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The versatile calabash

No 3, Vol.9 , August  - September 2015


For generations, dry calabashes (gourds) have become a part of the material and spiritual life of the Ma people.
Unlike the sweet ones, old bitter calabash husks are thick, tough and nicely shaped. Some have a slender waist in the middle with two naturally round, connected compartments above and beneath it. Some look like a bottle and are very convenient for making utensils. So Ma people grow a lot of bitter calabash. They leave the fruits to grow hard on the fields, then collect them, cut the stalk and shake the seeds out. The husks are soaked in a creek for a week or two for the inside to decompose. Then, they clean the inside and hang the husks over the kitchen to let them harden more and gain a yellow-brown colour.

In Ma families, everybody has their own water gourd. Women and girls take care not to let the gourds go empty. Calabash gourds are very convenient to carry through steep mountain passes to get water home. The largest ones, with a round tummy and more or less flat base, are used for storage. The round, middle-sized ones can be cut to make bowls for meals. Dry gourds can also be used to store corn, beans, and calabash and pumpkin seeds.
Like many other ethnicities, The Ma also use husks to make blow pipes, a musical instrument. It’s a multi-part pipe, consisting of six bamboo tubes of different lengths, arranged into two rows (four at the top, two at the bottom), that are driven through the husk, which serves as the sound amplifier.
To have a beautiful blow pipe, the Ma select a nice round-shaped husk with a long neck, a little bent near the stalk, which is where they blow. They cut holes on the husk’s tummy to drive the tubes in, and then seal the holes with bees’ wax to make them air tight. Blow pipes can accompany songs or be part of an orchestra to perform in festive occasions. They are also a very common means for young men to show their affection for the lady of their heart.
The husk gourds are present in all Ma spiritual ceremonies, too. They are used to hold wine and animal blood offered to the gods. Husks that are used for this purpose are usually small and shiningly black-lacquered with a kind of forest leaf.n

Text and photos by Thanh Binh
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