be made of silk, are now of metal and are tuned in fifths: C-1 D-2; F-1 C-2; or C-1 G-1. ~

The dan nhi is a highly expressive instrument which plays an important solo and orchestral-role. The bow is made of bamboo or wood and fitted with horsehair. The hair goes through the space between the strings. The tones of the dan nhi range over two octaves, from C-1 to C-3. In drawing the bow, the player uses various techniques, including legato, vibrato, staccato; combined with his fingering of the strings he can produce trills, glissando, rapid runs, etc. ~

K’ni—a word from the languages of the Ba Na and the E De people— is used to describe the single-stringed fiddle played by some ethnic groups in the Truong Son-Tay Nguyen region (Ba Na, Gia Rai, E De, Xo Dang, Pako, and Hre, etc.). The main part of the instrument consists of a 50 to 70cm long bamboo tube or round wooden section. Frets are fixed on the main part and the string is hung along its length. The bow is made of a small thin bamboo bar; the player rubs the outside of the bow on the string to produce sounds. ~

Though the K’ni’s structure is quite simple, the distinctiveness of this instrument resides in the way it is played. The player holds a thread that is linked to the string in his mouth to amplify and transform the sounds. While bowing the string and touching the frets to produce pitches, the player changes the aperture of his mouth according to the tune. Thus, the sounds are altered, almost evoking human pronunciation. Those who are familiar with the sounds of the k’ni and who understand the vernacular may catch the message of the tune; this is why people say that the k’ni sings. The E De has added cho nac narration (type of song) to k’ni to replace human voice. Due to this characteristic, the k’ni has become an instrument used mainly by young men to express their feelings to their girlfriends. ~

Dan Day and Dan Bau

In the past, the dan day was an accompanying instrument used only for one genre of songs, which later divided in two variants known today as hat cua dinh and hat a dao. The dan day, exclusively played by men, most probably came into being in the 15th century when musical genres were forming. This bass instrument has high frets and a very long neck. Thanks to the unusual technique called ngon chun (slacking the string with the fingers), players may lower the tones. The low register and the dull, warm but short sounds of the dan day always distinguish it from other instruments in a concert. Apart from accompanying hat cua dinh and hat a dao songs, the dan day is now used to accompany poems as well. Due to its refined and modest sounds, the dan day is sometimes compared to a secluded philosopher. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Dan bau is a musical instrument that touches the heart. The music of dan bau (one-stringed zither) should be solely for the pleasure of its player. Don't listen to it if you are a young woman. This warning, probably coming from vigilant parents wishing to protect their daughters from the emotional appeal of love songs played on this instrument; this gives an idea of the power and charm of its music. ~

According to the "Dai Nam thuc luc tien bien" the first dan bau was made in 1770. At its first appearance it was a very simple instrument comprised of a bamboo section, a flexible rod, a calabash or half a coconut. After a process of evolution and improvement, the present form of the dan bau is a bit more sophisticated, yet still quite simple. It consists of an oblong box-shaped sound board, slightly narrower toward one end, with a slightly warped top made of unvarnished soft light wood, sides made of hard wood, and a bottom of light wood pierced with holes for better sound. At one end of the sound board is a flexible bamboo rod that goes through a dried calabash whose bottom end has been cut out before being fixed on the sounding board. At the other end of the sounding board is a peg made of wood or metal used for tuning. The metal string is attached to the rod and to the peg. The pluck is a pointed stick of bamboo or rattan. ~

The dan bau is usually tuned to the note C. It uses harmonies (or overtones). When playing the musician plucks the string while touching it lightly with the side of his hand at a point producing a harmony. But because the flexible rod causes the tension of the string to vary, the pitch may be made to rise or fall, the note may be lengthened or shortened, and trills may be played. The technique involving the fingers of the left hand includes vibrating, pressing, alternate pressing and releasing. The dan bau may be played on a scale consisting of third-tones or even quarter-tones. ~

