Cong Chieng (gongs) - Sacred Ar-tifacts of Many Ethnic Groups in Central Highlands
On the grandiose Truong Son Range, the cong chieng (gongs) performance is always closely tied to community cultural rituals and ceremonies of ethnic groups in Central Highlands. Many researchers have classified cong chieng as a ceremonial musical instrument and the cong chieng sounds as a means to communicate with deities and gods.
As for the majority of ethnic groups in Central Highlands, gongs are musical instruments of sacred power. It is believed that every gong is the settlement of a god who gets more powerful as the gong is older. Thus, some gongs are as valuable as dozens of buffaloes or some elephants. "God of gong" is always considered as the tutelary deity for the community's life. Therefore, gongs are associated to all rites in one's life, such as the inauguration of new houses, funerals, buffalo sacrifice, crop praying rite, new harvest, ceremony to pray for people's and cattle's health, ceremony to
Central Highlands (Tay Nguyen) is a region of plateaus in South Central Vietnam, including five provinces: Kon Turn, Gla Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong and Lam Dong with a total area of 54,641km2. This region is bounded by the high mountain ranges on the south, Laos and Cambodia on the west. The Central Highlands has many flat lands mixing with majestic mountains with diversified biological covers, plentiful mineral resource and huge tourism potential.
The Space of gong culture in Central Highlands
Central Highlands is home to 46 ethnic groups with diversified customs and many unique festivals such as: buffalo-stabbing festival, new rice celebration, elephant racing festival, gongs festival... The local people have preserved and promoted extremely valuable cultural heritage such as su thi (epic) and especially gongs.
See off soldiers to the front, and the victory celebration.
In most of ethnic groups, namely Gia Rai, E De Kpah, Ba Na, Xo Dang, Brau, Co Ho, etc., only males are allowed to play gongs. However, in others such as Ma and M'Nong groups, both males and females can play gongs. Few ethnic groups (for example, E De Bih), gongs are per-formed by women only.
Unique and Original Musical Instrument
In general, many researchers agree that cong chieng orchestras in Central High-lands adopt a natural sound-scale as the foundation for theirs. Depending on dif-ferent ethnic groups, a cong chieng or-chestra can consist of three, five or six primary sounds. However, as a poly¬phonic musical instrument, cong chieng often has some additional sounds apart from its basic ones. In fact, a six-gong orchestra can produce more or less twelve different sounds. So, gong sounds are heard resonant and solid.
Most sound-adjusted musical instruments in Central Highlands imitate the sounds created by the gong orchestra. Obviously, various moods of cultural and artistic life in Central Highlands are expressed by cong chieng. In other words, cong chieng are always used to reflect people's sentiments and feelings. The stress on a certain mood means a bright outlook of life and this is recognizable in the traditional music of ethnic groups in
In Central Highlands, cong chieng are often performed in the form of orchestra. In fact, each gong only produces a single sound, similar to the note created by a piano fret.
This means that each player will produce a sound only and the melody is created by the harmony of the whole orchestra. It is the combination of the performances in concert, showing the collectivity in cong chieng art. Moreover, a cong chieng orchestra is arranged in a broad space, so the melody is formed by three dimensional sounds with different pitch, length and resonance. It is the stereophonic effect - an original phenomenon of cong chieng performance.
It is possible to identify various melodies intermingling and supporting each other, and accompanied by the harmony, bringing about an overall elaborate and mature effect. It is the harmony of dominant-tune and multi-tune music.
Cultural Heritage with Temporal and Spatial Imprints
Through its categories, sound-amplifying method, sound scale and gamut, tunes and performance art, we will have an in-sight in a complicated art developing from simple to complexity, from single to multi-channel.
It contains different historical layers of the development of music since the primitive period. All artistic values have the relationships of similarities and dissimilarities, bringing about their regional identities. With its diversity and originality, it's possible to confirm that cong chieng hold a special status in Viet Nam's traditional music.
