The “Sac-bua” Festival

The Muong ethnic group lives in compact settlements between the Red and Da River valleys and the upper reaches of the Ma and Lam rivers. This area lies in the southern part of Vinh Phu and Yen Bai provinces, in Hoa Binh province and the highlands of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An provinces.
The Muong ethnic group celebrates Lunar New Year’s Day with some similar ritual to that of the Kinh (Vietnamese) ethnic group: square cakes (banh chung), brown-colour flat rice cakes (banh tet), going out at midnight to welcome the advent of the new year. However, there are some different rituals. For example, unlike the Vietnamese, the Muongs do not gather new leaves, but fill a vase with water from the brook for worshipping, welcoming the New Year at midnight by beating gongs, sounding wooden bells, hitting mortars with pestles; they hold a ceremony with offerings in honour of the ancestors; are they pay visits to neighbours and friends to bring them good luck.
One of the most distinctive customs of the Muong people on Lunar New Year’s Day is the “Sac bua” festival. “Sac bua” means carrying and beating the gongs. For a long time now, 3 or 4 days before New Year’s Day, people in Muong communities organize teams to pay visits to various families on New Year’s Day. This tradition brings them good wishes and entertain them with songs and music. These teams usually comprise young men and women peasants, and sometimes also children. Small teams number 5 to 6 people, big ones up to 20 people with members of both sexes. Young men wear long dresses and turbans, while girls wear long yellow or rose dresses, flat hats, silver necklaces and bracelets, and key chains. Each team carries several kinds of gongs; which are usually distributed as follows: the team leader handles the “boong beng” (a gong with a high tone), another person handles the “dam” gong (which is bigger than the boong beng), another one the “kho” (a gong with variable sounds designed to provide musical accompaniment), and the “Dam” (the biggest gong, with bass sounds). All team members are adept in singing and playing the gongs, but the team leader must be the best singer and musician and, in addition, must be good at improvisation of songs in reply to the counterparts.
Depending on the specific customs of each village, the teams may visit various families either before Lunar New Year’s Day, at midnight on the 30th day of the 12th lunar month, or from the 2nd to the 15th days of the 1st lunar month. Some teams even visit several neighboring villages.
The sequence of the visit is generally as follows:
On arrival at a house, the team stands in a line in the yard and strikes a tune with their gongs as a signal to the owner, and then sings the “Khoa rac” song (To keep water) thus requesting the owner to open the door. Thereupon, the owner opens the door and invites the team to climb the ladder and come into the house.
Both sides convey to one another New Year’s Day congratulations and the host invites the team members to drink tea and chew betel. This is followed by several songs wishing the host a Happy New Year and good luck, accompanied by the music of gongs. After several rounds of songs and gongs, comes the “good-bye” song and then the team bids farewell in order to visit another family. In seeing the team off, the house owner gives them some traditional presents (square rice cakes, rice).
If the host happens to be a fan of songs and gongs music, he may request the team to switch to “rang” and “bo nung” songs (that is, some kind of dialogue and contest in song, involving statements, questions and replies. If that is the case, the party may lest the whole day, up to midnight and sometimes till the next day. The exchange of songs between the host and the team may later become a party in which many neighbours take part. The subject would soon go beyond New Year’s congratulations and best wishes and cover a wide range of topics – from societal issues to one’s inner feelings. Indeed, the “Sac bua” songs and music festival is the origin of many romances which are later consummated by marriage.
At present, some of the “Sac bua” songs and other traditional songs of the Muong ethnic groups have been introduced into the repertoires of “solidarity receptions” and “artistic nights”, with numerous improvements.

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