The notes played by the dan bau are smooth, sweet, and captivating. In recent years success has been achieved in amplifying the sound, causing an increase in volume and distance that the sound carries, while still preserving the quality of the sound. The instrument is played solo or to accompany a poetry recital. During recent years, it has taken a role in orchestral accompaniment to cheo and cai luong opera. The dan bau has been performed on major stages in foreign countries. ~

Dan Da (Stone-Slab Lithophone)

The lithophone is a set of stone slabs of different sizes and shapes fabricated through an elementary technique. These stones are available in the mountainous areas south of Central Vietnam and east of South Vietnam. Examination of the stone slabs found at Binh Da archaeological site in Dong Nai Province has revealed that this instrument may have existed for over 3,000 years. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

At the end of the 1980s, 200 lithophone stone slabs had been discovered in Dak Lak, Khanh Hoa, Dong Nai, Ninh Thuan, Binh Phuoc, Lam Dong, and Phu Yen Provinces. Each set is comprised of between three and 15 bars. The first set, discovered at Ndut Lieng Krak in Dak Lak Province in 1949, is now kept in a French museum. Most of the other sets are exhibited throughout Vietnam. For some ethnic groups in Tay Nguyen, the stone slabs are sacred and preserved as family treasures played during grand ceremonies for the gods. For others, the stone slabs are used for setting up crop-protection devices. ~

T’rung Bamboo Pipes

T'rung is one of the popular musical instruments closely associated with the spiritual life of the Ba Na, Xo Dang, Gia Rai, E De and other ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It is made of very short bamboo tubes differing in size, with a notch at one end and a beveled edge at the other. The long big tubes give off low-pitched tones while the short small ones produce high-pitched tones. The tubes are arranged lengthwise horizontally and attached together by two strings. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

There are three types of T'rung: high, medium and low tones. The simplest type is composed of five tubes corresponding to La, Do 1, Re 1, Fa 1, Sol 1 and producing deep and resounding tones. In the majestic Central Highlands, T'rung is often played after back-breaking farm work and during evening get get-togethers in the communal house around a bonfire with young boys and girls singing and dancing merrily. The sounds of the gong and T'rung also mingle together at wedding parties and village festivals. ~

The T'rung instrument has been largely improved. More tubes have been added, and at times as many as 48 tubes are arranged in three arrays capable of performing intricate piece of modern music while preserving the traditional sound scale Some players have even invented a stick notched at both ends for a single hand to produce two sounds at the same time, heightening the artistry of the instrument. Vietnam's national music bands have never neglected the role of T'rung, an instrument which is original and made of simple materials, but highly appreciated at performances in the famous musical halls of many foreign countries. ~

Vietnamese 36 String Zither and Tranh Zither

The 36-string zither is a percussion instrument. It has the shape of an isosceles trapezoid, with a slightly convex sound board made of light, porous, unvarnished wood. The bridges and sides are made of hardwood. The bottom is flat. There are two staggered lines of 18 bridges on the sound board. The bridges on the left have hooks to which the strings are attached; those on the right have pegs for tuning. The strings are of metal. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Those on the left, numbering 18, are tuned as follows: C, D, E, F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp, C1, D1, El, F-sharp 1, G-sharp 1, A-sharp I, C2, D2, E2, F-sharp 2, G-sharp 2, A sharp 2. The 18 strings on the right are tuned as follows: C-sharp, D-sharp, F, G, A, B, C-sharp 1, D-sharp 1, FI, GI, Al, B1, C-sharp 3, D-sharp 2, F2, G2, A2, New York Times. The range of the instrument covers three octaves from C to B2. The strings are struck with two thin flexible bamboo sticks tipped with felt. ~

The playing technique includes a quick run, vibrato, stopping, and pressing. The tones are bright and merry and the notes of an arpeggio can be played in swift succession or simultaneously. The instrument plays an important role in the band accompanying cheo and cai luong operas. The 36-string zither can be played to accompany instrument solos, singing, or as part of an orchestra. Recently, more strings have been added so that all semi-tones can be played. ~

