The guardian of Jrai music

03/12/2019 08:50

Ro Cham Tih is the youngest artisan from Gia Lai to be honored with the national title of Excellent Artisan.

When we came to Pleiku, the sound of gongs boomed throughout the Tay Nguyen in the festive season. The red basalt soil shone in the afternoon sun as artisan Ro Cham Tih and his students played melodies that resonated over the wilderness.

Jut 1 village (la Der commune, la Grai district, Gia Lai province) is home to the instrument workshop of artisan Ro Cham Tih. He is noted for being one of the few folk artisans who can both play and make traditional Tay Nguyen musical instruments. Ro Cham Tih is considered a “gem” of the Jrai people. By age 12, he was already able to make and play some simple kinds of musical instruments. In 2015 (at the age of 43), he was the youngest artisan of Gia Lai province to be honored with the national title of Meritorious Artisan.

Ro Cham Tih is normally very quiet and gentle. He is absorbed with chiseling a lo o trunk (a kind of bamboo) with his knife to make musical instruments. However, when talking about traditional Jrai culture or folk instruments, his eyes twinkle with pride. His fingers dance on the strings as he plays legendary songs of the mountainous Tay Nguyen.

We watched Ro Cham Tih and his students perform on a bright sunny afternoon. The performance was so captivating we couldn’t turn away. The music was exciting and heroic. Although the instrument was simple and rustic, it was able to convey the melodious sounds of flowing streams, the persistent calls of wild animals, and the flutter of Ch’rao birds, etc. Ro Cham Tih seemed to become a different person. Immersed in the melody, his eyes were closed, his lips sealed, his legs dancing, his body swaying, and his arms waving with each beat.

It is difficult and time-consuming to make these instruments. Ro Cham Tih goes into the forest to look for
lo o (bambusa balcooa). He even ventures into Yaly Forest, more than 50 kilometers from his village, to find the right materials. Suitable lo o must come from three-year-old trees. If the tree is too old, it will crack. If too young, it will wither. The chosen stick must be soaked in mud for three months. When finished, the instrument should be heated or boiled to prevent termites. To craft a good instrument, an artisan must perform many complicated steps. Tih also expresses his love for nature through the decorations he carves onto the instruments, such as petals of Po lang flowers (bombax ceiba flowers) or the stream that winds around the village.

Having loved Tay Nguyen music for over 30 years, Ro Cham Tih has won many medals and honors. He has performed Jrai folk songs in many different countries, in Australia, Asia and Europe. What he cares about the most is how to inspire passion for traditional folk instruments among the next generation. Ro Cham Tih’s greatest joy is to pass his love of music down to young generations of Jrai people.

Story: Tuyet Van

Photos: Tran Minh Tuan, Tuyet Van, Hoa Carol

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