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Ancient stones help musical M'nong to rock

Update: August, 11/2013 - 10:08

Rolling stones: Pham Van Phuong checks one of his lithophones. — VNA/VNS Photo K'Guih

by K'Guih and Trung Hieu

Pham Van Phuong, from Bu Bia Village in the Tay Nguyen (the Central Highlands) province of Dak Nong, says he was born and raised in the colorful cultural space of the M'nong ethnic people, which gave him a passion for M'nong folk culture, especially the dan da (lithophone).

The lithophone is an ancient musical instrument made from slabs of stone. It was first discovered in Dak Lak in 1949.

The ethnic people of the Central Highlands call the stone instruments goong lu, which means "rock gongs". They are an ancient percussion instrument from Viet Nam and one of mankind's most primitive instruments.

The instrument is made of stone slabs of different sizes. The long, thick slabs sound bass notes, while the short, small, thin ones sound the higher notes.

The ancient people from the various mountainous regions in Southern Central and Southeastern Viet Nam used the available rocks to create instruments.

In 1956 a second set of rock gongs was discovered and brought to a New York exhibition by an American military officer.

The Cultural Space of the Gong in Tay Nguyen was recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Vietnamese archaeologists have been collecting and researching these stone instruments since 1979.

The third set was found in Lam Dong Province in 1980. The instruments were preserved by a Ma ethnic family for seven generations.

In the early 1990s, 200 musical stone slabs were discovered in Dak Lak, Khanh Hoa, Dong Nai, Ninh Thuan, Lam Dong, Song Be and Phu Yen. Each instrument set contains three to 15 pieces.

The most famous sets of stone instruments are named after the places where they were discovered, which include Khanh Son, Bac Ai, Tuy An and Binh Da. Scientists say that the lithophone from Binh Da is about 3,000 years old.

Phuong, born in 1977, now lives in Quang Tin Commune, Dak R'lap District. His father is from the Kinh ethnic majority of Viet Nam and his mother is M'nong.

Tuning up: Lithophones are an ancient percussion instrument from Viet Nam and one of mankind's most primitive instruments.

The five lithophone sets that he discovered now bring unique acoustic sounds to the festivals and sporting events in his region.

The lithophone is now recognised as an extremely precious heritage in Bu Bia Village.

Local musician Dieu Nhom says, "Once upon a time, these stone instruments seemed to have disappeared, but in the 1990s, some local villagers discovered a set of stone instruments."

Then, the first lithophone set was taken to a museum in Dak Lak where experts confirmed that it was an ancient instrument of the M'nong.

Phuong says most of his stones were found in the Dak Ka stream during the dry season.

"After discovering the first set, I brought them back to the village elders and musicians to have them appraised and they recognised that these stone slabs were actually part of a musical instrument.

"Villager elders encouraged me to look for more lithophones. Since 2001, I have found many more stone slabs of various sizes in Dak Ka stream, and the ring of their notes sound like gongs. I brought them back to the village and the elders studied them before arranging them into three sets."

The experts currently evaluating stone instruments for Phuong include Dieu Dua, Dieu Teu and Dieu Nhom.

After several days of wondering around the stream, Phuong discovered five sets of stone instruments, with each stone slab weighing from 5kg to 15kg.

Phuong says he collects the stone instruments for more than just exhibitions.

"The local authorities borrow the instruments for musicians to play at meetings, festivals and sporting events, but very few people actually know how to play them. Most of the musicians can perform between three to five songs," he says.

Phuong's lithophone collection is considered to be the largest in Dak Nong.

Dieu Dua says, "A sense of national identity has helped Phuong feel the "soul" of the musical stones to preserve ancient culture for our village. Currently, the district's Culture and Information Office has borrowed a lithophone set to perform music at festivals in the province."

Today many people across the country know about the young man who collects stone instruments, even some collectors have come to Phuong wanting to buy his lithophones.

"The instrument's echo, the colourful culture and my love for traditional ethnic culture would never allow me to even think of selling them," Phuong says.

Moreover, he plans to continue finding and collecting more stone instruments.

Thanks to his efforts, Bu Bia Village has become a destination for tourists who enjoy studying antiques.

Through his passion for antiques, Phuong's collection has helped to increase knowledge about the musical instruments of the M'nong, while also enriching the lives of people with the sounds of ancient music during local festivals and sporting events. — VNS

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