From the Heart and Hand
Hmong Qeej Music:
Tou Yang / Mai K. Moua, Missoula
It is important to encourage the young people to think about their culture and get it back. Now is a good time to do that, to bring our culture back to our young people here, and keep our culture alive.
- Tou Yang
For more than twenty years the Missoula area has been home to a community of Hmong people from Laos. Among our allies they were the most successful fighters against the Communists in the Vietnam War and many lost their lives. When the United States withdrew from Laos and the when the Communists took over, to avoid brutal reprisals, Hmong people by the thousands crossed the Mekong River into Thai refugee camps. In their Laotian homeland, the Hmong inhabited jungle and highlands, making a living as agriculturists, hunters and traders. In partial recompense for their losses during the war, the United States government helped some of the refugee Hmong to relocate in parts of this country, including Montana.
The Missoula Hmong, who currently number over three hundred, have experienced many of the trials of assimilation that many immigrants to this country have faced. They have suffered discrimination for their "different" race and ethnicity. Elderly refugees have had an especially difficult time understanding modern American life. Finding a new way to make a living has not come easy. Many older people suffer from depression as they see the traditional culture being lost and the meaning of their lives changing. Younger Hmong people do not always show respect for the culture and the elders. They experience the same temptations from drugs, violence and gang life as so many other American teens. Recently, studies have begun to show that when youth violence and dysfunction become a problem in traditional cultures, an effective remedy is to reinforce or reintroduce the teaching of traditional culture, including language and the arts.
Tou Yang had both an instinctive and personal grasp of this connection when he applied for an apprenticeship grant to teach Mai K. Moua to play the Hmong qeej or kheng (pronounced kaing). The kheng, a six-pipe flute or "mouth organ," plays an essential role in a Hmong funeral, the most important ritual of a person's life. Without this instrument, and the songs and dances that go with it, a Hmong person cannot have a spiritually effective ceremony upon dying. The instrument is constructed from multiple bamboo stalks laced together and fitted to one mouthpiece. When played, the kheng produces a kind of ethereal drone from the multiple pipes being sounded at once. The player must also do special dances to accompany the songs; the solemn sounds of this music guide the deceased on their journey to the spirit world. Hmong who follow the traditional ways believe that at death, the soul survives the body. In fact, a human has at least three main souls. At death, one of the souls guards the tomb of the deceased, another makes the long journey to the spirit world and yet another is reincarnated in some future generation of the same family. At a funeral, there must be two or four kheng players and they must play, sing and drum continuously for two to four days without stopping so that the person's soul is sure to travel to the right place and they can come back to the family again.
Tou, who had studied this instrument as a young boy with a teacher in Laos "listening, remembering word by word and song by song," realized this complex knowledge could easily be lost in one generation and that teaching another community member was a necessity. In two apprenticeships over a two-year period, Tou instructed Mai Moua in kheng playing and singing the songs for the funeral ritual. Now, instead of having to go to the Spokane community to find a kheng player, Missoula's own Hmong community can draw upon its traditional musicians.
Photos courtesy of Tou Yang and by Alex Swaney