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Do Tam drums up thunderous trade (Jan 28, 2003)


In the drum-making village of Doi Tam, there are two conflicting legends about when percussion first came to the town but everyone agrees that his name was Sam (Thunder).

According to one legend, the founding father of the craft was given the name Sam after he was born during a thunderstorm one night in the reign of the 17th Hung king (about 1,000 BC).

As Sam grew up, foreign aggressors were attacking the country and the king sought talented men to chase the invaders out.

Sam presented himself before the king, and made hundreds of big drums that he arranged along the citadel walls.

When the enemies attempted to siege the citadel, they were driven away by the terrifying thunder of the drums and the earth-shaking cries of the people - and never returned.

Another legend has it that Sam was born in the 1lth century, during the reign of King Le Dai Hanh.

When a terrific flood intrepid young man surfed a big drum around the village to sound the alarm and save the people.

Moved by this show of altruistic spirit, the God of Water relented and the floods receded. The young hero remained and taught the villagers the drum-making craft.

No one alive today can say for sure whether either of these stories is true, but there is still an impressive and well-kept tomb at the foot of Doi Mountain on the outskirts of the village.

The tomb is allegedly the last resting place of one Nguyen Tien Nang, the founding father of the village's drum-making craft.

Some say he was Doi Tam born and bred; others say he was an outsider. Nobody can confirm or deny whether Nang was the same man as Sam, and there are no living relatives to shed light on any of these questions.

Different drum

Despite the deep mysteries of this village in Ha Nam Province, no one can deny that the legacy of Sam- or is it Nang - lives on in the village trade.

When the capital celebrated the 990th anniversary of Thang Long-Hanoi in the year 2000, organisers of the event's drum festival looked to octogenarian Pham Hong Bi to equip them with trong sam (thunder drums).

Over a glass of fragrant rice wine, Bi said, "All of the festival's drums were made by the craftsmen of our village.

"I had the honour of being appointed by the Hanoi Department of Culture and Information to lead the Thunder Drum artisans.

"The drum was 2.65m high and its barrel was made of jackfruit tree wood from Dak Lak. Its skin came from two buffaloes from the mountains.

"I've never in my life had the opportunity to make a drum as significant as that one."

Bi explained that the craftsmen must follow very strict rules when making the thunder drums. For example, as they work on the drum's barrel and skin, the workers must abstain from sex and food.

The buffaloes must be chosen carefully and appeased with the appropriate sacrifices. When the drum sounds, its echo must resound far and wide: moving the earth and sky and reuniting the three worlds of Buddhism.

The master drumsmith explained the workings of his operations, and said machines have even made their way into his workshop.

"The buffalo hide used to make the drum skin is soaked in an infusion of leaves, a secret handed down from generation to generation, to make the skin easier to work with and more durable.

"The skin is stretched over a bamboo hoop, placed on the barrel and exposed to the sun. It is then placed facedown on the ground to harmonise yin and yang.

"The bamboo used to make the hoop and affix the skin to the barrel must also be chosen very carefully," he said.

"But to make good drums, the craftsmen must possess one indispensable quality: their heart. Without it, they could never make a drum with soul."

One beat

Not so long ago, the drum-makers of Doi Tam say, their work was like seeking a hare in a hen's nest. These days, the revival of the village craft has brought prosperity to the locals - as seen in their verdant trees, paved laneways and cheerful faces.

Traditionally, the craftsmen of Doi Tam were itinerant workers who could be seen lugging their tools around the village to earn a crust. Many of them would begin to follow their fathers and brothers once they reached 10 years of age.

These days, the village's 400 workers can still be seen carrying their chisels, saws, ropes and knives to work, but now most of them ride motorbikes.

Many of these workers venture even further a field to wherever drums are needed, and some of them have been known to marry local women, settle down and set up a drum workshop in their new home.

"All over our country, wherever there is a drum shop or workshop, you can find people from Doi Tam. If they weren't born here, you can bet their parents or grandparents were," said Huynh, a veteran artisan.

He bangs the drums

The village no longer holds its annual drumming competition, but everyone remembers Pham Truong, who was known for being able to play 20 drums at once. He fell down on the outskirts of Saigon as Uncle Ho's soldiers made their last push to liberate the city.

However, Pham's family line is still the biggest in the village and includes the master craftsman Bi. At 12 noon sharp, Bi raised his two drumsticks, kow-towed twice before the ancestral altar and approached a grand Thunder Drum, striking it with three rolls of nine beats each.

The sky had been bright and sunny, but it suddenly darkened and opened up to unleash a torrential downpour.

Bi was followed by seven others in ceremonial dress, as the air was filled with the thick smoke from incense.

The imposing and majestic tone of their drums seemed to embrace all four rhythmical rules of Tang poetry.

The piece these percussionists played was composed by Sam himself to congratulate a Le-king on his victorious return from battle, and he handed down the art of drumming to the people of Doi Tam.

It has been said that drums carry the sacred soul of the Vietnamese people with them and have the power to excite the ancients and move the gods. Nowhere is this more true than in Doi Tam. (VNS)

Reprinted with permission from Nhan Dan Newspaper.

     

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