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Pa Co gong culture finds defiant protector

Update: May, 12/2013 - 14:46
Loud and clear: Playing gongs plays an important role in cultural and spiritual activities, including funerals, of the Pa Co. — VNA/VNS PhotoHo Cau

A Pa Co ethnic man in the central province of Quang Tri keeps in mind that the cultural beauty of his people should be preserved by the younger generation. Thanh Thuy reports

Ho Van Ing, 67, takes another sip of rice wine. "I've led a life with many ups and downs." We huddle closer to the flickering fire to stave off the cold. Outside, the mountainous mist descends on the sleepy Vuc Leng Village. Ing, wearing shorts and a vest, seems oblivious to the chill. We lean forward and he begins to tell us his story.

As an ethnic Pa Co man, Ing has devoted his life to the preservation of the unique traditions and way of life in his remote village, located in Quang Tri's mountains.

Born into the family of a respected village leader, Ing soon became accustomed to important village events, such as weddings, festivals and funerals. From a very young age, his father would take him along to these ceremonies and he would try to make sense of the scenes around him. There was one tradition in particular that he always looked forward to. At some point in the proceedings, a small group would stand up and perform the gongs. His father and grandfather would join in the playing, which would reverberate out into the valleys. The unmistakable sound soon became forever imprinted on the young Ing's mind, and he knew that it was his path to become an expert gong player himself.

"By the age of five, I was able to play the gongs, but because they were so heavy my father had to hang them up when teaching me how to beat them," Ing recalls. "When I was 10, I was able to perform different tunes and rhythms suiting different occasions. The music for festivals would be gentle and sweet, while for funerals it would be quick and loud. My passion grew and grew and soon I started playing the gongs at most of the major events in my village."

Do it yourself: Ho Van Ing repairs one of his gongs.

In 1962, he decided to leave his peaceful life behind and volunteer for the army fighting to protect the country. Many days of hard marching followed. Even in the toughest times, Ing remained steadfast in his determination and bravery. He clearly recalls times when he would hear the familiar sound of gongs echoing through the jungle, and vividly remember his home.

In 1975, after the country's reunification, Ing left the army and returned home. Despite a wound to his left leg, he was eager to once again become involved in village life. He took on roles as accountant and deputy chief of the village, and he opened literacy classes for local people.

As the years passed by he began to notice a change in the young generation of villagers. Slowly they were forgetting Pa Co customs and culture, and the ceremonies and traditions he remembered and cherished from his childhood began to fade away.

"Modern culture was taking over and the young people were starting to forget the inherent beauty of our village life. I was particularly saddened to realise that the gong culture was dying out. There are only a few village elders left with knowledge about the customs and practices of gong playing, but they have little time left to them. That is why I had to act. If we do not teach our offspring, then perhaps our culture will disappear," he says passionately.

Determined to protect this precious heritage, Ing began to teach gong playing his fellow villagers. He continues his teaching to this day. Anyone interested in learning may receive his dedicated and skillful guidance.

Soon his reputation began spreading across the mountains, and members of other villages would travel to Vuc Leng to learn the correct way to play the gongs in the Pa Co tradition, which varies depending on the occasion. Students have to work hard and concentrate to learn the intricacies in playing at different events, ranging from rice harvest ceremonies, to buffalo sacrifice rituals to ancestral celebrations.

The latter is particularly important in Pa Co culture.

"The gong sound echoing among the distant mountains provides music for us to remember our ancestors in the afterlife and to invite them to witness the younger generation do good work and continue precious traditions," Ing says.

When he is not offering gong instruction, Ing can be found teaching the villagers on methods of worship, fortune telling, and the correct Pa Co rituals for weddings and funerals. He is often sought for guidance and advice.

"Ing is a respected village chief in the commune, especially among the Pa Co community," says Kray Suc, a cultural official from Ta Rut Commune.

"He has devoted much of his life to teaching the younger generation how to preserve the beautiful cultural institutions of the ethnic Pa Co people."

Back in his house on the mountain, Ing gives us a gentle display of gong playing. The music is lyrical and soothing. "It is so important that we do not forget our culture," he says again. "If that happens, then we will have to answer to our ancestors." — VNS

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