Music researchers believed the traditional art of Co Bo drumming, used to serve the last monarchy in Vietnam, died out in the central ancient capital of Hue.
But this echo from the past has resurfaced and is being preserved by people in a northern village, 750 km from Hue.
The sound is enthralling, as a group of men passionately play drums. A man who stands in the middle plays a pair of cymbals, while the other four men play on drums that hang in front of their stomachs.
These drums, 40 cm high and 25 cm wide, carry images of dragons and clouds.
Co Bo music, which once graced the courts of the kings of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), can now be found in Thi Cau Ward, in the northern province of Bac Ninh.
In ancient scripts, Co means drum, and Bo means Ministry. Co Bo means “drums of Ministry of Rites” (one of the six main ministries of the feudal dynasties). Researchers thought the ancient art form of drumming was truly lost to time.
“In 1996, while I was studying Hue’s royal music, I searched for information on the Co Bo drum but I found no answers,” said Bui Trong Hien, an ancient music researcher.
The town that’s preserving Co Bo has a musical history. Thi Cau Ward used to be the village famous for quan ho (traditional northern folk songs) of Bac Ninh Province.
Local elders said the drumming skills came into the town through an instrumentalist whose family name was Hoang. He served as a member of a music band in Hue’s Royal Citadel.
When Hoang returned to his home village, he passed on his drum playing skills to local villagers. He taught them 12 compositions of drum performance, but today people only remember six.
Tran Anh Tu, local cultural official, said people taught the drumming skills orally and through listening to each other.
“The band often performs their drum playing during annual ceremonies to worship village gods and other local festivals,” he said. “In addition, most local families have their own drum bands, who perform in their own family ceremonies and funerals.”
Tu said the local authorities have encouraged people to preserve the art and to find a better way to teach the skills.
“Oral transference is not safe enough, so we need scientists and music researchers to do official studies and make recordings on this art of drumming,” he said. “We are asking the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to have a specific plan to help us maintain this ancient art.”
Researcher Bui Trong Hien said these drumming pieces were used regularly to serve the kings and their royal family.
“The drums were used to welcome the kings, when the kings met envoys from other countries, and when the kings prayed during the Nam Giao ceremony,” Hien said.
“The drums were also used while servers brought the kings tea, wine and offerings.”
But in Thi Cau, local musicians perform them in ceremonies to worship the village gods. It’s a skill that others from nearby villages have tried to learn, but haven’t completely mastered.
Most people do not have access to this tradition early on, said Nguyen Van Cau, 76, a well-known drummer from Thi Cau.
“We’ve heard these drum sounds since we were very little children,” he said. “We have practiced drum beating since childhood and we have been attached to the art for many years.”
Cau said the drum sound can sometimes be heard nearly every day around this area.
The lengths of the drum pieces are short, he said.
“All six drum pieces can be performed in 30 minutes,” he said. “Each is then repeated again and again.”
The lone cymbalist in the group of drummers controls the rhythm of the group, he said. The cymbalist must be aware of each stage of the worship ceremonies to lead the drummers into a new composition.
Currently, Cau is the only person who has mastered all the drumming compositions and performance skills, along with knowing the stages of the worshipping ceremonies. He now teaches other men in the area.
With Cau’s help, people in the nearby Thanh Phuong Village, in Vu Ninh Commune, have also established their own drum teams: one team with older men and another of younger players. They can perform the six drumming compositions fluently.