| Associations | Articles | Exhibitions | Galleries

Visitors' Forum

Asian Art  Forums - Detail List
Asian Art Forums

Message Listing by Date:
Message Index | Back | Post a New Message | Search | Private Mail | FAQ
Subject:DONG SON - Bronze Drums
Posted By: Jayson Sun, Nov 11, 2012 IP:

Anybody have information on Dong Son drums? I have this old drum that looks to be a later replica. Story is this was smuggled out of Laos during the revolution, supposedly "hundreds of years old".

Subject:Re: DONG SON - Bronze Drums
Posted By: Bill H. Mon, Nov 12, 2012

"Arts of Asia" magazine in Hong Kong has published scholarly articles over the years on the Dong Son culture in Vietnam as well as on Lao bronze drums, such as the one you have. I've pasted a link below to the magazine's home page, where you can search the index for back issues.

As I recall, most Dong Son drums I've seen pictured are more ancient than yours, which probably is no older than the 19th century. In Laos, these drums were said to have been made by the "Kah" people,"Kah" being the Lao term for an ethnic group indigenous to the Kayah state of Burma (or Myanmar nowadays). The Kayah people once were a principal source of these drums for others in Southeast Asia who used them in religious rites.

Herewith is a brief run-down on the Kayah drum, as translated from oral history by a member of the UN staff in Rangoon, by whom I was given a copy about 30 years ago to help edify me on some drums I acquired there:


The history of the Kayah frog drum is difficult to trace because the Kayahs have no written records.
The present brief history of the Kayah frog drum is based mainly upon the traditions passed down by word of mouth from father to son.
According to such oral traditions the Kayah people, in migrating from the area known as "the roof of the world", brought along with them as one of their prized possessions the brass gong which later evolved into the frog drum.
It was only long after the Kayahs had settled in the area now known as the Kayah State that they commissioned the Shan and Yun craftsmen of Ngwedaung (Silver Mountain) to cast the frog drum for them. The casting of frog drums at Ngwedaung went on for a long time, and it was only after the entry of the British Government following the annexation of Burma that the practice was discontinued.
Although the frog drum is undoubtedly Kayah in character and origin, large numbers of it were bought annually and imported into Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, so it can be assumed that frog drums were in use in other countries as well.
According to tradition about a hundred frog drums were cast annually in Ngwedaung. In any case, the fact that Laos, Cambodia and Thailand had been importing large numbers of frog drums annually, coupled with the custom, prevalent among the Kayahs, of having at least one frog drum in each household, offers supporting evidence that a great number of these drums have been cast.
Although the frog drum originated somewhere in China, the following reasons make it a particularly Kayah instrument:
1. The Kayahs were the people who brought the frog drum from China.
2. The Kayah people preserved the frog drum by having it cast.
3. The last frog drum casting took place in 1924 at Ngwedaung in the Kayah State.
4. The frog drum to be found in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand no doubt came from the Kayah State.


Descent from the "roof of the world"

The Kayah people are said to have descended from an area in Mongolia known as the "roof of the world", down the valley of the Salween River, through the country of the Shans (Tais), to their present abode, now known as the Kayah State.
In their migration the Kayahs brought along, among their other possessions, the brass gong known as the kleu, which later came to be known as the frog drum. The kleu was the most highly prized of their possessions.
The original kleu was a brass gong, usually between one cubit and one and a half cubits in diameter and between three and six inches deep. Originally the face of the gong had the barest minimum of decoration. The gong was an item of utility, used for summoning people in emergencies, for use as a war drum in battle, or for announcing festive occasions.
The country where the Kayahs finally settled down is a very mountainous area, with ranges cut off from one another by deep valleys. Villages were built on mountainsides or on mountaintops, with the result that ground communication was extremely difficult due to the rough terrain that had to be traversed. In these circumstances, the gong, which had all along been used to summon the Kayah people together, was modified to make its sound carry farther across valleys by lengthening of the lips of the gong till it evolved into a drum.

