Making more room for gongs

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Anticipation is building across the Central Highlands in the lead-up to the first International Gong Festival in Gia Lai Province from November 12 to 15.

Colorful banners for the event can be seen at every corner in the provincial capital Pleiku, which is welcoming some 35 gong troupes from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines in addition to Vietnam's 23 cities and provinces.

Le Tien Tho, deputy minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said the aim of the festival was to preserve the region's unique gong culture, which UNESCO formally recognized as an Oral and Intangible Heritage of Mankind in 2005.

The main venues of entertainment and other activities will be held in March 17 Square and Dong Xanh Park from November 13 to 15, plus there'll be gong shows in Dien Hong Park on November 14-15.

The four-day program for the event, which is subtitled "Space of Gong Culture of the Central Highlands," also includes a Buffalo Stabbing Festival at a resort and an event called "Returning to the root" on November 14.

"We expect to attract more than 30,000 visitors," said Pham The Dung, chairman of Gia Lai Province People's Committee.

The director of Pleiku Airport, Nguyen Thai Hoa, said the airport was ready to welcome a greater than normal number of passengers during the festive days.

Travel firms have got into the act by organizing new tours to beauty spots in and around Gia Lai.

Ben Thanh Tourist is starting up a four-day trip that combines the International Gong Festival with excursions to Dray Nur, the most impressive waterfall on the Srepok River, a national historical monument, Gia Long falls and other scenic attractions.

The tour also takes in a 150-yearold wooden church and the villages of Ako Dhong and Jun so that tourists can learn about ethnic minority life and culture.

French-taken gong photos on display in Hanoi

Nearly 90 photos, featuring the music of gongs made by ethnic groups in the Central Highlands taken by French photographers in the 20th century, will be showcased at Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Cau Giay District's Nguyen Van Huyen Street, Hanoi, from November 6, 2009 to February 27, 2010. (By Van Khoa)

"For ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands, gongs and gong culture are a means to affirm their communities and cultural identities. In recent times, they have emerged as an attractive, appealing cultural symbol of the Central Highlands as a whole," said Tran Thai, sales representative of Diem Hoan My Tourist Company.

According to Thai, the number of tourists visiting Gia Lai quadruples when the local gong festival is held each year.

The excitement about the international festival has spread to every village and commune in the province. In Ia Mnong Commune, Chu Pah District, the gong team of Mrong Yo Village is rehearsing hard for the big event. The most valuable gongs preserved by locals are being brought out for sound modulation.

In front of the village's communal house, girls and boys practice every day in eager anticipation of the day when their gongs will proudly sound at the festival alongside those of other Vietnamese provinces of and cities where gong culture survives.

Gongs are an integral part of ethnic life in the five Central Highlands provinces of Lam Dong, Gia Lai, Kon Tum, Dak Lak and Dak Nong.

There are two main types of gongs, the cong and the chieng. The cong has a raised center and delivers a deep bass sound, while the chieng is more melodious.

The gongs of Vietnam are distinguished by the way they are played. Each player carries a different gong measuring 25 to 80 centimeters in diameter.

Groups of three to 12 men and women play the gongs. Different arrangements and rhythms are adopted depending on whether the participants are sacrificing bullocks, blessing the rice, mourning, or celebrating the harvest.

The ethnic minorities of the Central Highlands are gong masters who have used their unique sensibility to raise it to the level of an outstanding musical instrument.

According to Phan Xuan Vu, director of the Gia Lai Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the province has the largest number of gong sets. Indeed, there are more than 5,500 known sets of gongs and some 700 troupes who play gongs in villages across Gia Lai.

Gongs from different areas have distinct sounds. "Playing the gong is not merely entertainment, it is a spiritual activity that connects the players to the earth that has nourished their communities for centuries," Vu said.

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