Originally published in fRoots magazine under the title ‘Stoned Folk’
Anyone interested in early folk instruments should really start looking at lithophones. They certainly don’t come any older. The word “lithophone” doesn’t actually appear in the Oxford dictionaries, but its meaning is pretty clear: litho = stone > phone = sound. Like a xylophone, only stone instead of wood. It’s highly likely that the first objects played by human beings all those thousands of years ago were made of stone and one of the richest sources for finding such ancient instruments is Vietnam. In 1949 a French ethnologist called Georges Condominas discovered a set of eleven tuned lumps of rock, thought to be around four thousand years old, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. He took them home with him and they are now in the Musée de l’homme in Paris. Many others have since been found, most of which have remained in the country.
I got interested in lithophones some years ago after being asked to hit two pebbles together in a performance of The Great Learning by English composer Cornelius Cardew. Around the same time I did some touring with the wonderful Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset, who managed to fly over to the UK with two large lumps of Norwegian granite, which caused the jaws of more than one sound engineer to drop, faced with the prospect of miking them up and find an appropriate reverb. There is something rather special about instruments fashioned from the stuff that has been under our feet even before those feet had properly developed in our evolution from creatures of the sea.
Shortly after these first encounters with musical geology I started researching the subject, collating as many examples as I could find and have been astonished to discover, so far, at least fifty countries where lithophones of one kind or another have been or are used. Earlier this year I travelled to Vietnam in search of my first overseas lithophone (there are examples in the UK but more of that later). I had read that as well as being found in various museums, lithophones, or to give them their Vietnamese name đàn dá, are still played there. Working in co-operation with a small Vietnamese tour company, I began to track them down.
Vietnam has an unusually varied cultural mix. In addition to the majority group, the Viet Minh, there are fifty four other ethnic groups who arrived at various times over the last several thousand years. Consequently, to talk of Vietnamese traditional music is to talk of a complex interweaving of many musics. Having said that, it is surprising how some of the minority groups have retained a characteristically different style of music from the mainstream. Yet at a typical performance of Vietnamese music that a Western visitor is likely to hear, I discovered that many of the instruments originally came from hill-tribe people, having now become assimilated into the mainstream folk tradition. So it is with the đàn đá.
As far as I can tell, and the information is not always easy to establish even when you are there, there are two principal cultural groups that use musical stones, sometimes suspended as gongs, the M’nông Gar and the Raglai, both of them living in the Central Highland region. Many of the hill-tribe people use the better-known metallic gongs as a key part of their ceremonial music. We spent an extraordinary evening as guests of people from another minority group (the Vietnamese refer to their “minority people” without particular reference to ethnicity), the Edé, in a village settlement in Buon Ma Thuot. While we imbibed a more than adequate amount of rice wine through a bamboo drinking straw, a row of Edé men sat on a long bench beating an equally intoxicating, hypnotic rhythm on gongs. A sort of musical cheers: you could only stop drinking when the music stopped.
The M’nông people, who originally came from Malaysia, also play metal gongs and their name for lithophone is goong lu meaning “stone gong”. They use three large rocks, each with its own note, which are kept on the riverbed when not in use. On ceremonial occasions they are raised from the water (they apparently sound better when wet) and hung from ropes in order to be played. We were unable to visit a M’nông village and even if we had it is unlikely that we would have heard a goong lu, their not being for daily use. I did, however, come back with a video from the Vietnamese Institute of Musicology with one clip showing such a performance. Three young men strike a rock each, as it hangs from a tree. The cyclical three-note melody could hardly be simpler, yet it changes subtly as the accent changes from one beat to another.
Whilst we were in Buon Ma Thuot we were shown three goong lu, now in the possession of Dieu Bang, a chronicler of Vietnamese social history who had bought the rocks from the people of a M’nông village. Kneeling on the floor of his living room Mr Dieu demonstrated how, when suspended by a rope, they have a clear sonorous ring when struck. Goong lu have great cultural significance and are usually passed down through the family. I wondered what had made them decide to sell these rocks. I guess the answer is obvious: the M’nông are a poor people, even by Vietnamese standards.
Our trip to Vietnam had started in Hanoi, with its anarchic, dangerous and quite extraordinary traffic arrangement with up to a dozen motorcyclists riding abreast across its wide city roads, crossing pedestrians making their way slowly but purposefully in between. Keeping their eyes peeled, the motorcyclists usually manage to avoid accidents. There in Hanoi we visited the renowned Ba family. 61 year old Bá Phő is one of the great living champions of Vietnamese traditional music and has received several international awards for his work. Playing in a family quartet comprising his wife Mai Liên, son Bá Nha and brother-in-law Tuan Tu, we were treated to a varied programme superbly played, on a range of wonderfully inventive instruments, from the soaring sound of the đàn bâu with its buffalo horn whammy bar to the even more extraordinary koni, a sort of bowed mouth-harp which produces a processed vocal sound that I suspect digital technology is years away from achieving. Then it was the turn of the đàn dá. Bá Phő has built his own đàn dá using smaller, slimmer stones allowing it to weigh in at a mere 20kg making transportation easier. Far more wordy than the three-note M’nông instrument this was capable of extremely elaborate melodies and Mai Liên provided us with a virtuoso performance. The tone of this modern lithophone falls somewhere between that of a wooden instrument such as a xylophone or marimba and the metal bars of a glockenspiel or vibraphone.
