The good news gongs

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The sounds of a young cong chieng (gong) band in Kong Chro Commune have inspired amateur listeners and long-time lovers of the music alike.

The 30 children have blown new life into the nation's antique art and drawn listeners to their small corner in Gia Lai Province.

Throughout the Central Highlands of Vietnam, gong ensembles have traditionally participated in ceremonies tied to the daily lives of the region's diverse ethnic communities. The musical styles are, in no way, alike. Ritual functions, genres and techniques vary widely.

In most of these communities, however, these instruments (wrought from bronze and silver) are regarded as a divine medium"”capable of bridging the gap between humanity and the supernatural world.

"The gong plays an integral role in the culture of the ethnic people of Gia Lai Province," said Phan Xuan Vu, manager of Gia Lai Province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism. "The instrument's unique cultural legacy dates back hundreds of years but it has been strongly affected by modernization."

According to Vu, the gongs traditionally played a central role in the indigenous religious ceremonies of various small rural communities. As those communities move further into mainstream Vietnamese society, their ancient beliefs, practices and instruments are often left behind.

Some, however, are holding out. In the remote and impoverished village of Kong Chro, Dinh Keo, an aging gong artisan, is doing his best to train a whole new generation of musicians.

In 2006, a five-year-old boy named Pram wandered into Keo's workshop.

The boy seemed more interested in his instruments than playing out in the midday heat. So Keo began to teach him how to properly strike the instrument.

More children began showing up to his workshop, hoping to learn now to play the instruments. Keo said that the idea of gathering a gong class for children splashed through his mind when he noticed that the traditional, handmade instruments were being sold and stolen throughout the impoverished community.

With help of the village patriarchs, Keo began training these little students. Pram remains his youngest apprentice to this day, he can only handle the smallest gong (around 25 centimeters).

"You must be patient and encourage them to understand and have a passion for the gongs," Keo said. "It takes a lot of time and effort to work with the kids, aged five to six. Their mothers helped a lot when they spent nearly a month weaving beautiful costumes for their kids to wear in competition."

More and more little students began flooding into the class. Soon enough, Keo formed a band.

In 2009, the tiny gong team arrived at the first-ever International Gong Festival in Pleiku dressed in matching multi-colored cuffs and red patches.

The team won praise from both local and foreign tourists for their soaring performances.

After just one year, Keo's gong team, aged 10-14, could confidently participate in any cultural festival, throughout the country. What's more, a group of female singers has been formed in the village to accompany the band.

Keo said he is satisfied with this new generation of traditional artists.

He worries, however, about the fate of the aging generation of gong makers. So far parents have relied solely on him for his expertise and advice.

"Now we must rely on the kids, for they are both the origin and the future," Keo said. "Faced with the possibility of losing a cultural asset, the children will be great warriors they have not been absorbed into foreign culture."

Keo has worked hard to spread his mastery of the instrument.

After years of training Dinh Glich and Dinh Chrum in the art of gong making, the men frequently return from their neighboring communes to help teach his classes.

Keo says that his greatest wish is to found more and more young gong groups in the Central Highlands. He says he's willing to go anywhere to help make it happen.

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