Last update: May 9, 2021
In Southeast Asia, the gong has been and remains an object of great value surrounded by obligations, prohibitions and mysteries. There are several types of physical organization of gongs: isolated gongs, gong chimes played by a single player, and gong sets played by several players. In all three cases, the gongs either stand alone or are accompanied by other instruments or voices.
Organologically, there are two types of gongs: flat gongs and bossed gongs. They are handcrafted by hammering metal plates previously melted (or recovered, which is often the case today), alloy of copper (70% to 80%) and tin (30% to 20%), with sometimes the addition of lead, iron or zinc.
Whatever the preciousness of their materials, gongs represent, for the families who own them, an external sign of wealth and prestige, some rich families sometimes own several of them. In the past, gongs were used as a bargaining chip to buy buffalo and elephants or to pay off a debt following a judgment by the traditional court.
In Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, gong sets are played during rituals related to spirits (yang) and the dead or during simple celebrations. Various functions are assigned to them, depending on the moment they are played: communication tools, they can awaken, invite and satisfy the spirits (sound offering) or on the contrary to exorcise those considered evil; tools of conviviality, they animate the ritual dances (themselves offerings to the spirits) and bring people closer together. The inauguration of a house, the funeral, the ceremony of abandonment of the tomb (rite accompanying the departure of the soul of the deceased to the land of the dead), the reception of personalities, family reunions ... are all opportunities to strike the gongs. Today, given the alteration of ancient beliefs, the limit between the notion of communication with the afterlife and that of pure rejoicing is difficult to assess. These ceremonies are usually accompanied by large libations of rice beer, a lightly alcoholic drink that is drunk from jars with bamboo flashlights.
Depending on the ethnic group, gongs are played either inside the house, outside, or both. For a given ethnic group and a given set of gongs, the place of each gong and each instrumentalist is precisely defined and inviolable.
Each ethnic group has its own orchestral configuration and its own way of playing. Some ensembles have only flat gongs, others only bossed gongs, others a mixture of both. The number of gongs per ensemble varies from two to more than twenty.
Village of Kro Pou. February 07, 2010
This set of five bossed gongs livens up the festivities during the inauguration of a house. The indispensable jar of rice beer is the ferment of conviviality. The number of melodies has always been limited. It is all the more so today with the progressive loss of ancestral know-how and the animist religious identity supplanted by Christianity.
Kro Pou village.
Same gong set as above but played outdoors. Depending on their size and available resources, the gongs are struck with the fist (the largest), with a soft wooden stick or a flip-flop!
This five gong set of Tampuon people is played in a funeral context after the villagers have buried their dead and the musicians have drunk the jar of rice beer. A joyful atmosphere prevails.
This Tampuon set of seven flat and five bossed gongs is one of the most extensive in Cambodia. The flat gongs play the melody and the bossed gongs play the accompaniment. In the past, a large barrel drum accompanied it. The introduction of the kaneu fiddle is recent. This ensemble performs during folk events.
Village of Pok Thom. February 2010.
This sequence is rich in information about the collective gong playing. Starting at 2'35, we understand how the musicians think about the music in order to be able to play each note of the melody. Musicians and dancers turn counter-clockwise around the coffin.
Pu Tam village n°4. December 11th, 2010.
Set of four bossed gongs struck with mallets. Each one has a specific name, from the largest to the smallest: me (mother), klöu, trö, kon (child). The gong set is in the image of the society governed by matrilignage: the largest, which gives the pulsation, is called "mother". This ensemble normally accompanies animist ceremonies, but the inhabitants of this village are now Christianized.
Pu Tam village n°4. December 11th, 2010.
Set of six flat gongs struck with the fist. The particularity of this playing technique lies in the mastery of the resonance managed by the left hand. This ensemble, filmed out of context, normally accompanies animist ceremonies, but the inhabitants of this village are now Christianized.