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In Vietnam, ethnic minority man fights to revive Bahnar music

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While younger generations of the Bahnar people in Vietnam’s Central Highlands are turning away from their traditional music, one man is fighting to ‘awaken’ the art form of his culture.

Kaly Tran’s five-year-old son, a member of his band, in this photo taken at the Kon Klor Village in Kon Tum Province


In the quiet village of Kon Klor in Kon Tum Province, 29-year-old Kaly Tran seems a little out of place for male villagers his age, having done everything in his ability to keep the traditional music of the Bahnar people alive while others had all but given up on the tradition.

Tran said he had lived in the orphanage as a child due to family reasons, but the hardship had not deprived him of his passion for music that began in small performances at his foster home.

He decided to sit the entrance test into the Military University of Culture and Arts in Ho Chi Minh City in 2006, with a vision to pursue his passion for ethnomusicology and to reestablish the music of his people after graduation.

Now 29 years old and having just graduated from university, Tran said the passion for music “flows in the veins of the Bahnar people.”

“The Bahnar people are one of the most artistic ethnicities in the Central Highlands, and our sense of music is inherent,” Tran said while ‘conducting’ his villagers in preparation for an upcoming performance.

Tran said that back in his grandparents’ days, the Bahnar people barely had enough to eat, but each household never failed to possess a set of T’rung and K’long Put, two types of woodwind instruments native to the Jarai and Bahnar minorities in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, as well as a set of gongs.

According to Tran, he grew up at a time when villagers would play the instruments at every major festival or harvest, while singing, dancing, and drinking ‘ruou can’, a type of herbal, fermented rice wine that is drunk using a long crane tube.

“Since my high school years, I have seen a significant drop in the number of youths and villagers playing these musical instruments,” Tran said. “Some families have let their instruments gather dust at the corner of their house, while others have sold them. I was sad but couldn’t do anything about it.”

After graduating from university, Tran decided to spend his time teaching children in his village to play these instruments, while encouraging grown-ups to join his band, financed by the money Tran earned from performing at teahouses and shows in Ho Chi Minh City.

Tran said that at first his idea did not receive much support from villagers, who said they were used to doing fieldwork and could not sing or dance well, however they eventually gave it a try after listening to his explanation that all they needed were passion and enthusiasm for the traditional arts of the Bahnar people.

Kaly Tran (drum player) performs at the Folk Arts of Central Highlands Festival in Kon Tum Province in March 2016. Photo: Tuoi Tre


Farmer by day, artist by night

After gathering a group of nearly 30 people, Tran began the first part of his job: to make the traditional instruments to play with.

Tran led the group to the higher-up forests looking for a special type of wood and bamboo to craft their first T’rungs, K’long Puts, Ting Nings, and Bong Bohs, which were all once an inseparable part of the Bahnar community.

Drawn by Tran’s perseverance, many elders and players in the village began joining his group, which now has over 70 members, increasing to as many as a hundred to perform in major events.

“All we want to do is sing and show people the thrill and wildness of Bahnar music. That’s enough for us. Money is an additional encouragement to help us keep up the work and finance the practice,” Tran said.

Most members of Tran’s band are poor farmers whose main job is working the fields, so he has to make do and hold his practice sessions at night after they have returned home from their work.

A Rung, a member of the band, said shyly, “I stopped going to school after ninth grade to work in the fields. When Kaly called me into his band, I was shy at first, but it turned out to be pretty interesting. Now I start missing the drums and the singing if I haven’t practiced for a week.”

Kaly Tran’s uncle A Buu, a devoted member of the band himself, said, “Our Bahnar people are playful but also have a great love of music. When my grandparents were alive, they couldn’t live without their instruments, but things have changed now. Of course, I’m happy that Tran has taken it upon himself to teach villagers to play these instruments and sing Bahnar music, and even taken them to perform at shows.”

Pham Thi Trung, director of the Kon Tum Province Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said she was captivated by the performance of Tran’s band, which she said had revitalized so vividly the spirit of Central Highlands music.

That is why, Trung said, many people regard Tran and his band as a ‘treasure’ of the cultural sector.


Source: Tuoi Tre News

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