Lithophone – the oldest traditional musical instrument of the Central Highlands people, is the origin of other musical instruments, being handed down through many generations and adding profound cultural values to the collection of ancient musical instruments of the Vietnamese nation.
Lithophone, which is “goong lu” in the language of M’Nong ethnic group and means “stone crying like gong”, is the oldest musical instrument not only of the ethnic people in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, but also of humanity. It is made of stone bars with different length and thickness. The longer and larger the bar, the lower the sound. The shorter, smaller and thinner the bar, the higher the sound. Ancient people used the rocks available in their own land to create this instrument.
In Vietnam, the first lithophone set was discovered by the French ethnologist Georges Condominas in 1949 in N’dut Lieng Krat, a village of M’Nong Gar people in Krong No commune, Lak district, Dak Lak province. Professor Tran Van Khe later evaluated this finding: “That lithophone is considered as the oldest rock musical instrument not only of the Central Highlands ethnic minority but also of the world.” The about 3000-year-old lithophone is now on display in the Museum of Man in Paris, France. In 1956, during the Vietnam War, the second lithophone set was discovered and an American Captain brought it to display in New York.
In Dak Nong, there were two lithophones found respectivedly in 1993 and in 2014.
The first lithophone was discovered at Dak Kar stream in Quang Tin commune, Dak R’Lap district, Dak Nong province and named Dak Kar lithophone. It was found on the land of M’nong people. According to the research results of the scientists, it is about 2500 years old, made from cordierite hornstone. Through milling and processing, prehistoric people created a complete lithophone consisting of 3 bars. On the two ends of these 3 bars are the marks of using on one side. The bars include: T’ru (father) bar, T’ro (mother) bar and Te (child) bar.
The second lithophone was discovered in 2014 in Dac Son village, Nam Xuan commune, Krong No district, Dak Nong province and was named Dac Son lithophone. Dac Son lithophone was found in the former land of the M’nong ethnic group, consisting of 16 bars of which 11 bars were intact, 5 bars were broken in two or more sections but could be patched up to the original form. Based on the manufacture technique, sound frequency and arrangement into instrument sets through the sound frequency of music sciences, the scientist confirmed that Dac Son lithophone is of the tradition of N’Dut Lieng Krak, a collection of ancient lithophone dating back to about 3,000 years ago.
At present, both lithophones are preserved and displayed at the Dak Nong Museum.
M’Nong people in Dak Nong in particular and the Central Highlands in general have produced primary lithophone sets that show the harmony, conquest of human with the nature. The ancient lithophone was used by ethnic minorities to expel birds and animals, protect the crops and later serve the cultural activities of the community. In normal days, people usually keep them in large baskets, only brought out for display, performance in large ceremonies or festivals. Because of the sacred meaning, this instrument was performed during festivals such as Yang worship, New rice ceremony, Bumper crop festival, Buffalo eating festival, rượu cần drinking festival. The ancient people assumed that the lithophone’s sound was a means of connecting human beings to heaven and earth, connecting the past with the present. The sound of lithophone in the festivals was considered as the echoes of the mountains and forests. It is both lively, fun and low like the whispers from the past, the narrative about the sadness and happiness with the villagers.
In 2005, it was listed by UNESCO as a musical instrument in the Central Highlands space of gong culture.