Lithophones at Raglai Centre, Khánh Son
The lost lithophones of Vietnam
In February of 2023 I made my second visit to Vietnam and my reason for going was again a musical one, summed up in one word: stone. For more than twenty years now I've had a thing about the way in which certain cultures of the world have chosen to produce music from this most unpromising of materials. Certain types of rock will ring when struck and, depending on length and thickness, can produce notes of identifiable pitch. Instruments which employ this principle are called lithophones.
It was Vietnam which really put lithophones on the map internationally. In 1949 some villagers in the Central Highland region unearthed a set of stone slabs and brought them to the attention of a French ethnologist living there at the time who reckoned they were a form of ancient musical instrument, promptly had them sent to Paris for further investigation and that's where they have remained, in the Musée de l'Homme, to this day.
Photo: Ingrid Lund
So in 2008 I took a trip to Vietnam with my wife to seek out some lithophones and with the help of a Hanoi-based travel company we found some, initially in Hanoi itself. There was an ancient set in the Vietnamese Institute of Musicology there and more unexpectedly we stumbled upon another set on the bottom shelf of a regular music shop. A visit to the home studios of a renowned musical family in Hanoi and later to another such family in Ho Chi Minh City enabled us to hear two modern lithophones as we were treated to virtuoso displays on what looked like petrified xylophones.
Phan Tri Dung playing his lithophone, Ho Chi Minh City 2008
While in Ho Chi Minh City I also visited the office of the company director of a luxury toilet manufacturer who, in his spare time, had assembled an impressive large circular lithophone from stone slabs he had found in the landscape, whose range he claimed demonstrated that prehistoric musicians would have been capable of playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The instrument pretty much filled the room, leaving just enough room for his secretary working at her desk, plus two other musicians accompanying the player of these large lumps of rock. The chief of the luxury toilet company who had built the instrument was called Mr Dung.
Stone trumpet, Tuy Hòa Museum, Phú Yên Province
On my return to Vietnam in 2023 I joined up with Thuy Van Nguyen, who was also undertaking some research into Vietnamese lithophones. She had suggested we could visit some places in the south east region of the country where a number of discoveries had been made. I'd known about these but never seen them. We started off in the smallish coastal city where Thuy lives, Tuy Hòa, having booked an appointment at the local museum where they not only have an ancient lithophone but also two stone trumpets which proved to be quite extraordinary: two large lumps of rock each with three holes bored in. Apparently a local music teacher is able to produce notes from them, but unfortunately he wasn't around. The lithophone, which like the trumpets was displayed behind glass, was smaller than most, comprising eight unshaped pieces of stone and supposedly dating back around two thousand years.
Modern lithophone, Nhan Mountain, Phú Yên
The day before this museum visit, shortly after my arrival in Tuy Hòa, we had had an unscheduled and unexpected encounter with some contemporary lithophones. Taking an afternoon walk through the woodland park of Nhan Mountain, on our way to see the renowned Champa temple situated there, I heard what seemed like the sound of a lithophone being played coming through the trees. At first I thought I was imagining it, some kind of wishful thinking perhaps. Then sure enough there it was. A young woman, dressed in pink and sporting the ubiquitous conical hat stood behind a lithophone playing tunes to a pre-recorded accompaniment. It had been built by a man called Nguyen Minh Nghiep who runs the nearby gift shop and talking to him later we learnt that he'd built a number of such instruments, tuning them by ear despite having had no musical training. Minh Nghiep invited us to drive with him the following day to an ancient heritage center he had opened, displaying his collection of old domestic artifacts as well as more of his lithophones. Again, there were young players on hand to give a performance of popular Vietnamese songs and melodies.
Lithophones at Hôn Xu'a Ancient Heritage Centre
Photo and video: Thuy Van Nguyen
Lithophones were initially only played by people from ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, in particular the Ma, Raglai and M'nong. Vietnam has 54 ethnic cultures, the dominant one being that of the Kinh people who make up around 86% of the population, The remainder, collectively known as minority people, have had their own cultural traditions pretty much sidelined, despite lip-service being paid to Vietnam being an inclusive and united nation. The Kinh people came from the north and had more connections linguistically and culturally with the Chinese than did other groups and a perception developed that their culture was more sophisticated than that of the minority people. This, along with colonialism and commercial pressures, has led to the music and other arts of 14% of the country becoming neglected or largely disregarded. Nevertheless, many of the traditional instruments now to be heard in Vietnam were appropriated from the minority cultures, but often adapted to play Kinh or, more recently, western-style music. This helps to explain why most of the newly built lithophones to be seen in Vietnam have been tuned to a 12-note chromatic scale, like a piano.
