For the K’ho Lach community in Southern Vietnam, bronze ‘chiêng’ are symbols of reflection, protection, and cultural heritage


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For the K’ho Lach community in Southern Vietnam, bronze ‘chiêng’ are symbols of reflection, protection, and cultural heritage

COLORS is now working with seasonal color palettes to inspire all activities across our brand. To celebrate the launch of PALETTE 1—a melange of primeval colors such as reds, oranges, yellow ochre, and clay-like umbers that humans have used for self-expression for centuries—we’re publishing “COLORS STORIES” by contributors from the COLORS community that delve into what the colors in the palette mean to them.

The reds, oranges, and yellow ochre hues of PALETTE 1 made Vietnam-based writer An Nguyen think of the bronze tones of musical gongs. As instruments, gongs appear in many different Asian cultures, and each uses them in different ways. In the case of the K’ho Lach people—a community who are part of the K’ho ethnic group, one of the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam—“cồng chiêng” (the local name for their gong instruments) are not only used for music and entertainment purposes, but also to symbolize reflection, protection, and cultural heritage.

With this in mind, An traveled to meet members of the K’ho ethnic group to find out more about the vibrant history of cồng chiêng, how the they permeate every facet of the community’s daily lives, and how oral traditions help to ensure the continued life of the instrument.”

Accompanied by Mr. K Vang, a knowledgeable K’ho guide, earlier this year I traveled to Lạc Dương, a small town north of Da Lat City, Vietnam that is home to the K’ho Lach indigenous community. Here, I met the community’s chieftain, Krajan Plin, who has dedicated his life to researching and documenting information about Cồng Chiêng. “Chiêng is a special form of ‘wealth’ that is incomparably precious to our people,” he says.

While there is a misconception that ‘Cồng’ and ‘Chiêng’ refer to two different types of gongs, “Cồng chiêng” is simply the Vietnamese transliteration for the word “Goong Cing” in the Lach language, which literally translates as “bronze instrument.” This said, there are two types of Chiêng—one is flat, while the other has a small rounded dome at the center—which the K’ho Lach people play by striking them with their fists, rather than with sticks as in other cultures. While most are forged from bronze, they can also be made with cast iron and lead alloy. Sometimes, you can even find gold or silver in the dome part of several precious Chiêng, which are considered a symbol of financial power. “In the past, people depicted their wealth by the number of Chiêng they had in their homes,” Mr. Plin adds. “The more Chiêng, the wealthier the person.”

Community chieftain Krajan Plin has dedicated his life to researching and documenting information about Cồng Chiêng

Typically, the K’ho Lach people play Chiêng in sets of six, and each chiêng in a set has a different name, weight, and size. “A Chiêng song can only be ‘correctly played’ by a sextet,” says Mr. Plin. While in day-to-day life, it’s not so important to play all six Chiêng at once, it is necessary during celebratory and worshipful occasions. “To us Lạch people, Chiêng’s religious values are profound.”

Chiêng is the K’ho Lach people’s way of communicating with the spirits, worshiping gods such as Yàng and Ndu, and praying for peaceful lives and bumper harvests. For example, Chiêng is played through every stage of the community’s wet rice cultivation season: from the rice-planting ceremony to the rituals praying for the successful germination of crops, as well as rice-blooming feasts and vibrant harvest festivals. They are also used for less joyous occasions,  such as funerals, and in smaller everyday moments. “Chiêng permeates every facet of our daily lives. They are an integral and irreplaceable part of us,” says Mr. Plin.

“Chiêng permeates every facet of our daily lives…

… they are an integral and irreplaceable part of us.”

Though indigenous communities such as the K’ho Lach value tradition and heritage, many aspects of their life have moved with the times: during my visit to Lạc Dương, I encountered many more tall brick houses, modern cars, and motorcycles than expected. However, I luckily discovered a traditional weathered wooden stilt house inhabited by Cil Mom Blui and her family. A mountain guide by profession, Blui possesses remarkable talents in playing the Chiêng. She also sings, and is a master of the art of traditional K’ho liquor distillation, ‘rượu cần’. “When I was young, a few elders asked me and some other children to stay and learn how to play the Chiêng for a village funeral,” she says as we gather around her crackling fireplace.

While Blui found playing the Chiêng challenging at first—”I ended up with a swollen palm after every session!” she says, chuckling—after a while she learned how to control it. It’s become a constant companion to Blui throughout her life: she’s entered competitions with it, used it to join a church choir, and played it when she wanted to express feelings of happiness or loneliness that she didn’t want to tell anyone else about. She still plays Chiêng to this day: it hangs above the fireplace and comes down regularly when she has friends over to dance and sing into the early hours of the morning. “In our daily lives, it’s not always easy to have six people joining in,” says Blui. “Usually, friends play two or three chiêng together. It still creates a beautiful piece. The Chiêng resounds, bringing joy and togetherness among us all.”

Here, Blui drinks the traditional liquor of the Kho people and tells stories of growing up with Chiêng as an integral part of her life

Blui’s also passing on her knowledge of the Chiêng to young children in the K’ho Lach community. As there is no notation system for Chiêng music, passing down skills from master to student in this way is vital to ensure the continued life of the instrument and the traditions that surround it. The survival of Chiêng is already under threat: these days, there are very few people who know all 36 of the K’ho Lach people’s sacred Chiêng songs. Some of them, the funeral Chiêng song ‘Pơn Yơh’ for example, are almost entirely forgotten, even by the elders. Despite this, Mr. Plin is confident that “Chiêng will never die. Chiêng is like the K’ho people, we change and adapt to new lives.”

One way that the K’ho Lach people are adapting is by focusing less on rice cultivation as their main source of work and income. As a result, these days Chiêng are rarely played in fields to pray for bountiful harvests and are more often featured in performances as part of tourist and art programs that offer the community a new source of revenue. Of course, as previously described, they also still feature at church performances, community events, classes, and informal gatherings between friends. “The beauty of oral traditions is that they carry stories from person to person, from one generation to another,” says Mr. K-Vang as we come to the end of our tour. “Our kids will grow, and one day will decide to pick up the Chiêng. They will learn how to play it, how to laugh and find joy in it, and how to grow up and old with it. In that way, K’ho Lach history will continue to live and embrace the sound of Chiêng for years to come.”

“Chiêng will never die. Chiêng is like the K’ho people, we change and adapt to new lives.”

This COLORS STORY was produced in response to the red, orange, yellow ochre, and clay-like umber tones in PALETTE 1, COLORS’ first seasonal palette running from October – December 2023. Head over to our YouTube channel to watch shows from the PALETTE, or read more COLORS STORIES by clicking here.

Text: An Nguyen
Photography: Nguyễn Hữu Anh


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