Stand in the departure lounge of an airport and you can forget where you are; stroll through a big city shopping mall and you could be anywhere: it’s the same brands, the same multi-national companies, the same fast food outlets, even the same background music whether you’re in Seoul or Seattle.
This familiarity may make for smoother connections, but it can ride roughshod over local cultures and sensibilities. Especially at risk are those with distinctive characteristics - their own dress, food, music and way of life and which may vary from the default setting in their own country.
Resistance can appear futile, but isolated pockets are not giving up. Some of the more endangered are clinging fiercely to their heritage and, seemingly, their very souls. Touneh Ma Bio is one of them.
Born in 1958, the youngest of six children, she lives in Don Duong district, Lam Dong province, in Viet Nam’s Central Highlands. A modest, humble lady, she describes her job as “to cook wine and teach Tamya-Ariya dancing and gong-playing.” She does an awful lot more than that.
A member of the Chu Ru people, one of Viet Nam’s smaller minority ethnic groups, she is battling what she calls “the winds of foreign culture” and she’s not being blown away. Fighting on several fronts - she’s singing, dancing, making wine, playing the gong and blowing the trumpet. She is not going quietly and nor are her people.
She learned from her mother, listening to stories before being lulled to sleep. Her uncle taught her the intricate rituals of the gong. After participating in local folklore festivals, by her early teens she had developed a real passion for the music. Once she had mastered the techniques, she would pass them on to children, “with the hope,” she says, “that the next generation will inherit the cultural traits of the Chu Ru people.”
Like many of her tribe, Madam Ma Bio values the way the music and dances of the Chu Ru are joyously performed and the bonding they bring. She sets great store by promoting them, saying: “The festival is a place of reunion and community togetherness, which is also a time for people to rest after hard days working in the fields.”
At times, though, it can feel like a losing battle. She has been to villages where boys and girls urged her to listen to modern music and buy the latest electronic equipment. Back in the 1980s things were even worse: “We were taken advantage of by unscrupulous people,” she recalls. “Families in my [Lac Xuan] commune had to sell gongs for survival. Even broken ones were sold. Seeing what was happening, I went to each house to advise them to keep their gongs. One family was so poor they were forced to sell their gong for food so I immediately sold a small patch of land to buy it back. Anything to save a precious Chu Ru gong”.
As those hostile winds threatened to kick up a storm, Madam Ma Bio admits to “being afraid that the village, the festivals and traditional folk songs I love would fade away if they were not preserved. I have a burning desire to restore traditional values so I took it upon myself to teach the children in my commune.
“So far, the children in my (Diom A) village in the Lac Xuan commune have mastered many songs and dances, and know how to play the gong and blow-pipe themselves. Hopefully, they will be the next generation to preserve our traditional cultural values.”
Besides the musical side, she is active in preserving typical Chu Ru artefacts, some of which are hundreds of years old. Even the stilt houses date back at least a century. She says: “I think that if I am still healthy, I will continue to dedicate myself to preservation and hope to transfer the soul of the nation to the next generation.”
Gradually, her enthusiasm won people over and now she feels that “young people in Diom A feel the magic of the gong and more and more are coming to my classes. Young people in neighbouring villages also apply to study. There are now about 70 students who know how to play, and dance to, the gong. My gong team has been to Ha Noi and other places to perform and participate in festivals.”
Madam Ma Bio has waged a heroic rearguard campaign for the preservation of her culture - and she’s far from finished. Thanks, in no small way, to her the Chu Ru people are far from forgotten.