Muong man’s lifelong devotion to preserving ancient drum dance

Published: 17/04/2009 05:00



For Le Van Ban, an old man from the Muong ethnic minority group in the northern midland province of Phu Tho, the Du drum dance has become part of his life.

An old house with a thatched roof on the road to Hung Long commune in Phu Tho’s Yen Lap district is where Le Van Ban, 59, lives with his wife and five children.

Like many other local Muong people, he lives a hard life, toiling in the fields all day with a handful of thin buffaloes.

However, behind his rugged appearance, Ban is the only person who still preserves the Du Drum Dance, an intangible cultural heritage of the Muong in the region.

The art originated many years ago. When he was 13 years old, he visited a local village festival and saw an old man with white hair and beard, stripped to his waist and covered by only a loincloth, dancing with a boy. Their dancing and beating a big drum was very impressive.

Ban was really hooked. When the festival ended, he followed the performer whose name was Ha Van Cau, and implored the old man to teach him the drum dance.

Ban then learned the drum dance from Cau for three years, and he was Cau’s only student.

“According to our traditional customs, women do not learn or perform the drum dance,” says Ban.

Provincial folklorist Dinh Tien Phu explains that in the Muong language, “Du drum” means “Beating the Drum for Fun and Entertainment”.

“The dance is performed during local festivals, elderly people’s birthday celebrations, and funerals,” he says.

Ban recalls an old, true story in the local Muong folklore: There was a Muong couple who lived very happily. Suddenly, the wife fell seriously ill and died. The husband, Dinh Van Lai, felt wretched at the loss of his loving wife. Moreover, their six-year old son always cried and called out for his mother. Feeling sorry for the little boy, that spring, the father took his son to a festival. He bought him a drum to cheer him up. When the father eventually died, the son beat the drum to see him off. The name Du Drum appeared since then.

From beating a drum simply for fun, drum dancing has evolved into an art. Movements such as beating the drum, revolving the drum, rolling or holding the drum are to express the husband’s feeling for his wife and his love for his son.

According to the local Muong, the drum dance manifests their dreams for a prosperous and happy life. It also expresses solidarity among neighbours and narrows the gap between rich and poor.

“Animated drum sounds are to see travellers off, and to welcome people who come back,” says Ban. The Drum dance is also performed in funerals, but with a slow sad rythm, he adds.

The Drum Dance has been much improved ever since to become an indispensable cultural activity for Muong people in the region.

In the beginning the drum dance had only one performer, says Ban. Gradually, it became a community dance, with two forms: eight men with two big drums, or five men with a big drum and a small one.

The performers include a man who is the main dancer and main drum player, the second is the assistant dancer, the third man plays the Sona trumpet, the fourth plays castanets and the fifth person beats a small drum.

The drum is made of buffalo skin, 30cm in diameter and 45cm high from top to bottom, to make it possible for the dancer to hold it or revolve it quite easily.

While performing, Ban who is the main dancer, stands on a sedge mat in the middle of the stage. He beats the drum while dancing, making sure that the rythm matches with the other instruments.

The main dancer wears red clothes and a red band round his head. The others, in brown clothes with brown bands round their heads, play the other instruments.

“These musical instruments are fairly normal, but together they produce deep and powerful sounds that carry the Muong’s passionand and energy well over the hills,” says folklorist Phu.

Established in 1999, the commune’s group of the Du Drum Dance has performed for free at many local and provincial festivals. Every year it gives at least four or five performances. This is Ban’s pride and joy and also a source of inspiration for the whole Muong community in their daily life, says commune People’s Committee Chairman Nguyen Van Viet.

Ban describes the Du drum dance as an indispensable part of his life. “I’ve performed the drum dance for 46 years and each time I perform, I think more about life. Our only concern is that we are always busy with farm work and have little time practising,” he says.


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