The art of drum-making in Vietnam has a long and storied history. Depending on the occasion, drums can evoke feelings of joy or sorrow. Festivals in Vietnam are marked by the lively beats of drums, with farmers dressing in their finest attire to join in the celebrations. Doi Tam village, situated at the foot of the picturesque Doi Mountain in Ha Nam province, has been crafting drums for over a thousand years.

According to Le Ngoc Minh, the village chief, the art of drum-making in Doi Tam dates back a millennium. The craft was founded by Nguyen Duc Nang, who made a giant drum in 987 to present to King Le Dai Hanh during a plough ceremony. The drum produced thunderous sounds when played and earned Nang the title of “Master of Thunder”. Since then, drums have become an integral part of various festivals and ceremonies.

The creation of a quality drum requires meticulous attention to detail and expertise in selecting and assembling materials. Each drum must be crafted with precision to achieve the desired sound, often relying on closely guarded secrets passed down through the generations.

Artisan Pham Chi Khang emphasized the importance of assembling the drum barrel, a stage that holds village secrets. Doi Tam village was among the first 12 handicraft villages in Vietnam to be recognized as an “outstanding craft village” by the Vietnam Craft Village Association in 2007. Khang proudly stated that while other villages attempt to imitate their style, they cannot replicate the unique characteristics of Doi Tam drums.

Doi Tam villagers have created drums of various sizes, including the largest drum in Vietnam, which now resides at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. The village produces a range of drums tailored to different purposes and occasions, such as drums for Cheo singing, festivals, schools, pagodas, temples, and communal houses.

Crafting a drum involves three stages: leather tanning, drum barrel making, and drumhead stretching. Buffalo skins are used for the drum heads, with artisans skillfully shaving the leather until it becomes thin and drying it in the sun. The drum barrels are made from dried jackfruit wood. The most challenging task is stretching the drumhead, as it requires the artisan’s expertise in assessing the sound.

Artisan Khang emphasized that each type of drum is adorned with a pattern appropriate to its purpose. Festival drums often feature cloud motifs, while drums used in pagodas and temples may showcase dragon-shaped clouds or phoenixes. Cultural event drums are adorned with beautiful designs, such as brocade patterns or motifs inspired by bronze drums. The pattern on a drumhead for festivals typically incorporates light rays spreading out to symbolize the world.

Doi Tam village has established a 60-member drumming team that performs at festivals throughout the country. The team comprises 48 married women and 12 elderly men skilled in playing bronze musical instruments like gongs and cymbals. Being a member of the team is considered a great honor, as it allows villagers to share the enchanting beat of Doi Tam drums with people across Vietnam.

Doi Thi Nguyet, head of the Doi Tam drum team, started learning drum-making from her parents as a young girl and has since become an expert in all aspects of the craft. She can play each piece flawlessly, even with her eyes closed. Nguyet expressed her pride in being able to play drums for various festivals and ceremonies, such as the plough ceremony, which consists of a procession, a welcoming performance, and a grand finale.