The tranh zither is also called the thap luc cam or sixteen-stringed zither. The tranh zither appeared in Vietnam in the time of the Tran dynasty (12th-13th centuries). It has a rectangular sounding box, about 110cm long that tapers about 13cm toward an end, with a warped sound board made of unvarnished light wood. The sides are made of hard wood decorated with various designs, either lacquered or inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The bottom is made of light wood with sound holes. The broader end of the sound box is pierced with 16 holes and reinforced with a metal band. ~

Toward the middle of the sound board there are 16 bridges made of wood or bone tipped with copper that can be moved to vary the tension of the strings, thus creating various notes. At the narrower end of the box are sixteen pegs for tuning. The strings are metal and tuned to the pentatonic scale. The range of the tranh zither is about three octaves, from the notes C to C3. The player uses a plectrum and can play chords, trills, tremolos... His left hand, which manipulates the strings, can use such techniques such as pressing, vibrato, glissando, etc. ~

The music of the tranh zither is usually light and full of cheerfulness. The instrument bears some likeness to the Japanese Koto, the Korean Ka Yagum, the Mongolian Jatac, the Chinese Zeng, and the Indonesian Kachap, which have 13, 12, 12, 13-16, 7-24 strings, respectively. It is nonetheless an original Vietnamese instrument with specific musical characteristics. It is used to accompany poetry recitals and is quite often part of an orchestra or a band playing chamber music, religious music, or accompanying cheo or cai luong drama. ~

Vietnamese Gongs (Cong and Chieng)

Gongs are musical instruments made of alloy bronze, sometimes with gold, silver, or black bronze added to their composition. Vietnam gongs consist of two main types, cong and chieng . Cong has a knob in the middle, while chieng has none. Cong makes deep bass sounds, but melodies have to be coaxed out of chieng . In the Kinh language, the word cong identifies convex gongs and the word chieng refers to the flat ones. Gongs vary in size from 20 to 120cm in diameter. Gongs may be played one at a time or in groups of 2 to 20 units. The Muong, as well as other ethnic groups in the Truong Son-Tay Nguyen regions, use gongs not only to beat the rhythm but also to play polyphonic music. Ensembles of gongs usually include several sets that vary in number and function during the performance. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Gongs can be struck with wooden sticks, mallets, or even bare hands. There are techniques that can be used to shut off sounds and to produce melodies. In some ethnic groups, gongs are only intended for men to play. However, the sac bua gongs of the Muong are played by women. In other ethnic groups, both men and women may play. In general, taboos regarding cong-chieng customs differ from ethnicity to ethnicity. ~

Gongs hold great significance and value for many ethnic groups in Tay Nguyen. The gongs play an important role in the lives of the inhabitants of Tay Nguyen; from birth until death, the gongs are present at all the important events, joyful as well as unfortunate, in their lives. Almost every family has at least one set of gongs. In general, gongs are considered to be sacred instruments. They are mainly used in offerings, rituals, funerals, wedding ceremonies, New Year’s festivities, agricultural rites, victory celebrations, etc. In the Truong Son -Tay Nguyen region, playing the gongs electrifies the people participating in dances and other forms of entertainment. Gongs have been an integral part of the spiritual life of many ethnic groups in Vietnam. ~

Tuan Anh of the Viet Nam News wrote: "Though gongs appear in other Southeast Asian countries, they have different uses and purposes than the ones used in Viet Nam. "In Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Laos, gong music has become professional or is used by the royal court, while the cong and chieng in Viet Nam are used by ethnic communities and are an indispensable part of their spiritual life," Professor To Ngoc Thanh, president of the Viet Nam Folk Arts Association, said. "As they say, ‘life is as long as the resounding sound of the gong’."[Source: Tuan Anh Viet Nam News, November 25, 2007 *=*]

