Cao Trung Vinh

Gongs play vital roles in myriad ceremonies relating to agriculture, the lifecycle, and the community in Vietnam’s Tay Nguyen Highlands.

Through the sounds of gongs, the people of the Tay Nguyen entrust their souls and wishes to their gods and ancestors, ringing out their desires for abundant crops, good health, and happiness.

The Gong Culture of the Tay Nguyen was built by Mon–Khmer-speaking people of the Austroasiatic language family, including the Bahnar, Gie Trieng, Xo Dang, Ro Mam, Mnong, Koho, Maa, and Brau ethnic groups, as well as by Malayo-Polynesian speakers from the Austronesian language family, including the Rade, Jarai, and Churu people. This culture is spread throughout the provinces of Gia Lai, Kon Tum, Dak Nong, Dak Lak, and Lam Dong.

Gongs are holy to the people of the Tay Nguyen, who believe them to be godly residences. The gods can be feminine or masculine, and differ according to distinctive beliefs. Yet, a gong is not born sacred, since Tay Nguyen people lack the resources to make their gongs. They must buy them from the forges of Viet people down on the plains. Those living near the borders with Laos and Cambodia buy gongs from these neighboring countries. The purchased gongs must be adjusted to carry the sound of each ethnic group. This is done by each group’s artisans skilled in the art of fixing gongs. Once the sounds of the gongs are deemed suitable, a sacrificial ritual is done to invite the gong gods to take up residence. When this is done, the gongs will finally hold the material and spiritual values of the Tay Nguyen people. The older the gongs, the more powerful the gods residing within them.

The sound of the gongs is as holy as the gongs themselves, and is often used to communicate with the ancestors and gods, making their overall function sacred and ceremonial. During such ceremonies, gongs convey humans’ desires and emotions through their melodies, which vary between sets of gongs, musical pieces, arrangements, and the playing methods of different ethnic groups. For example, the KPa group of the Rade people often use nine gongs and one drum in ceremonies to pray for good crops and health, but just two nipple gongs and one flat gong in funerals. On the other hand, the Mnong people use six copper gongs in their prayers to the gods, and six bamboo gongs for funerals. The Xo Dang use a whole different set of gongs for worshipping. Their H’Lenh set of 11 gongs – three nipple gongs and eight flat gongs – are used for other purposes. Meanwhile, the Maa use six copper gongs for praying to the gods, and bamboo gongs for funerals.

The gongs of the Tay Nguyen also represent familial and communal activities for ethnic groups like the Bahnar, Jarai, Xo Dang, and Gie Trieng, etc. Gong music is always accompanied by ceremonial dances, often performed by girls and women. However, in some ethnic groups, the males also join some ceremonies. Sometimes, the feminine and masculine roles are blurred while dancing. Even the dances are exclusive to different villages and groups, with unique moves for each dance, making it hard for outsiders to join in.

Gong performers and dancers always wear the most spectacular ceremonial robes of their tribes, exclusive to their own ethnic group, and rarely seen, as they are often reserved for these rare festivals. They also wear jewelry made of copper, silver, and beads on their belts, necks, and wrists, and small copper bells around their ankles that chime with each step of the dance. The ceremonial costumes give these highland residents a unique beauty, distinctive to their culture, differentiating people from the many other tribes in the same region.

With all its specialties, the Space of Gong Culture was recognized as a Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, before being moved to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity in 2008. This recognition has marked a transformation of this Intangible Heritage in Vietnam. To date, the Space of Gong Culture is dutifully preserved by tribal communites in the Tay Nguyen Highlands.