Dr. Tran Tan Vinh
Cymbals and gongs play key roles in the cultural life of Vietnam’s Central Highlands
Bronze gongs and cymbals are among the most valuable assets owned by ethnic minority people in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. These people regard cymbals as tokens of their owners’ material wealth. During festivals, minority people often perform sacrificial rites to gong deities before using their gongs for entertainment and religious purposes.
In the past, ethnic communities in Vietnam’s Truong Son Mountains and Central Highlands owned Lao cymbals and Cambodian cymbals, also known as Cur cymbals. Cymbals called Doanh cymbals made by ethnic Kinh people (the majority group in Vietnam) are also popular. In times of affluence, highlanders buy cymbals as family investments and to use in festivals. Cymbals cast by Kinh people are popular thanks to the clear, heart-stirring notes they produce.
It takes skill to make cymbals that produce clear and carrying notes. The cymbals must ring true to the musical scale. The best artisans have travelled throughout the highlands, heard the songs of different minority groups and met the cymbal players so as to produce instruments that suit their needs.
Artisans also restore and repair broken gongs and cymbals. While these instruments appear robust, they can be damaged, resulting in poor sound quality. They must be properly stored and well cared for.
Each minority hamlet is home to several “gong engineers”, whom the Ehde people call Pô kmal ching, and the Mnong call Bu nuih chrai chưng. Artisans able to restore gongs are held in high regard, because it’s believed the god Yàng gave them the skills to perform this noble work. A Mnong idiom states: “Impaired cymbals are fixed in one day/Buzzing gongs are adjusted in one day/Stubborn elephants are tamed in one day.”
Each craftsman has a tool kit of simple implements such as scissors, tiny wooden or iron hammers carefully wrapped in rubber string, a wooden board and small pebbles. The hammers are used to flatten and straighten bent cymbals. Thin, flat pebbles are used to rub off stains and scars on the inner or outer surfaces, thereby restoring sound quality.
While many artisans now produce gongs and cymbals, only a few masters are able to test and perfect the instruments’ sound. Gong testers are living treasures in the Central Highlands, helping to preserve the region’s bronze gong and cymbal culture, which UNESCO recognized as an Intangible Oral Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Several of these gong masters have been honored with titles of “Folk Artisan” or “Superior Artisan”.