"The way countries preserve and perform the traditional instruments vary a great deal. "Gongs have been kept by the community and also by families and individuals in the Central Highlands," said Thanh. "Anyone there can own a gong and play and perform in special celebrations." While musicians in Indonesia or Philippines play on a fixed set of gongs of different sizes and sounds in a seated position, Vietnamese performers carry and beat only a single gong while walking or dancing with dozens of players of both sexes. The number of cong and chieng used for celebrations can range from two to 15. They are played with several scales, known officially as the Musical Scales of the Viet Nam Highlanders. Indonesian gongs use only two musical scales, slendro and pelog. *=*

Gongs in the Central Highlands of Vietnam

As for the majority of ethnic groups in Central Highlands, gongs are musical instruments of sacred power. It is believed that every gong is the settlement of a god who gets more powerful as the gong is older. "God of gong" is always considered as the tutelary deity for the community’s life. Therefore, gongs are associated to all rites in one’s life, such as the inauguration of new houses, funerals, buffalo sacrifice, crop praying rite, new harvest, ceremony to pray for people’s and cattle’s health, ceremony to see-off soldiers to the front, and the victory celebration. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

In Central Highlands, gongs are often performed in the form of orchestra. Gong orchestras adopt a natural sound-scale as the foundation for theirs. Depending on different ethnic groups, a gong orchestra can consist of 3, 5 or 6 primary sounds. However, as a polyphonic musical instrument, gongs often have some additional sounds apart from their basic ones. In fact, a six-gong orchestra can produce more or less 12 different sounds. So, gong sounds are heard resonant and solid. Moreover, a gong orchestra is arranged in a broad space, so the melody is formed by three-dimensional sounds with different pitch, length and resonance. It is the stereophonic effect - an original phenomenon of gong performance. ~

Tuan Anh of the Viet Nam News wrote: ""The cong and chieng gongs are made of an alloy of bronze, gold and black brass. While the cong has a knob in the center and makes a deep, bass sound when hit gently, the flat chieng must be struck more vigorously to coax out a melody. The size of gongs vary among ethnic communities and regions, with the largest measuring 65cm in diametre and the smallest 20cm. A set of chieng owned by ethnic E De, for example, includes 10 gongs that produce strong, staccato sounds, while a six-gong set of ethnic Bih’s chieng emit low, simple notes. The 21-gong set of J’Rai chieng possesses exciting, cheerful tones, while those of the ethnic Ma and M’Nong yield sad and mournful sounds. [Source: Tuan Anh Viet Nam News, November 25, 2007 *=*]

"In the Central Highlands, performers beat the knob of the cong with the palm of their right hand, while their left hand caresses the gong’s edge to control vibrations. For chieng, performers use wooden sticks to hit the center or edge, according to the musical context. While the ethnic E De people prefer a hard wooden stick that produces a long, reverberating sound, the Bahnar use soft sticks to strike the chieng, which yields a softer tone. Many players choose wooden sticks wrapped in cloth or rubber because they reportedly produce a more beautiful sound. *=*

Central Highlands Gong Culture

Tuan Anh of the Viet Nam News wrote: "The cong and chieng have been used for more than 3,000 years and have played a key role in the ethnic communities’ culture. "The people are born to the sounds of gongs, live with the sounds of gongs and pass away to the sounds of gongs," Professor To Ngoc Thanh, president of the Viet Nam Folk Arts Association, said. Thanh has spent many years living with ethnic groups in the region and studying their traditional instruments. "We call it gong culture because it is an inseparable part of the ethnic minority people’s spiritual life," he said.[Source: Tuan Anh Viet Nam News, November 25, 2007 *=*]

"Gongs are played to celebrate special occasions, including housewarmings, the birth of a baby, weddings, ritual parades and funerals. At big parties or important celebrations, an important figure of the ethnic community sits in the middle of a ceremony surrounded by gong musicians, who walk counter-clockwise around the man or woman. "This direction symbolises the return to the past and to their roots," Professor Tran Van Khe, a world renowned music researcher, said. The sounds of gongs seem to indicate a sacred link to the ethnic people’s ancestors, Mother Nature and the gods, according to the researcher. *=*