The M'nong are the only group who have retained a tradition of playing stone instruments until recent times, principally in association with ceremonial rituals. Their music, played on a range of instruments is, like that of the Ma and Raglai, very different from that of the Kinh people. The music is modal, with few notes and is repetitive, featuring cyclical patterns. When stones are used there are only three of them, hanging like chimes, with a different musician playing each one.
M'nong musicians playing musical stones, which they call goong lú
The music of the Kinh is more melodic and linear in the way it develops than most of the music of Vietnam's minority people, having absorbed influences from Chinese music and more recently from the west. Although most of the unearthed ancient lithophones have more than three stones it seems certain that what was originally played on these instruments would bear little resemblance to what is played on modern Vietnamese lithophones.
On my latest visit to Vietnam we visited some members of the Raglai community living in Khánh Son in the province of Khánh Hòa. There's no record of them having played lithophones in the past but the Raglai have used resonant stones as crop protectors, a kind of aural scarecrow. These took various forms but essentially involved a large stone suspended over a stream, activated by the water current to strike another stone, also suspended, and thus frightening off any would-be foragers.
Khánh Son stones (discovered 1942) being played in 1980
Raglai people had featured in another remarkable lithophone discovery when, in 1942, a Raglai father and son from Khánh Son district unearthed twelve slabs while they were digging for yams. As they had a particularly attractive sound when struck they decided that they might well constitute an ancient instrument and removed them, deciding to use them in the time-honored way as crop-protectors. During what is known as the American war they were hidden away until in 1977 the son, Bo Bo Ren, gave them to the provincial Khánh Hòa Museum in Nha Trang. Soon after that the set of stones was sent on loan to a conference in Hanoi and then for many years it was uncertain what had happened to them. Days before my arrival in Vietnam in February my friend Thuy heard that the stones had just been located and were currently in Ho Chi Minh City, soon to be returned to the museum in Nha Trang. She wanted to believe there was some grand plan linking their return with my arrival but I would have none of it.
In Khánh Son we visited the houses of two Raglai musicians who played for us and talked about the stone crop-protectors, telling us that sometimes Raglai people would sit by a stream fitted with such a device to enjoy the sound being produced, which they apparently found calming in times of distress. This seemed a very telling story: it can often be a small step from the functional to the musical.
Lithophone, Raglai Centre, Khánh Son
We also visited a centre for Raglai culture, where they have a room displaying a range of artifacts including a number of bamboo musical instruments plus two lithophones, one of which included stones from the original set found by Bo Bo Ren and his father. Providing another twist to the story we were told there that the Raglai people are not happy about the stones being returned to the Nha Trang museum, believing they should return to Khánh Son where they had originally been found and be displayed there at the centre. The last I heard was that there had been agreement that this should happen.
Mike Adcock playing lithophone at Khánh Son Raglai Centre
Despite the interest shown in the Vietnam lithophones since the first discoveries of these ancient sets of stones were made there have been detractors who dismiss the idea that any of these finds were ever used as musical instruments. Some say their use was purely as crop-protectors, others that they were merely boundary posts made using local stone which happened to resonate when struck. In my book if people knew that some of the local stone rang when struck, and their use of it for crop protection tells us they did, then it's likely that they would have used it musically too.
Visiting the Lam Dong Museum in Dalat this year reinforced this belief when I saw for the first time a more recently discovered collection of ringing stones. Most of them were found in 2003, some a few years before, and are thought to date back possibly three thousand years. They are far more carefully tooled, finely shaped and altogether more refined than any lithophone attribution I have seen. These stones were clearly manufactured for some significant human activity, more personal than hanging over a stream to scare off birds and animals. Unfortunately, protected by wooden cases and visible only through glass, we weren't able to hear how they sounded but just the look of them convinced me they would produce a very sweet sound. Some day I hope to hear it. - Mike Adcock
Lithophone set discovered 2003, now in Lam Dong Museum, Dalat