Playing a different rhythm

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Ho Thi Thuong, 60, and her husband Nguyen Van Phuoc cover the drumhead, which Thuong says it requires expert knowledge and skills. Only the hide of the female buffalo can be used to make the drum and jackfruit wood is preferred for the barrel, according to the sole female drum maker of Hue

Ho Thi Thuong has been making drums for half a century.

But she had no thoughts of storming a male bastion when she took on the profession in her conservative hometown, where women were expected to be meek, diligent housewives.

She took on the job out of a sense of filial piety, and to keep alive the traditional craft that had supported her family for generations. None of her siblings were interested in the family trade.

At 10, little Thuong found herself interested in playing with musical instruments and quietly observing her parents working on drums of varied sizes and shapes.

Her father was noted drum artisan and musician Ho Khanh, who performed for the royal ensemble under the Nguyen Dynasty, the last ruling family in Vietnam which reigned between 1802 and 1945.

The little girl wanted to give her mother a helping hand with the painstaking job of shaving buffalo hides. The mother was very pleased to teach her daughter the most basic techniques.

"At first, I was taught to fasten shaped bars of wood around the drum barrel to press the hide," she recalled. "I kept watching my father and imitating him. I was so happy when I could master the basic steps."

After her father passed away a few decades ago, her mother trained Thuong in more difficult techniques as well as the secret to make drums with thundering sounds.

Thuong felt then that the job was not for women, and planned to look for other work that was less strenuous and demanding.

However, since she could not bear seeing her mother in her old age work hard day after day to preserve her husband's legacy on her own, Thuong decided to go back to the vocation. Mother and daughter went on to become the sole female duo artisans in the business of making drums. 

Hai O

Their products were called Hai O (Two aunties), and it became a popular brand.

Sadly, her mother died in an accident when Thuong was just 25, leaving the daughter to manage the business on her own.

Thuong says she cannot forget how she and her mother overcame difficulties together. Many clients at first doubted of the quality of the instruments made by the two women though they were amazed that two women worked so hard to pursue the family craft. It was only the quality of work they did, as good as the father's when he was alive, that convinced the skeptics.

"At that time, there was no machine for wood smoothing and sawing, but my mother and I were able to manually use jackfruit wood to make the drum's body," said the sole female drum maker of Hue.

All three stages of drum-making preparing the hide, making the barrel and covering the drumhead require expert knowledge and skills, she said. 

For instance, it is only the hide of the female buffalo that can be used to make the drum. First, its mucous membrane is removed and soaked in water. Then it is deodorized and dried in sunlight three times to remove any odor and make the hide durable.

Different types of drums require different hide shaving methods, Thuong said, explaining that artisans should pay careful attention to this step since it is the most important one that decides the quality and durability of the product.

She said jackfruit wood is preferred for the barrel since it is both flexible and hard enough to meet both aesthetic and functional requirements.

Hai O drums are of many varieties, ranging from those used by local schools and village communal houses, to those used for musical purposes and those needed to conduct ceremonies during festivals.

A big drum that took Thuong a month to finish, would sell for
just six to seven million dong (US$285-332). The income was barely sufficient to help the family make ends meet, so her siblings were not interested in taking up the craft.

Am Hon

After her mother's accident decades ago, Thuong, now 60, has been the main drum maker in the family. Her products have since been called Âm hồn (wandering souls of the dead) drums since her shop stands near two Am Hon temples where lost souls are worshipped.

The shop, located at 81 Le Thanh Ton Street in the former royal capital of Hue, does not have a name or employee, though it has many customers, especially during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Thuong handles the orders with the help of her husband, Nguyen Van Phuoc, who became her first "disciple" after their marriage.

"Orders are mostly made during the festival," said Thuong, who was asked to restore the drum placed at the Ngu Phung (Five Phoenixes) Pavilion as well as Ngo Mon (Gate of Noon) the main gate to the Imperial Citadel in Hue by the Hue Heritage Preservation Center in 2008.

She sometimes receives orders to make drums used in Hue court music ensemble, but "sometimes, due to the low supply of buffalo hide, we are not able to meet the demand."

Like her late mother, who was happy to see the daughter pursue and persevere with the craft, Thuong, now a mother, also longs for her children and grandchildren to inherit her work one day.

The signs are good. Apart from her husband, her two children,  son Nguyen Van Hai and daughter Nguyen Thi Oanh, have learnt the basic steps and help out during their spare time.

Like his grandfather Ho Khanh, Nguyen Van Hai, who is a musician with the Hue court music center, has decided to become a drum maker.

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