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ART SCENES | EXHIBITIONS | VN CULTURE | ART ASSOCIATIONS | ETHNIC MINORITIES

VN scholars ready to get it on with gongs (August 06, 2004)


An indispensable part of the Vietnamese folk culture, gongs are entitled to be recognised as a national heritage.
Cheesy martial arts films and glam rock anthems aside, the gong has increasingly fallen out of tune with modern life.

Vietnamese researchers, though, are attempting to resurrect the cultural relevance of the gong - perhaps more closely associated with pop culture kitsch than any other musical instrument - by submitting an application to UNESCO asking for it to be recognised as an object of world cultural heritage.

Scholars at the Vietnam Folklore Association said the application will be completed by September, and that film crews and experts have been travelling to the Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands), where the instrument is used widely in ceremonies by ethnic minorities, to compile evidence in the past month. Because the high season for gong performances is between November and March, though, the crews are running into difficulty finding ceremonies to attend, said Nguyen Chi Ben, head of the application's steering committee.

"So we had to convince local people to re-stage the ceremonies, ranging from dam trau (buffalo sacrifices) to pro man pchuoi chek (agricultural prayers)," he said.

"Along with other ethnic minority features like nha rong (community houses) and ruou can (rice wine drank through bamboo straws), it's becoming more and more unusual to hear the sound of gongs in many parts of the Central Highlands," said professor To Ngoc Thanh, who is in charge of writing the essay that will accompany the application.

"But the cultural value of the gong is priceless. Vietnamese people are worried that the gong and its accompanying rituals will be lost forever."

To Ngoc Thanh said Central Highlands gong music is one of five art forms that the Vietnamese Government expects to nominate for recognition by UNESCO. The others are the folk songs of Bac Ninh Province, Vietnamese chamber music, water puppetry, and Central Highlands epic poetry.

"We are not sure how many applications UNESCO will receive this year. But we will try our best to complete all of the application requirements as best we can, but there's no guarantee that we will be accepted," he said.

To raise awareness about the application, Vietnam will organise an international seminar on gong culture in Hanoi in September that will gather researchers and experts from other ASEAN nations where the gong is prominent, like Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.

Invented in the Bronze Age, gongs first appeared in Vietnam in drum engravings from the Dong Son civilisation. Ancient gongs were sometimes cast in gold or silver, but nowadays most are made from an alloy of copper, zinc and lead.

Ethnic minority groups use the gong to play original compositions and to accompany large orchestras.

Minority children are welcomed into the world with the sound of gongs, and the dead join the afterworld to the sound of the instrument. Gongs are associated with luck and good health in these regions.

However, in recent years, the gong's resounding ring has been muffled by modernisation. Along with a drop in the number of extant instruments, young people have lost interest in learning how to play.

Organisers hope UNESCO recognition will change this.

"In addition to applying for UNESCO recognition, we are also devising a plan to preserve the art form for future generations," To Ngoc Thanh said.

The application's organisers said they will submit the document to UNESCO by September 15.

Reprinted from VietNamNet

     

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