Drumming up a millennium

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A legendary northern craft village has been building traditional drums for more than a thousand years

Emperor Le Dai Hanh, the first king of the early Le Dynasty (980-1009), honored the small village of Doi Tam with a visit in 986AD.

The local peasants were thrilled to be given the privilege of receiving royalty in their humble home, nestled at the foot of scenic Doi Mountain in what is now Ha Nam Province.

The emperor said he would plough the fields alongside the Doi Tam farmers to encourage agricultural growth in the area.

Two brothers in the village, Nguyen Duc Nang and Nguyen Duc Ban, decided they would honor the king with a giant drum and a welcoming ceremony.

They built a huge drum together and organized an extravagant greeting party.

The drum they played was as strong and loud as thunder, villagers still say today.

The king was pleased with the drum and the brothers became known as Trang sam (thunder men).

The Trang sam are now known as the forefathers of the village's ancestral drum culture.

Nowadays, Doi Tam's streets are scattered with drum shells spilling out of drum shops, the ceaseless roars of wood shaving machines setting the tone for the 545 drum crafters who make their living off that same legend.

Ancient tradition

Each Doi Tam family's drum making secrets have been passed through the generations for a millennium, said seventy-year old villager Dinh Van Buc.

Drum makers in Doi Tam Village have been making virtually the same traditional drums, made of the wood from a jackfruit tree, for over a thousand years

Buc said the skills for each family's craft were handed down to sons and their wives, not to daughters and sons-in-law.

If a family violates any of the village's ancient drum making rules, they're forced to leave the village and it's said their drum business would be cursed forever.

Village boys learn to make drums at a very early age. By the time they turn fourteen or fifteen, most of them are ready to travel the country with their fathers to make or repair drums anywhere orders are placed.

People call on the Doi Tam makers from all over the country.

Art and craft

Each drum goes through three building phases: skin processing, shell building and drumhead stretching.

A female buffalo skin is considered the best material for the drumhead. The sound quality of a drum depends on how the skin has been processed. The skins are washed, deodorized and dried to each family's taste. Only the most experienced masters can produce Grade A skins.

Doi Tam drum shells are built up from the wood of the jackfruit tree. The older the wood, the more resonant the sound will be. A good shell is made up of well-shaved staves tightly bound together with a bulge in the middle of the drum.

Stretching the drumhead properly requires not only the strength to stretch the skin over the opening of the shell, but also the good ears needed to tune the drum before fastening the skin to the shell with rivets.

Big building

Doi Tam has some 14 workshops that specialize in making drum shells, 13 buffalo skin processors and 10 other finishing and decorating workshops. Other artisans also specialize in crafting wine barrels and wooden bathtubs with techniques similar to those used to make the drum shells.

In 2000, Doi Tam artisans set a national record for the biggest drum ever built in Vietnam. The giant drum, 2.01 meters in diameter at the head and 10 cubic meters in volume, can be seen at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

But for the upcoming millennium celebration of the founding of Hanoi, Doi Tam craftsmen want to create the world's biggest drum, 2.3-meters in diameter at the head and 3-meters in height.

Doi Tam also has a professional drum troupe of sixty drummers, twelve of whom are veteran male drummers in their 60s or 70s and forty-eight of whom are women.

Each drummer will play a drum tuned at certain pitch so that troupe can play together like an orchestra. A drum performance normally has a trong sam (thunder drum) in the middle, two trong nho (medium drums) on two sides and several trong con (small drums) placed around the stage.

Going south

In recent years, several Doi Tam artisans have made their way to Binh Duong Province, just north of Ho Chi Minh City, where they supply hundreds of drums for high schools, pagodas and traditional musical troupes throughout the southland.

"Drums are best sold in the summer when the new school year is about to start. More and more schools now use our traditional drums instead of electric bells," says drum crafter Phan Van Thap, who left Doi Tam six years ago to set up his own drum business in the Binh Duong Town of Di An.

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