Thanks to its distinctive cultural and artistic characteristics and other factors as well, the Space of Gong Culture in Central Highlands was recognized by UNESCO on 25 November 2005 as an Oral-transmit-
ted Masterpiece and Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Humanity.
Gongs of the E De
Gongs are popular and original musical instruments of the ethnic minorities in Central Highlands in general and of the E De people in particular. It is possible to say that the E De people possess a culture of gongs.
When and how did gongs appear? And why is there a high density of gongs among the E De community. These are al-ways controversial questions for musical researchers and ethnologists in studying the E De ethnicity.
Gongs have a high economic validity. A gong can be exchanged for an elephant or nearly twenty buffaloes.
Gongs are sacred musical instruments. According to the E De people, they en-able the man to directly communicate with gods and deities (yang). Thus, they cannot be played easily and freely but only in big festivals. Gongs appear in most important rituals throughout one's life.
A set of E De gongs consists of seven flat gongs (knac) and three ones with central knobs. The flat gongs must include Sar - the biggest one (even 95cm in diameter). The knob gongs (70.8-75cm in diameter) are bigger than the flat ones. In the middle of the gongs is a 4.5cm-high knob (10- 15cm in diameter). Knob is the most important part of a gong because it is the decisive factor for the sound quality of the gong. According to some artisans, in some valuable gongs such as lao or Kur, gong-knob contains a high proportion of gold and silver. Therefore, some thieves try to take only knobs from the gongs in the tomb-houses of the rich men.
Musically, knobs are also very essential to identify the accurate pitch of gongs. To readjust gongs' sound and pitch, a po tul chieng (those who repair gongs) usually make thin or add black bee-wax in gong- knobs.
The knob gongs are always arranged from the biggest (Ana Chieng) to the smallest (Moong Chieng) ones. The middle is called Mdu Chieng. An Ana Chieng is hang on the Kpan chair (near the main door) while a Mdu Chieng is covered on the chair surface at the other end of the gong set, near the Hogor drum. A gong player can beat the Ana Chieng to give echo but he/she must put the left hand on the Mdu Chieng to prevent its sound. The Ana Chieng symbolizes the mother-owner of a matriarchal family (Ana means "big, main" in the E De language).
Sar is the biggest and single part in the set of E De gongs. It is not included in the set of flat gongs. It has a high validity. Its diameter ranges from 70 to 90cm. Sar plays an important role In a gong concert: It is hang right in the middle of the main entrance, 0.5-lm away from the door. The Sar player must be an old man sitting on a special chair (Sar kpan). He uses wooden stick to beat in the middle of Sar. To play the flat gongs, the E De people use wooden sticks and the knob gongs with fists or wooden stick wrapped In weasel scrotum (nowadays, rubber or cloth).
In a set of gongs, "dual separation" and "dual combination" are realized with the following pairs:
Flat and knob gongs
Hlue and Knac groups
Khoc and Hlang groups
Mdu Chieng and Ana Chieng groups
Gongs to hang (Sar, Ana Chieng, Knac ti...) or to place on thighs or on the surface of the Kpan chair (Mdu Chieng, Hlue, Ksoc, Proong...).
The E De gongs are always performed in a fixed position. Not only the position of the gong set but that of each gong are also fixed. The player must sit on the Kpan chair located In the west of the sit-ting room. However, in some following cases, the E De gongs can be played out-door: Wharf worshipping ritual, funeral, tomb-abandoning rite.
Gongs of the M'Nong
Sets of Gongs (Chieng)
Gongs are the most important musical in-struments of the M'Nong ethnicity. A complete M'Nong gong set includes six pieces like the Knac group of the E De. However, its structure is quite different from that of the E De, bringing about its own original style.
The M'Nong gong set consists of six flat gongs of small size (similar to the Knac gongs of the E De). Relying on the quality of gongs, the M'Nong will give each set of valuable gongs a specific name connected to the legend or story about its birth.
