“With the Vietnamese community, we’re spread throughout the world, and we’re also very politically divided,” says Nguyen. “People like my parents, who escaped the communist regime, still feel a sense of antagonism or fear and anxiety about the homeland. So to return these objects to the homeland, for them it’s difficult.
“Our proposal is we could just capture the sounds. Instead of calling it repatriating, we’re thinking of it as ‘rematriating’. Because it’s not a paternalistic thing where someone owns an object. It’s more a shared object; you’re able to use it in a productive way.”
Nguyen and Pham, second-generation Vietnamese-Australians who cannot read Vietnamese, made many discoveries when collaborating with a Melbourne-based Vietnamese musicologist, Lê Tuấn Hùng, to understand the meanings behind the drum’s intricate geometric patterns.
“There’s a lot of Chinese tribes and tribes in northern Vietnam that still actively use these drums,” says Nguyen, noting the provenance of the drums, many of which were excavated near the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam, is sometimes contested across borders.
“The Chinese came and destroyed and melted down a lot of these drums and turned them into huge bronze horses to send back to China.”
Nguyen and Pham had been talking to one museum about playing one of two Đông Sơn drums in its collection, but when COVID-19 arrived the pair opted instead to buy a drum from an auction house, sourced from a Sydney collector, for a few thousand dollars to make their project’s deadline.
Nguyen’s father has played the purchased Đông Sơn drum, but his mother – a writer of poetry by the sewing machine when she worked in clothing sweat shops – and his aunt declined.
“They’re thinking it’s a man thing – when you see a drum you want to hit it, right?” says Nguyen. “My mum and aunty see the drum’s repetition of designs and think poetry, which is a form of percussion.”
As part of RE:SOUNDING a Vietnamese punk band Rắn Cạp Đuôi, based in Đà Lạt, and Indonesian musician Bagus Mazasupa were supplied with the digital drum recordings and commissioned to create new music. Pham has also composed a piece for three Australian percussionists to play using the sound files.
All of these works will be released online from July 20, and the original drum files shared as an open resource for more musicians and audiences to download and creatively use.