Vietnam Heritage, August-September 2011 — Writing about Y Y?n would be demanding. To depict the wind? A film director, a young friend of mine, asked, ‘Who would you choose for the role of a village patriarch?’ and I answered ‘Nobody else, only Y Y?n.’ But where could we find him? When asked, no one in Pleiku knew his whereabouts. People in Buon Ma Thuot vaguely waved their hands: ‘Back to the forest. It is rumoured that he stays somewhere between Daklak and Gia Rai.’
For some unknown reason, the land approaching a border between two provinces is usually vacant, sterile and poverty-stricken. More than a hundred kilometres from Buon Ma Thuot and nearly a hundred from Pleiku, for a dozen kilometres on either side of Road 14, under harsh sunlight, there was no habitation and no one, just an immense dipterocarp forest with large leaves and wood that was good for nothing. The trees didn’t provide much shade.
Y Y?n’s hamlet was Buôn Sam, belonging to Ea Hleo Commune, Ea Hleo District, Daklak Province, in the Central Highlands one kilometre from Road 14. It is not too poverty-stricken. Our car passed the length of the hamlet to a clearing with bamboo and a cottage. We had to stoop half-way to enter. The furniture consisted of a bamboo bench and table and an aluminium pot on stones. A woman with a pale complexion sat at a corner of the bench. A piece of paper darkened by smoke was tacked under the thatch roof. A close look revealed it to be the certificate of the Hoang Mai Luu Prize for music, awarded to artist Y Y?n for work on the preservation and development of the nation’s [Vietnam’s] music. As far as I know, this honour has gone to only two people, the other being musician Phan Huynh Dieu.
Y Y?n was taking a shower beside a well fifty to seventy paces away. When he recognised my voice, he gave a howl, then called me by name, and rushed in my direction, not fully clothed, a loin cloth hastily wrapped round his still-drenched body. He embraced me, saying, ‘Do you remember, on the 15th of May, in the year of 1951, we were attacked by the French at the hamlet of Buon Kraih – and we narrowly escaped death?’
I went to the Central Highlands at the end of 1950, as a journalist for a newspaper. I met Y Y?n’s propaganda team, liked it and joined it. We produced propaganda to build a base against the French. We were a band of performers wandering through the hamlets of the Jarai, Ede and M’nong people’s. Y Y?n, a Jarai, was the soul of the band.
Y Y?n speaks French fluently but stays natural, wild. His life seems to be a condensed history of modern and contemporary culture in the highlands of Vietnam.
His family was poor. His hamlet was in the most destitute area of the Central Highlands and his family was the poorest, I suspect because of the very artistic nature of his father, Y Tam.
In the Central Highlands, people like Y Tam were rare. They enjoyed their lives year round, wandering like the wind, coming to a place when there was fun and leaving it when it became boring. They were not interested in practical business, but devoted themselves to dancing, singing and making wooden statues, which they made for enjoyment and would abandon without scruple. They were – are – natural artists.
Y Tam was proficient in all kinds of musical instruments of the Central Highlands. He made them, as well. He knew by heart many folk rhythms of the Central Highlands and sang with female counterparts for dozens of nights without interruption and without repetition of the words. He forgot his improvisions as soon as they had been sung. On each night of song, he made love and then forgot the girl as well, for another. At the P’thi festival, the most important of the Central Highlands, Y Tam was always in charge of the playing of cymbals and gongs.
Y Y?n’s mother, Hlam, was no less an artist. She was so hard up that at the birth of Y Y?n, with the prospect of starvation, she planned to kill the baby. During that period in the Central Highlands, this was customary. But the father prevented her.
Such was the birth of Y Y?n: a wind born of two gusts of wind. As soon as he knew how to speak he knew how to sing, and he sang better than anyone else from the village. When he started walking, he knew how to dance. At ten, he played music better than his father, who was by that time tired of adventures and stayed home to take care of his son and teach him songs.
At that period of time, after being counterattacked in many brutal contests, the French sent to the Central Highlands a scholar and administrator named Sabatier. Sabatier went to Dak Lak, learned the Ede language and formed brotherhood ties with the tribal leader Ama Thuot. Sabatier established schooling and forced ethnic children into colonial education. If the children did not go to the school, their parents would be tied and beaten.
Each canton (perhaps equivalent to a district now) had a school with 40 students. At the Ea Hleo school a student named Y Khi died. The teacher had heard the singing of Y Y?n and forced him to take the place of Y Khi.
The schools established by Sabatier used French and civics and history taught that: ‘Nos ancêtres sont les Gaulois’ (Our ancestors are the Guals). But the languages of the Ede and Jarai also were taught, and the customs of the Khade and Jarai, and the folksongs and fine arts of the ethnic minorities.
Y Y?n was an outstanding student, particularly in acting, singing, dancing and art. After district school, he was transferred to the provincial school in the city of Buon Ma Thuot, a nursery for the first wave of intellectuals in the Central Highlands. At the time, the French focused on the training of two kinds of officials: one in health and one in education. The greater part of this intelligentsia later adopted communism and became senior cadres.
Y Y?n was in high school at Buon Ma Thuot when, because of the anti-French resistance, he returned to his native place and became vice-chairman of Buon Ho District, then director of the cultural school. But teaching perhaps did not agree with his character. When a propaganda team was formed he almost escaped to it. The songs that Y Y?n sang and taught us almost never mentioned the Revolution, hatred or war; they were mainly songs of love between girl and boy, for the forest, the stream at the head of the village, the ever-lonely mountain, young deer eating the grass in the misty morning. Many times we were encircled by the enemy on all sides and death was taken for granted; but the local people helped us out. They would say, ‘If you were dead, there would be nobody to sing to us . . .’
In 1952, I left Dak Lak and went to the northern Central Highlands and was apart from Y Y?n. Then I returned to the south during the Resistance against the Americans, while Y Y?n stayed in Hanoi and went to a music school. At night, very late, on the waves of Vietnam Radio, Y Y?n sang, in many languages, including Jarai, Bahnar, Ede, M’Nong and Sedang. Afterwards, Y Y?n showed me a number of songs that he had performed in that period. Perhaps, if we could collect all of them, they would give us an immense picture of the Central Highlands in music.
Y Y?n was still standing and embracing me. He wept. His tears wet my two cheeks. After twenty years of peace, I was visiting him only now . I was so guilty.
Y Y?n said, ‘Let me sing you a song’
I asked, ‘What kind of song?’
He said, ‘The song of the calling in of the pigs.’
The young film director was there, at Buôn Sam. He approached and whispered in my ear, ‘Maybe only now could I have begun to understand the Central Highlands . . .’
In the highlands, domestic pigs go unfenced in the forest. At meal times, the woman of the household calls them in. Nothing makes highlanders more homesick than this intimate call by mother, sister, wife or lover. It evokes the whole landscape of forest, ricefields, hamlets, community, longhouse, hearth and people.
*Nguyen Ngoc is a well-known writer and expert on Central Highland culture. He also wrote the preceding article, on Professor Condominas.