Casting of frog drums in Ngwedaung

Ngwedaung (Silver Mountain), a town in the Kayah state, has been famous from ancient times for its craftsmen, mainly Shans, Yuns and Thais, who were adept at making gongs, cow-bells, other brassware, and silverware. These craftsmen were entrusted with the job of casting the new-fashioned kleus.
The new design kleu had a height equal to the diameter of the face, were profusely decorated with flowers and vines, as well as pictures of fish, snails, elephants, frogs and representations of the sun and the stars.
The new design not only made the drum more beautiful but also more useful, as it could now be heard far greater distances across the valleys. As regard the decoration, the Kayahs believed that it usually rained when frogs, fish and snails frolicked, so they decorated their drum with the figures of these animals as well as that of the elephant, as good luck charms. The picture of a star was also put at the centre of the face where the drum is struck.
The decorations evolved by stages through the years. First a stylized frog was attached at each of the four cardinal points of the drum's face, and low-relief pictures of elephants and snails were depicted strung out in a row upon the body of the drum. The star occupying the centre of the face of the drum was further beautified by being turned into a five-pointed star from the original four-pointed one.
Later the frogs on the face of the drum were doubled, one on top of the other, then trebled. The star also kept collecting more points. First they became six-pointed stars, and later there were even eight-pointed stars. The elephants and snails also increased from one to three rows. In fact the whole surface of the frog drum was covered with decorations by this time, raised lines filling up the space left between the stars, flowers, fish and snails.

The kleu becomes known as the frog drum

Kleu means, literally, "gong", but those which were cast at Ngwedaung had square little frogs on them as their most distinctive decoration, and naturally these kleus came to be known as frog drums in the Shan and in the Burmese languages.
Some western writers have expressed the opinion that the frog drum originated in the 6th century A.D. but the frog drum as it is known today was probably first cast in 1788. The trade in frog drums declined after the coming of the British to the Kayah State in 1889, and shortly thereafter the casting of frog drums ceased altogether.

The last frog drum cast

In 1924 the Governor of Burma held a dubar in Taunggyi to which were invited not only the hereditary rulers of the Shan States but those of the Kayah State (then Karenni States) as well. Various exhibitions were held on this occasion of the gathering of the chiefs. One interesting exhibit was the casting of a frog drum supervised by U Sein, a native of Kantarawaddy State, whose Saophya was then one Sao Khun Li.
The frog drums are commonly made of brass or bronze, but the ones made specially for royalty or other important personages were made of an alloy of five metals: (1) copper, (2) zinc, (3) silver, (4) tin and (5) gold. The auspicious moment for casting such special drums was determined by astrological calculations.

The method of casting the frog drums

The technique is the lost wax process.
The steps gone through in this process are roughly as follows:
1. Yellow clay is used for the mould. The clay is carefully selected to ensure that it is free from sand and grit, then it is mixed with paddy husks in the proportion of two parts clay to one part of paddy husks.
2. To wedge the clay, pieces of wood and bamboo are used to beat it.
3. When the clay has reached the desired consistency and plasticity, it is placed on a potter's wheel and shaped.
4. Slip of fine clay mixed with cow dung and strained through cloth is then coated on the shaped clay to make the mould smooth. About three coats of slip are applied.
5. This mould is then covered with wax and shaped again on the potter's wheel.
6. The decorations in the form of vines, leaves, flowers, fish, snails, lotus blooms, elephants and frogs, as well as handles, are added.
7. The wax model is then coated with the slip. After three coats of slip, it is covered with a mixture of clay and paddy husks to a thickness of three or four inches.
8. The mould is placed inside a kiln. The heat melts away the wax and into that space the hot molten alloy is poured. A drum with a 2 ft-diameter face uses up about four viss of wax.

Why the Kayahs prize the frog drum

The frog drum is highly prized by the Kayahs because they believe:
1. That should there be a drought, the beating of the frog drum will bring rain.
2. That if a frog drum is hung on their paddy granary, the grains not only will be preserved from pests, but the quality of the seed grains will even be improved.
3. If the frog drum is sounded at a housewarming, it will bring peace, harmony and good health.
4. At the annual festival which takes place at the end of the hot season to welcome the advent of the rains, the auspicious frog drum is the first instrument to be sounded.
5. In times of war, the frog drum is carried at the van of the army and used as a war drum.
6. That by putting one's silver and gold inside a frog drum and storing it in a crevice or cave, or burying it underground, one may ensure that one will enjoy that wealth in the next existence.
7. By keeping the frog drum in the house, or at the granary or in a special shrine, it will bring health and wealth.

Buyers come from other lands

Buyers from Laos, Thailand and Cambodia used to come annually at the end of the rains to buy the frog drums cast in Ngwedaung. They brought elephants, silver, gold and merchandise to exchange for the frog drums. The export of frog drums went on till 1925, and at one time U Sein of Loikaw even had a branch sales room at "The Burma House" on Merchant Street in Rangoon to promote the export of Kayah frog drums.

