Étiquette : Westernization and Modernization of the Gongs of the Highlanders of Central Vietnam: Are They Good for the Development of Their Music in the Globalization of World Music

TRAN Quang Hai (France): Westernization and Modernization of the Gongs of the Highlanders of Central Vietnam: Are They Good for the Development of Their Music in the Globalization of World Music

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Gong ensemble of the Highlands in Vietnam

Gong culture developed from cultures of ethnic brass (which represents a bronze drum was born 3000 years ago) is the art form associated with the cultural history of ethnic minorities living along the Truong Son in the Highlands. Previously, there were some books written by Western scholars about the gongs of Vietnam, but mainly on the aspect of cultural anthropology , rarely mentioning the musical aspect , except one important article written by Jacques Dournes among the Jarai music. In Vietnam, Prof. To Ngoc Thanh has written many important articles about the gongs of the Highlands. However, so far in the country is a synthesis of all the orchestra of gongs minorities. From there to get a comprehensive view about the gongs, we have noticed that the  Central Highlands gongs have a special value of the richness of a great variety of gongs and a bigger number of gongs than any other countries in South East Asia .But there are not a single Ph.D. dissertation on Gongs in Vietnam , while in Indonesia and the Philippines, we can find many researchers who have written theses, and important articles on gongs. After a long time almost sunk into oblivion, thanks to the recent attention of central government and localities, the contributions of older artists, younger artists have preserved a sense of capital equity, as well as researchers, a full profile in English of gongs of Vietnam have been published. In comparison with records of previous royal court music, the gong documents are not inferior in terms of material filled with images, sounds, new records …

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Bùi Trọng Hiền, a Vietnamese researcher

The important work elaborated in the Western scientific method by Bui Trong Hiên on Gongs of the Highlands has revealed the characteristics of gongs that we cannot find in other countries. His written document contributed largely to the report to obtain the nomination of the UNESCO world intangible cultural heritage in 2005.

Ethnic Highlands has two primary types of gong : công – gong made of bronze with a knob in the middle, and chiêng – flat with no knob
Gong instrument makes not only music for entertainment, but also for festivities or an important event.  Gong is considered as a sacred object, a means for people to interact with the deities. The music here is not merely a function of art but it aso  serves a special event in the society in everyday life.  Music is heard from the cradle to the grave. New child birth at the villagethe old man struck the oldest gong to the ears of the child to let him hear the first sound of the gong which was considered as part of the tribal community. When children grow up, each stage of life was associated follow gongs, from sowing to farming , from wedding to funeral, etc…

While other gong countries almost fixed in a system (such as Indonesia, including five kinds of musical instruments) ,the Central Highlands gongs are diverse. Gong orchestra can simply include 2 gongs or up to 9,12,and 15, depending the formation of the ensemble for specific events. During the festivities,  there are more important  gong ensembles with drums and cymbals.


Javanese Gamelan (Indonesia)
If the gong orchestra in other countries, such as in Gamelan(Java), Gong Kebyar (Bali) or Kulingtan, (Mindanao, the Philippines), musicians always sit down in front of gongs. The Vietnamese Highanders hit gongs when moving around and the movement backward and forward of the body .
There are sophisticated techniques that a normal person hardly know how to perform.
The name of the gongs was also very rich, based upon the instrument emits sound. Most of the low gong sound emitted – which is basically sound – called « mother. » In the orchestra are from 9 gongs or higher,  there is  « father »gong next to  « Mother »gong, followed by a “child”gong, “grand child” gong .The order of gongs gives the first place to “mother”gong followed by the “father” gong . This justifies the matriarchy in the system of family of the Highlands.

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Gong master retuned a gong
Every tribe in the Central Highlands has a very specific sound adjustment, not the difference in pitch, but also in sound color. To create a delicate beauty of the sound color a gong musician must have a refined ear to adjust the pitch accurately .Unfortunately , the number of such musicians is very few left.

In short, not a country or region in South East Asia has the big number of gongs like in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Only four provinces in Dac Lac, Pleiku, Kontum and Lam Dong provinces, with nearly 20 ethnic minorities, possessed more than 6,000 gong ensembles at the beginning of the 20th century. With the time, many gong ensembles were lost.

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Gong ensemble modified by the youngsters

Other gong ensembles used by the youngsters  are re-tuned according to the Western scale in order to perform Western melodies.In addition, the old and precious gong ensembles with  high commercial value were sold to foreign tourists by the poor tribal families .


Nowadays, most new gongs are purchased in Cambodia and Thailand and are brought back to Vietnam and are adjusted according to the musical scale of each tribe. Presently, we can count 2,000 new and old gong ensembles in the Highlands, in a word only one third left in comparison with the 6,000 gong ensemble 100 years ago . It is a very alarming loss.

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Gong performance on the stage

The presence of new imported gongs, the show performances on stage, in different festivities for tourism, the shows abroad at different music festivals, the transformation of new style of costumes that makes the recognition of each tribe impossible, the new music and dances, the gathering of many gongs in one set for new music, all these  are gradually destroying the authenticity of traditional gong music of the Highlands .


The UNESCO recognized the Central Highlander Gong Ensemble as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of the Humanity in November 15, 2005.


According to the UNESCO, a “masterpiece” must not be allowed to change. Therefore, for the Westernized development and the modernization of the Gong Ensembles of the Central Highlands, it is very careful not to let the “innovation” as a metamorphic traditional art of the nation, but this Gong tradition should be preserved carefully in order to remain the authentic treasure of the humanity.