Fight to save soul music of Ba Na
  • | | July 19, 2011 03:02 PM

Dinh Di, 80, an elder of the ethnic Ba Na group, has spent nearly all his life repairing and tuning gongs for villages in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai.

Bang a gong: Artist Dinh Di (right) teaches a younger player how to tune gongs. — VNA/VNS Photo Tran Le Lam

The gong playing tradition was recognised as a piece of "Mankind\'s Intangible Heritage" by the United Nations Education Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

People in Lot, the name of his village in K\'Bang District, respect him as an artisan for helping preserve "the soul of gongs".

"At the age of 25, I was aware that it was up to me to keep the art – and sounds – alive. I went out of my way to meet elderly artisans Dinh Sinh and Dinh Tik in Dac Doa District to learn how to correct and improve the sounds," said Di.

Thanks to his hard work and passion, Di quickly learned how to correct the sound of each gong set.

During the French and American wars, many gongs in K\'Bang District were lost. After the South\'s liberation in 1975, most gongs belonging to the Ba Na people were damaged or broken, making it difficult to use them in traditional festivals.

"The situation made me very sad, so I became determined to spend time and efforts to collect and correct gongs kept among villagers," said Di.

Sometimes he would spend several weeks correcting and tuning a large gong set.

Elderly villager Dinh Ly said thanks to Di\'s efforts, locals now had many repaired and corrected gong sets for rice festivals and many other ceremonies.

Di\'s reputation has spread to the neighbouring provinces of Kon Tum and Binh Dinh where people often invite him to their homes to repair their gongs.

"Sometimes I travel as far as 200-300km to repair gongs for needy ethnic groups whose festivals are approaching because festivals cannot operate without gongs," said Di.

Di said K\'Bang District had about 1,000 gong sets, including 50 ancient ones.

"But the entire district has only six elderly artisans remaining. I am worried that very few young people are interested in learning the art. What will happen when we all die," said Di.

He proposed that the District People\'s Committee should train artisans to keep the art alive. Gongs are considered the soul of the Ba Na group.

Vietnam\'s cong-chieng (gong) culture in the Central Highlands was recognised as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in October 2005.

Gongs of the Central Highlands come in a variety of shapes and sizes: cong 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. Gongs can be drummed by hand or with a cloth-covered stick.

Central Highlands gongs are not only musical, but also serve a cultural function for about 20 ethnic groups as they herald life changes.

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