For example, Mdam Klang is the gong of eagles. The legend has it that, once upon a time, a man saw an eagle diving to catch his chickens on the lawn. He immediately rushed to snatch the eagle. Surprisingly, the bird turned into a gong. Similarly, through legends and stories, the M'Nong has named all of their sets of valuable gongs: Kloh Kut (Taro eating gongs), Kuanh (white gibbon gongs), etc. However, the noteworthy is the origin of the gong sets. At present, no evidence or document has been found to trace the gong-producing center of the M'Nong people. According to old artisan, the M'Nong gongs were probably Chil one sold out by the Co Ho ethnic group. Though not rich in quantity, gongs are still a popular musical instrument among the M'Nong community. They have always played an important role in the M'Nong people's life.
Environment for Performances
The M'Nong gong set is played in god worshipping rituals (Buh Prah), agricultural rites (Buh Prah Bear) and ceremonies during one's life (marriage, funeral).
In funerals, gongs are played day and night since the deceased's last breath to his/her burial.
After the burial, the M'Nong people organize some other ceremonies to honor the deceased and gongs are always used during these occasions. The first ritual is Yun Peng Khay (offering monthly meals) ¡n which people go to the tomb once every month to offer chicken and alcohol, then perform gongs and songs there. One year after the funeral, the M'Nong organizes the Loi Pheng Phan ceremony (tomb abandonment) right after harvesting rice. During this ceremony, gong sets will be used as the key musical instruments.
The subgroups M'Nong Gar and M'Nong Noong never play the full set of six gongs in funerals but only one or two. After the performance, these gongs are left at the tomb. The subgroup M'Nong Preh only play gongs but not drums in funerals.
For the subgroup M'Nong Bunor, when a person dies, after the burial, the entire village will not play gongs for one month, and the deceased's family not for three years.
In general, the M'Nong set of six gongs, though being played in more or less dif-ferent ways by different subgroups, is often played in the major rituals of the community, family or during the life of every member in the community.
Modes of Performance and Gong Com-positions
Different from the way of performance of the E De gongs, the M'Nong gongs are carried by the players who stand and hunch their back forwards a little. Their left hands hold the gongs in the hollow Part, loosing or pressing on it to create sounds at different pitches. Their right fists strike against the gong surface. Therefore, the sound of the M’Nong gongs is soft and warm but not as resounding and strong as the E De gongs. The M'Nong people have about 35 gong compositions with specific names.
To preserve these compositions, the M'Nong has tried to "read" them in a special manner, namely calling the names of gongs in line with a specific rhythm. Each name represents a note of music. By this way, the M'Nong gong compositions have been disseminated broadly and transferred from generation to generation.
The M'Nong people now divide the gong compositions into two categories: classical (Ro Nau) and modern (N'ap).
Big Gongs (Cong)
Big gongs are the musical instruments similar to gongs. However, they must have a knob, each gong has its own name:
- The first: Me Gong.
- The second: Tro Gong.
- The third: Tru Gong.
- The fourth: Kon Gong.
(Arranged in order: smaller in size, and higher in sound).
Structure and size
Apart from the set of six flat gongs, the M'Nong also plays sets of four knob gongs.
Each gong has its own name: Me - Tro - Tru and Kon arranged in accordance with their size (big to small) and pitch (low to high).
The smallest piece has a diameter of 40- 50cm and the biggest 70-80cm.
The M'Nongs' set of big gongs is played in important rituals, such as praying for rain, celebrating health, wedding ceremonies, etc.
The noteworthy is that the M'Nong set of big gongs is never used in unhappy occasions.
The M'Nong people play big gongs indoor at a fixed position. The players, men or women, sit during the performance. Two gongs (Me and Tru) are hung from the house beam. The two others (Tro and Kon) are embraced by the players. The players hold gongs with their left hands while beating on the knob with a stick.
The sets of gongs and big gongs can be played in concert. According to legends and documents, the M'Nong doesn’t make big gongs by themselves but purchase gongs produced by other ethnic groups. Then, they will repair to convert them into their own gongs. Those who do this work are called Bu Mnuch Charai Ching.