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By: Bao Ngoc
Gongs and cymbals are metal musical instruments that are closely affiliated with the lives of ethnic minority peoples in the Central Highlands. Since ancient times, they have been regarded as the voice of religion and a human being’s innermost soul. In addition, they are used to express the joys and sorrows of grueling labor and the daily activities in the red, basalt-rich highlands. Gongs and cymbals are ageless icons not only in the Central Highlands, but throughout Vietnam.
Gong culture spans the five provinces of Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong and Lam Dong in the Central Highlands. It is especially important to the Bahnar, Sedan, Mong, K’hor, Romam, Eh De and J’rai peoples. Bronze gongs and cymbals are believed to be descendants of the ancient stone lutes that have evolved into unique musical instruments. At the dawn of history, people from the Central Highlands selected gongs and cymbals to celebrate a new harvest or the plowing ceremony. Today, bronze gongs and cymbals are also used for religious rituals. Central Highlands natives believe that striking the gongs and cymbals evokes the soul, interacts with the supernatural and awakens human spirits. The captivating melody echoes far and wide and is in harmony with the sound of breezes, fountains and inner vibrations.
Having existed and evolved in the Central Highlands for thousands of years, gong and cymbal culture has reached new heights. Nowadays, there are a wide range of bronze gongs and cymbals created by craftsmen who have diversified the types, adding new crescendos to their scales and registers. Gongs have nipples while cymbals do not. Gong and cymbal ensembles are required to comply with the rules of tonal scales. This allows an ensemble to perform multi-tones with different styles. Gong and cymbal performances vary in register, but are equally rhythmic and profound. The repertoire of gongs and cymbals is diverse thanks to their regional origin. Bronze gongs and cymbals express the natural beauty and mortal desires of each ethnic group. J’rai people have cymbal chants of Juan, or Trum Vang. The Bahnars take pride in their rhythms such as Away from the Moon, Sakapo, Atau or Toroi. They can be heard during community dances at local festivals.
Each ethnicity and region has distinctive bronze gong and cymbal features. Gongs and cymbals can be used separately or as a set of two to12 pieces, or even 18 -20 such as the sets of the J’rai people. In their ensembles, each performer is assigned to only one gong or cymbal in accordance with the command of the conductor. Does that gong or cymbal echo well? Is it enticing enough? It totally depends on the skill of the folk musicians and the craftsmanship of the artisans. A set of bronze gongs and cymbals is modeled after a genuine orchestra. These instrumentalists do not go to any music school, but their performing instincts are demonstrated in the most genuine and refined manner.
In 2005, the Central Highlands’ gong and cymbal culture of Vietnam was officially recognized by the UNESCO as an intangible and oral cultural heritage. For Central Highlands natives, gongs and cymbals are an acclaimed art, but also the embodiment of sacred national spirits over generations. The gongs and cymbals are the voice of the mortals and deities. They are the embodiment of the concept “there is a soul in every object.”