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Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands) gongs (August 29, 2005)

Ha Noi, Jan. (VNA) - Born in the Bronze Age, the gong's 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 the culture of many ethnic minority groups in Viet Nam, 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 tones. 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; fathers often teach their sons how to play.

"Central Highlands (Tay Nguyen) 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.

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, and observe 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 to pray for rain or celebrate a good harvest. They can serve a practical function as well. To warn the community of an imminent threat, gongs at the communal house are used as an alarm, calling upon 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.

Ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands province of Dac Lac alone have preserved 3,825 sets of gongs.

In the past, gongs were used by the highlanders as status symbols, along with rice, wine jars and elephants. Ethnologists say all ethnic people in the area possess gongs to contact spirits during festivals and ceremonies.

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

The Vietnamese Ministry of Culture and Information has submitted an application to UNESCO asking for the gong culture of Central Highlands ethnic minorities to be recognised as an intangible world cultural heritage.-Enditem

Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency


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