"Vietnamese players give the gongs names based on the sounds or their relative position in the group. A nine-gong set includes the leading gong, Cong Me (Mother), as well as the Cong Cha (Father), Cong Con (Children) and Cong Chau (Grandchildren), so named because of the matriarchal culture that exists among most ethnic communities in the Central Highlands. With their deep bass sounds, the Mother and Father provide a background and the three Children lend harmony. The remaining gongs are played in a different order or time according to strict rules obeyed by the members of the group. Each of the ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands has its own way of tuning gongs, which results in subtle differences in the instruments’ tone. Each region has a master tuner who uses a small wooden hammer to detect pitch. *=*

Vietnam’s Space of Gong Culture

In 2005, the space of gong culture in Central Highlands of Vietnam was recognized by UNESCO as an oral-transmitted masterpiece and intangible cultural heritage of the humanity. According to to UNESCO: The cultural space of the gongs in the central highlands of Vietnam covers several provinces and seventeen Austro-Asian and Austronesian ethno-linguistic communities. Closely linked to daily life and the cycle of the seasons, their belief systems form a mystical world where the gongs produce a privileged language between men, divinities and the supernatural world. Behind every gong hides a god or goddess who is all the more powerful when the gong is older. Every family possesses at least one gong, which indicates the family’s wealth, authority and prestige, and also ensures its protection. While a range of brass instruments is used in the various ceremonies, the gong alone is present in all the rituals of community life and is the main ceremonial instrument. [Source: UNESCO |>|]

The manner in which the gongs of Vietnam are played varies according to the village. Each instrumentalist carries a different gong measuring between 25 and 80 cm in diameter. From three to twelve gongs are played by the village ensembles, which are made up of men or women. Different arrangements and rhythms are adapted to the context of the ceremony, for example, the ritual sacrifice of the bullocks, the blessing of the rice or mourning rites. The gongs of this region are bought in neighbouring countries, and then tuned to the desired tone for their own use. |>|

Economic and social transformations have drastically affected the traditional way of life of these communities and no longer provide the original context for the Gong culture. Transmission of this way of life, knowledge and know-how was severely disrupted during the decades of war during the last century.Today, this phenomenon is aggravated by the disappearance of old craftsmen and young people’s growing interest in Western culture. Stripped of their sacred significance, the gongs are sometimes sold for recycling or exchanged for other products. |>|

The space of gong culture in Central Highlands of Viet Nam covers 5 provinces of Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong and Lam Dong. The masters of gong culture are the ethnic groups of Ba Na, Xo Dang, M’Nong, Co Ho, Ro Mam, E De, Gia Ra. The gong performances are always closely tied to community cultural rituals and ceremonies of the ethnic groups in Central Highlands. Many researchers have classified gongs as ceremonial musical instrument and the gong sounds as a means to communicate with deities and gods. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The gongs are made of brass alloy or a mixture of brass and gold, silver, bronze. Their diameter is from 20cm to 60cm or from 90cm to 120cm. A set of gongs consists of 2 to 12 or 13 units and even to 18 or 20 units in some places. In most of ethnic groups, namely Gia Rai, Ede Kpah, Ba Na, Xo Dang, Brau, Co Ho, etc., only males are allowed to play gongs. However, in others such as Ma and M’Nong groups, both males and females can play gongs. Few ethnic groups (for example, E De Bih), gongs are performed by women only. ~

The space of gong culture in Central Highlands are heritage with temporal and spatial imprints. Through its categories, sound-amplifying method, sound scale and gamut, tunes and performance art, we will have an insight in a complicated art developing from simple to complexity, from single to multi-channel. It contains different historical layers of the development of music since the primitive period. All artistic values have the relationships of similarities and dissimilarities, bringing about their regional identities. With its diversity and originality, it’s possible to confirm that gongs hold a special status in Viet Nam’s traditional music. ~

