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Banging a gong for cultural heritage

A Gia Rai gong group performs for a local audience in Tay Nguyen

Once an integral part of many ethnic minorities’ rituals, gongs are increasingly out of tune with modern life. But will UNESCO recognition signal their revival?

Gongs set a frenetic pace for the dam trau (buffalo sacrificing) ceremony and the cameramen racing around trying to capture it on film.

The crowd cheers for the strongest man as he kills a hapless buffalo during the harvest celebration in the Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands) province of Gia Lai.

In March, the Ha Noi-based Institute of Culture and Information nominated gongs to be recognised as oral and intangible cultural heritage of humanity by the United Nations Educati-onal, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Since then, the film crew has hopped from one Tay Nguyen ceremony to another, shooting a video of the instrument in use.

However, the high season for ethnic minorities' gong performances is from November to March, which left the crew with few filming options as most ceremonies had already occurred, head of application's steering committee Nguyen Chi Ben said.

"When we began filming, the ceremony season was almost over. We had to persuade many residents to restage their celebrations," he said.

Luckily, the crew was in time for the Ma ethnic minority's ceremony praying for a good harvest in Lam Dong Province, and the Xo Dang's pro man pchuoi chek (seed preparation) ceremony in Kon Tum province.

"We'll have to use documentaries of funerals because no one wanted to attend a fake funeral," Ben said. "This is the last ceremony we'll attend because it must be sent to UNESCO in Paris by the end of September."

The application must also include a hundred photographs and negatives, an essay on gongs' historical and artistic background, and a proposal for the art form's preservation.

Despite their late start, Ben's confident the video will be ready.

Why gongs?

Gongs beat out four other art forms – traditional water puppetry, Bac Ninh Province's quan ho folk songs, ca tru (1,000 year-old chamber music) and Tay Nguyen epics – for the nomination.

Born in the Bronze Age, their first appearance in Viet Nam dates back 2,000-3,500 years to the Dong Son culture as engravings on drums. Ancient gongs were sometimes cast in gold or silver, but nowadays, most are made from an alloy of copper, zinc and lead.

An integral part of many ethnic minority groups in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, Tay Nguyen gongs come in a variety of shapes and sizes: Cong gongs have a nipple and produce a single, uniform sound, while chieng are flat and offer a wider range of notes. Different sizes are characterised by family names: Mother, Father, and Older Sister.

Resting on the thigh or hanging from a frame, gongs can be drummed by hand or with a cloth-covered stick, and fathers teach sons how to play.

"Central Highlands gongs are not only musical, but also serve a cultural function for about 20 ethnic minorities as they herald life changes," said general secretary of the Viet Nam Folklore Arts and Literature Association Professor To Ngoc Thanh.

"Few events occur without a gong appearance. That's why we named the application the Cultural Space of Central Highlands Gongs," he said.

To welcome a newborn, ethnic minorities perform the le thoi tai (blowing in the ears) ceremony. They believe that if a person hears a gong as a baby, he will grow up to be an upright citizen, observing their specific culture.

At weddings, gongs ring merry melodies and remind the couple to follow cultural traditions. They also bid farewell to the dead at funerals.

Gongs are also played at ceremonies that pray for rain or celebrate a good harvest, and can serve a pratical function as well. To warn the community of an imminent threat, gongs at the communal house are used as an alarm, calling all young men to congregate.

Instead of solo acts, Tay Nguyen ethnic minorities have gong groups, which range from three to 21 members or instruments.

Each ethnic group has created its own unique gong style: Ba Na and Gia Rai people use cong gongs for bass rhythms, whereas Mnong people stage gong dialogues.

A symbol of wealth, a single gong could be worth as much as two elephants or a herd of buffalo, and because they also carry divine weight, gong collectors are believed to be supported by supreme beings, therefore commanding an important place in village politics.

Bygong days

However, in recent years, gongs have been muffled by modernisation. Thanh said that a census of gongs in Tay Nguyen was currently underway, but initial estimates suggested numbers have dropped by 40 per cent over the past 10 years. Young people were losing interest in learning how to play gongs, he said.

Many gong experts have died, or are advanced in age, and poor households are pawning their gongs for as little as VND3,000 per kilo.

Fortunately, Ben said the gong drain had slowed in recent years, but more should be done to raise youngsters' awareness of their cultural significance.

He hopes the UNESCO application will jumpstart their revival: "In our proposal, we suggest starting gong classes in schools," he said.

"Because the cultural role of gongs has changed significantly, preservation efforts must adapt to society's modern needs and not push for a return to the past," Ben said.

VNS - (29/06/2004)

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