In Hanoi we also came across two ancient examples of đàn dá. The first was at the Vietnamese Institute of Musicology where they have a permanent display of traditional instruments. It’s from the Raglai people who use more stones than the M’nông Gar and set them down horizontally to play. The other was something of a surprise. Walking into a small music shop in central Hanoi we spotted a đàn dá on the bottom shelf, a set of seven stones dated at over three thousand years old. Clearly old stock. I have visions of Hanoi wannabees hanging around the music shop on a Saturday morning coming to grips not with Smoke on the water or Stairway to heaven but a quite different kind of rock music.
In Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as locals still prefer to call it, there was another private performance of Vietnamese music by two fine professional musicians, Dinh Linh and his wife Tuyet Mai, playing between them an impressive range of instruments. Mai plays the t’rung (bamboo xylophone) with the city Symphony Orchestra and is also a dab hand on another instrument demonstrating the versatility of bamboo, the klông pút. If you imagine a very large panpipe laid horizontally with the player’s slightly cupped hands clapping over the open ends of the lengths of bamboo, you’ll get an idea of how it works. The sound is percussive but breathy. With my eyes and ears being opened to such a variety of beautiful and unimagined instruments, I was beginning to wonder whether I had backed the wrong horse in coming to Vietnam to listen to lumps of stone, but at that moment Dinh and Mai, aware of my particular interest, turned with a smile to their piece de resistance, a modern dan da similar to the one we had seen in Hanoi. They proceeded to play a dazzling duet, one taking an accompanying role on the lower notes while the other took the lead, then reversing roles, erstwhile accompanist moving to the higher notes to produce a ringing cascade of melody. This was not the way the minority people play dan da, but it was a demonstration of how contemporary traditional performers are reinventing the possibilities of an instrument that precedes, for example, the earliest books of the Old Testament by a couple of millennia.
In my preliminary scouring of the internet in search of information about dan da, I came across a controversial issue surrounding these ancient musical stones. A manufacturer of luxury public toilets, a certain Mr Dung, had acquired a substantial number of stones, each at a different musical pitch, and had assembled them into a full-scale chromatic instrument capable, he claimed, of playing the works of J.S.Bach. In a series of talks and interview he had expressed his view that this demonstrated that the creators of these early instruments were far more sophisticated than they had previously been given credit for and that dan da were not as musically limited as had been supposed. In a stinging rebuttal, a leading academic pointed out, with every justification, that you cannot judge the sophistication of a culture’s music by the number of notes used. Yet idiosyncratic and misguided though Mr Dung’s ideas were, I was fascinated by his dedication and decided I wanted to meet him and see his stones.
I was invited to visit Mr Dung’s office in Ho Chi Minh City and arrived there with a Vietnamese guide as interpreter. On one side of the office sat a secretary at a desk. Otherwise it was not what you would expect to find in the office of a small engineering company. In the corner a young man sat doodling at a piano. A few others stood around the room alongside other instruments filling the work-space: a t’rung (bamboo xylophone), some drums and in prime position, occupying a large space in the centre of the room Mr Dung’s dan da. This took the form of a circular frame, intertwined with leaves, supporting around twenty large pieces of stone arranged at two levels, like the black and white notes of a piano keyboard. After some introductions and a serving of jasmine tea, we were presented with a private performance of a piece specially composed for this particular dan da by Kim Yen who played the t’rung. A charming, hospitable man, Mr Dung seems intent on single-handedly re-writing the ancient history of Vietnamese music on the evidence of some stones found in a field. He may be wrong but I admire the lengths to which he’s going to make his case.
I have to admit that, despite my enthusiasm for them, musical stones no longer represent much more than a footnote in an account of Vietnamese music today, even within the bounds of traditional music. But they are part of the story. They are the beginning of the story and for some tribal people they retain a high degree of social significance. These rocks that are used ceremonially tend to stay put, secreted on the river-bed and given their considerable weight that’s hardly surprising. But perhaps that also gives the reason to why they have not been appropriated into the mainstream. For example, I did find, and bought, a small playable dan da in a souvenir shop, but they are vastly outnumbered by tourist versions of the bamboo xylophones. Bamboo is travel-friendly, stone isn’t.
It seems that the sheer impracticality of stone as a material for musical instruments has made their use subject to less change and, in most cases, extinction.
I mentioned musical stones in the UK. Next time you are in the Lake District you might think about going to see, and playing, a home-grown one: the Keswick Museum has Joseph Richardson’s Rock Harmonicon which he built in the late nineteenth century using hornfels slate from Skiddaw . An enormous instrument, with its stone bars mounted on a wooden frame, an extraordinary piece of Victorian furniture, it toured widely to audience that on occasion included the good queen herself. Whether even earlier inhabitants of Skiddaw discovered the musical qualities of the surrounding stone back in the mists of time, as they had in Vietnam, is not yet known but next time someone tells you that Folk Rock began with Lieg & Lief you can tell them they might have to think again. .