GIA LAI "We have found the body, but the soul is yet to return."
World renowned music researcher Professor Tran Van Khe, who UNESCO has nominated to observe the preservation of culture in Viet Nam, was succinct in his assessment after watching gong performances of local and international troupes at last week s first International Gong Festival in Gia Lai Province.
He explained that many people hadn t paid much attention to the spiritual value of gongs before. People did not hesitate before bringing their rare and antique gong sets to sell to collectors from foreign countries to get large sums of money.
"Though the trade has been restricted since the [UNESCO] recognition, what we have seen here is only the form," Khe said.
It was generally agreed by experts that gong cultures in the Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands) provinces, which play an important role in spiritual life of ethnic groups in Viet Nam, have a long way to go before they are fully restored.
The restoration process is facing challenges of the integration process as well as the impacts of multi-ethnic and multi-dimensional cultural factors, they said.
Since the gong culture in the Central Highlands was listed by UNESCO as a cultural heritage in 2005, the Government has paid greater attention to preserving and promoting the culture among ethnic minorities.
Siu Klek, 51 a resident of Plei Djrek Village in Gia Lai Province, said he was happy that many of his ethnic brethren who d sold their instruments earlier were now buying gongs because of the increase in the number of gong festivals in recent years.
The sacred musical instrument, which had been left fallow by many ethnic groups, have now come to life, he said.
Prof Khe, meanwhile, said that it was an emergency situation when ethnic minority residents with the ability to adjust the gongs to match the original sounds of Tay Nguyen or of each ethnic group were becoming rare. Many ethnic minority people were paying more attention to the music of foreign countries and some gong tuning artisans were also following the sound standards of Western countries, the professor said.
Many delegates from Japan, Canada, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, who attended a seminar on preserving gong cultures in Viet Nam and Southeast Asia in Gia Lai as part of the festival, also expressed reservations about some of the preservation steps taken.
While efforts to preserve a culture that is thousands of years old have focused on presenting gongs to ethnic groups, recording melodies and encouraging more gong producers, not enough was being done to restore it as a part of the daily spiritual life of the people, they said.
Pham The Dung, chairman of Gia Lai Province s People s Committee, said gong has been a spiritual culture of the locality for a long time. Since the UNESCO recognition, policies have been issued and implemented to organise gong festivals every two years at the district level and every four years at provincial level, he said.
The province with 5,655 gong sets, the most in Tay Nguyen provinces, also plans to preserve rare and antique gongs and encourage the people to compose more songs for the instrument, he said.
"This is the way to bring gong cultures to the museum," Khe averred.
"The most important challenge is how to preserve the hallowed spaces in the forest where gongs used to be played, the sacred meanings of the gong and ways to adjust the gong sound that is unique to Tay Nguyen. These are the things that need to be protected," he added.
Oscar Salemink, a Dutch anthropologist, has suggested in his recent research on the Central Highlanders that Viet Nam should focus more on the actual gong practices themselves that are "accorded artistic and cultural value within a particular context and space".
The concept of space may refer to the cultural space in which ritual gong music and dance is enacted and is meaningful, and also the political, economic and social space as the context for gong culture, he said.
Many delegates to the conference said the gong should be taught everywhere and at schools, especially to younger generations.
Currently, many informal courses have been opened in Central Highlands villages by experienced gong artisans teaching young and old people the technique and soul of gongs. They have the chance to take part in cultural activities that so far have been ignored by young people, future owners of the heritage.
Gong festivals and gong-tuning contests held annually in the villages were a catalyst to encourage ethnic minorities in the highland to return to their original culture, Dung said.
Sulistyo Tirtokusumo, a gong artist and official of Indonesia s Ministry of Culture and Tourism who headed his country s delegation to the festival, said that his country has many high schools and even universities teaching the art of gong to younger generations. Some schools in foreign countries also teach Indonesian gong culture, he added.
"That s why we are not afraid our gong culture will disappear. It is part of our people s life," the artist said.
Many participants at the conference suggested bringing the gong culture to schools in Viet Nam, although several courses have been organised in Central Highlands villages. Some courses have been opened in Central Highlands provinces of Dak Nong and for the Choro people in Dong Nai Province. But a more sustained and widespread education effort was necessary, they said. VNS