Fire in the highlands still burns

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The hill tribes' epic-poetry singers are dying out,but a new collection of centuries' old tales looks to preserve their legacy

The warm flames had lit Dieu Kau's face through thousands of long nights as he regaled his village with the Bahnar people's age-old epic poems. For decades, the raconteur of the Central Highlands had kept the fire lit in his home, many times for dozens of nights on end, singing poems of up to 30,000 verses from memory.

When the final hot coals extinguished themselves after the 74-year-old rhapsode had sung his last song in 2008, many thought that epic poetry in the Central Highlands might have died with the great bard.

But lovers of epic poetry have just been given new hope that the cultural treasures will be preserved.

A newly published collection of epic poetry from the Central Highlands, including 85 epics in 73 volumes of over 70,000 pages, is the single largest collection of the precious verses in Vietnam. Issued by the government-run Survey, Collection, Preservation, Translation and Publication of Central Highlands Epic Treasure program carried out by the Vietnam Institute of Cultural Studies in collaboration with Central Highlands authorities since 2001 the new book released March 17 adds 10 poems to 75 initially published in 2007. Fifteen of those 75 had also been published in 2005.

As an important part of social and cultural life in ethnic minority communities for centuries, authorities have applied for the collection's recognition as a UNESCO Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Of the 75 published earlier, thirty belong to the Bahnar people, 26 come from the M'nong, 10 from the Rhade (E De), 4 from the Xo Dang, 3 from the Jarai (Gia Rai) and the Cham people contributed 2.

Professor Nguyen Xuan Kinh, 58, is the director of the Institute of Cultural Studies, and executive director of the VND18 billion (US$950,000) project. He said Vietnamese epic poetry was far from dead.

"While many epic works have been lost all over the world throughout history, our epics, though not as old as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey or the Ramayana of India, they are still alive," he said. "They are still an irreplaceable part of local life here."

He said that because so much of the epic culture was centered in a relatively small area in the hills and mountains of the Central Highlands, the subject was "convenient for scientific research" adding that the poetry shed light on the culture, history and customs of the region.

Professor Phan Dang Nhat, one of Vietnam's top experts on epic poetry, said that although many Vietnamese epics were rather short, Ot Nrong form the M'nong ethnic group was 30,000 verses long.

Better late than never

It was the French who first began documenting Vietnamese epics on paper in 1927 when L. Dopold Sabatier collected, translated, and footnoted Klei Khan Y Dam San (The Epic of Dam San), the Rhade people's most important poem. Sabatier's French translation was published in Paris in 1928, but it would be decades before a version was available in Vietnamese. Dam San is possibly the most well-known epic produced by hill-tribe communities in Vietnam.

But it was Dam San that was more resilient with readers of the years. It tells the story of the heroic Rhade chieftain Dam San, who rebels against his clan's ancient custom of chue nue, which obligates a widow to marry her spouse's brother.

However, Vietnamese had to wait until 1959 to read Dam San in their language. Dao Tu Chi's translation was popular but it took ethnologist Nguyen Huu Thau 15 years to translate and footnote before publishing what is broadly considered a far superior translation in 1988.

One of a kind

Professor Kinh said the value of Central Highlands epics is the uniqueness of the cultures and customs they portray, which are often difficult to translate.

No matter how long the epic is, elders in the villages memorize them and perform them at night, sometimes all night for weeks on end. Under the moon and by the flickering flames of a bonfire, young and old gather to hear the master's sing the epics. Some storytellers perform by the light of their fireplaces in their homes, and the longest epics take weeks, maybe even months to finish.

"These stories are brought alive by the atmosphere of a community lifestyle hundreds of years old," Kinh said.

But the professor said the all-night poetry recitals were becoming more rare as Western pop, rock and movies have begun to permeate the villages. He also said many of the old masters had died in recent years without finding worthy heirs to pass the art on to.

"The work of collecting the poems, although it began quite late, has importantly been able to salvage the majority of these cultural works," he said. "In the next few years, with a higher budget and more modern technology, other projects could begin... but it will be hard to predict the results."

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