Written by U Sein (Kayah)

Translated by Sao Hso Hom Mengrai"

I believe this translation might have been used in published articles in the past, but the copy I obtained was available to anyone who wanted to learn more about these drums, at a time when almost everyone in the foreign community in Burma had at least one. Excellent copies of these drums were being cast by the original lost wax method in Mandalay at the time too.

Best regards,

Bill H.

URL Title :ArtsofAsia

Subject:Re: DONG SON - Bronze Drums
Posted By: Bill H Mon, Nov 12, 2012

Here is a Christie's auction result for a Dong Son drum, which example better illustrates the form I've come to associate with such items.

The Christies description also assigns a provinance of Thailand to the drum. It may be inferred from this I think that while the center of Dong Son culture was in what is now Vietnam, it spanned borders into neighboring territories.

While Dong Son bronze drums from Vietnam obviousy share some design elements with drums made in the Kayah State, the latter have their own history and style which differs little from what is found on so-called "Kha" drums from Laos. In my estimation, part of this commonality rests in the regional fame of Kayah drums, and much of the rest bears on the fact that metalsmiths of the ethnic Tai people, who are natives of Thailand, Laos, and the Shan States of Burma, were the principal drum-makers among craftsmen in those three areas.

Best regards,

Bill H.

URL Title :DongSonDrum

Subject:Re: DONG SON - Bronze Drums
Posted By: Jayson Tue, Nov 13, 2012

I think you are right about Burma. This was a personal item handed down. I can trace it back to atleast late 60s, early 70s to laos. I did not pay for it. Where it came prior to that is a mystery but it was a gift to the family.

It definitely isn't one of the actual Dong Son drums as those would be really rare and much more aged.

If this is original hopefully it's one of the pre-1890s ones made in Burma prior to the British invasion. It hasn't aged much compared to some of the other ones I've seen on the internet. There is no green patina, but it's starting to discolor which I thought was rust, but on closer inspection I guess it's just natural discoloration.

If it's a replica it could be one maybe made during the colonial period anywhere in SE asia, maybe in the 50s or 60s. Possibly in Laos or Vietnam. It definitely seems newer, but I'm not sure if replicas were common then. It seems replicas more exploded in popularity in the 90s and 00s with more tourists in the area.

What do you think about maintaining this item? Everywhere I've read says to let it age naturally but if this is an 1800s item in this good condition maybe it's a good idea to keep it from discoloring. Maybe not abrasive polishing, but any waxes or preservatives?

Thanks for the info, not too many places on the web are knowledgeable about these items.

Subject:Re: DONG SON - Bronze Drums
Posted By: Bill H Tue, Nov 13, 2012

As long as your drum is being stored in a climate-controlled space, I wouldn't worry too much about it deteriorating. I've also been advised just to let the natural patina accumulate. Eventualy it will form a protective layer capable of blocking further oxidation by the atmosphere. Of course if a drum has been poorly repaired using acid-core solder at some point in its lifetime, residual acid will tend to cause deterioration of the original alloy. If this is the case with your drum, I'd advise contacting a museum conservator for advice.

I've finally turned up some old photos I'd misfiled of one of my 19th C. Kayah drums, which now serve as side tables in my living room. I've had this one since the 1980's and have never used any commercial cleaning substance on it, only a vaccuum cleaner brush and a manual duster. I believe it has pretty much the same surface designs as yours.

Best regards,

Bill H.

Subject:Re: DONG SON - Bronze Drums
Posted By: pierrevdw Mon, Nov 12, 2012


Those drums originate from a village of the same name, not in Laos but well in Vietnam.

The drum on the photo is of the Dong Son style indeed.
Old or replica, I can't tell for sure from this photo.But at first site, I don't see any signs of age.

Real antique Dong Son drums are fetching several thousands of US$. Maybe the price you paid might be an indication of it's real age.


Subject:Re: DONG SON - Bronze Drums
Posted By: pierrevdw Tue, Nov 13, 2012

For the sake of being precise in a description, and I write this from memory without checking:
- Don Song is a BC culture from the actual Vietnam,North East of Hanoi if I remember well.
- The "famous" Dong Son drums are therefore around two thousand years old.
- I've seen here, and I'm happy to learn about the Kayah drums, I was not aware of those bronze drums originated from that area.
- Lao is a region of Thailand, Laos in a country on the other side of the Mekong river, bordering Thailand, and Dong Son is Vietnam.Just to point out the locations.

Conclusion: I agree that this drum is a Kah drum and disagree to call it Dong Son drum.

And, according to the close up photo posted, I also agree that this particular drum could well be an 18th or 19th century one.

Very Nice example you have there.Congratulation. | Associations | Articles | Exhibitions | Galleries |