Story: Dr. Buon Krong Tuyet Nhung
Photos: Nguyen Linh Vinh Quoc

In Vietnam’s Central Highlands, springtime marks the transition between the rainy and dry seasons. This is the season for folk festivals. This festive season lasts from late November to late March or early April.

A spring festival in Dak Po District, Gia Lai Province

Spring festivals in the Central Highlands are closely linked to bronze gongs and cymbals. Researchers remain unsure when Highland people first began to use bronze gongs and cymbals but these musical instruments are inextricably tied to the history and evolution of ethnic minorities in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Gongs and cymbals are more than sources of music. They feed people’s souls and dignity, are the sounds of affection and power and bolster the sacred identity of many ethnic groups through different generations. After the harvest, gongs and cymbals ring out in the New Rice Festival in November to herald other spring festivals. The New Rice Festival is followed by a series of rites and festivals that link individuals and their communities.

When mimosa flowers are half-shut in late October and in full bloom in November, it’s time for the God E’ắt to gently breathe healthy air onto the Central Highlands. It is the time when bees are drawn to blossoms and Ede, Mnong, Sedang and Bahnar youth check their home-brewed piped liquor in expectation of the vibrant festive season. In far off plei hamlets of Sedang, Bahnar and H’re near Ngok Linh Mountain, people harvest paddy, maize, sweet potatoes and cassava. In the center and south of the Central Highlands, Ede, Jrai and Mnong people collect coffee berries in highland farms. After the harvest, whether satisfactory or disappointing, the locals continue their forefathers’ traditions through centuries-old festivals. It is time for bronze gongs and cymbals to ring out in the New Rice Festival, the Harvest Festival, the Health-Praying Festival, the Wharf Cult Festival, elephant races and during funerals and disinterment ceremonies, etc.

The sounds of gongs and cymbal help to soothe pain and sorrow. No matter their social status, gender or age, all highlanders are held spellbound by the gong music and dances of the festive season.

Visitors can listen to the solemn sounds of Bahnar gongs and cymbals in season-opening ceremonies; the graceful and haunting chants of Jrai maidens accompanied by Arap cymbals in the disinterment ceremony; honey-sweet Mnong cymbals in the Rain Praying Festival; fierce messages of desires of Ehde couples in their Wharf Cult Festival; the bonding ceremonies of K’ho people, etc.

“Hark cymbal sounds of gold and silver! The cymbals can drive squirrels to forget their nests, monkeys to forget to hop in the branches, snakes to forget to slither on the ground, goblins and evil spirits to forget to harm mortals, lads to sit in awe, fair lassies to stay enthralled, and deer to be so mesmerized they forget to graze…”

Join the gong and cymbal dances of the Central Highlands to welcome the New Year.