Central Highlands Gong Festivals

At Vietnam’s National Gong Festival in 2007, some 600 gong musicians and a crowd of fans gathered to celebrate a musical form that has given texture to ethnic minority life for thousands of years.Tuan Anh of the Viet Nam News wrote: "On an imposing stage in a majestic setting, ethnic minority musicians clothed in traditional dress swayed as if in a trance, striking hundreds of gongs in a hypnotic rhythm that left listeners mesmerised. "Fabulous", a foreign tourist said as she watched the opening performance of the National Gong Festival in Buon Me Thuot City in the Central Highlands. [Source: Tuan Anh Viet Nam News, November 25, 2007 *=*]

"Once the palatial grounds of former King Bao Dai, the setting for the festival was turned into an outdoor arena replete with elephants, groups of praying elders, a traditional Highlands long house and ritual bamboo poles used to ward away evil. Thousands of visitors elbowed one another to catch a glimpse of the opening event as a symphony orchestra accompanied hundreds of musicians playing 30 sets of bronze gongs. The event, which organizers named The Eternal Talk from the Jungle, attracted 25 gong troupes from Viet Nam and abroad. Tran Duc Hai, the festival’s director, called it "a harmonious interaction between our ethnic and formal music".

During the four-day event, musical performances and other activities were held, including exhibitions and fairs, seminars on gong culture preservation, elephant races and a street carnival called the Central Highlands’ Rhythm of Life. According to Mai Hoa Nie Kdam, deputy chairwoman of Dac Lac People’s Committee and head of the festival’s organizing committee, the four-day festival this year was held to emphasise the importance of the ethnic minority communities’ active participation. "We hope and expect this festival will have a long-lasting effect on the preservation of gong culture," she said.

In 2009, the Viet Nam News reported: The Central Highlands province of Gia Lai hosted the first International Gong Festival in November. Gong troupes from Vietnam, including several ethnic groups took part, together with performers from regional countries such as Malaysia , Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia .Gong music is a deeply rooted part of culture in most East and South-East Asian countries. [Source: Viet Nam News, July 2009]

The festival was held in Pleiki. The opening ceremony involved about 3,000 performers in Pleiku’s Revolutionary Square. During the festival, many activities, including religious ceremonies accompanied by gong orchestras, contests, seminars and exhibitions were held. Artists and people from provincial ethnic groups, including the Jrai, Ybrom and Bana took part in rain worship and new year ceremonies.

Preserving Central Highlands Gong Culture

Tuan Anh of the Viet Nam News wrote: "Not long ago 20 ethnic groups in the Central Highlands reportedly owned about 6,000 sets of gongs, a large number compared with the rest of Southeast Asia, according to Professor Khe. But many gongs have been lost or sold to tourists or antique collectors, and only 2,000 sets of gongs now exist in the Highlands. Many of the gongs have been modified by the younger generation who tune the instruments based on Western music scales for use in modern bands. "But no modification is allowed for a recognised masterpiece, according to UNESCO," said Khe. "This is the only way that countries can preserve their recognised Intangible Heritage of Humanity." [Source: Tuan Anh Viet Nam News, November 25, 2007 *=*]

"Professor Thanh said local authorities in the region must create regulations to prevent the sale of gongs. "It is critical to preserve gong activities in ethnic minority communities and promote the value of the gong culture to the younger generation, as well as continue poverty reduction programmes," he said. Gia Lai and other Central Highlands provinces plan to conduct gong-playing classes for young ethnic people and encourage the old to teach them. *=*

"As part of a UNESCO preservation project that endws in 2010, local cultural authorities conducted surveys on gongs and organized annual gong festivals as a way to maintain and restore a living environment for gong culture. In August 2007, UNESCO funded its first project to preserve gong culture in Dac Nong Province in the Central Highlands. "Cultural values can be preserved best by the ethnic minority communities themselves. It’s their awareness of the role of traditional instruments that is key. No other measure can replace that," said Truong Bi, director of Dac Lac Province’s Culture Department. *=*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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