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Thai Vang: Qeej Music
When Thai was the ripe age of 7 he was taught the qeej. He is now a master at it and can identify the old Hmong played through the deep, low pitches of the qeej. Many people his age and older cannot match his ability. One reason is he has a talent of course, but what made it easier was that his grandpa, father and brother played it and he grew up hearing the qeej. To be a master qeej player you have to know 50 or 60 songs, as well as the words. As he plays he tells himself the words he is playing. The qeej is played mainly to talk to spirits, because unless you’re a shaman you can’t directly talk to them. Thai Vang is only 17 and already is a master at the qeej, as well as the movement or dancing that accompanies the qeej playing.
Thai’s father had two wives because he played the qeej. In those days, if you played the qeej, you were like a superstar. Then all the girls’ parents would want her to get married to him, because then he could take care of her and things like that. That’s why his father got two wives. The qeej was passed down in Thai’s family. Thai and his brother inherited it. The qeej is an instrument with 6 pipes, one large, short pipe and 4 long, skinny pipes. The last pipe is skinny, but it’s shorter than the large pipe. Inside each pipe is a metal reed. There are 8 different notes you can play on the qeej. It is usually used in funerals, New Years, and it used to be played at weddings, but they lost the music to weddings. So they don’t play the qeej in weddings anymore. The rooster song is played at funerals. It talks about how the sun and the moon would not come up. The people tried and tried to make them come up, but it was no use. Finally, the rooster came and with his cry he called the sun and the moon up. He played the story on the qeej. That sounds sort of cool, playing a story.
Long, long ago the qeej was only used for weddings but as time went on it was used for more. Next it was used for funerals then even more. Now it’s used for New Years and other celebrations. On New Years the songs are joyful and the qeej is used to show off and attract girls and people. At funerals the qeej plays slow mournful music. It’s used to call the spirits and tell them to leave this place and not come back. A real qeej master can hear what the qeej is saying. The master can then tell if it is a real qeej player that he is hearing. Another thing about the qeej is that women are not allowed to play it. The reason is tradition and also they’re not able to call as well so spirits may not leave. So men play the qeej.
The qeej is probably the best known Hmong instrument. It is used for funerals, weddings and Hmong New Year. The qeej talks in a way to the spirits. The person playing the qeej senses the spirits through the qeej. Qeej songs have different meanings. In funerals it is mainly about being reborn. At New Years it is wishing people a good year. The qeej can also tell stories. Very few people can understand the words to the qeej music. It is very old. To play the qeej at funerals you need to know 50-60 songs because you can be playing at a funeral for weeks!
Years ago, the qeej was only blown at weddings, but now, the qeej is blown at funerals. Thai has been to a lot of funerals. The qeej can talk to the dead spirit to help it get to another world.
The qeej is culture. The first time people would play the qeej was four hundred years ago and they were only played at weddings. The qeejs talk with the spirits at funerals and also at Hmong New Years. The way to make a qeej is out of special bamboo. If you bought one it would be $200. You have to take your time when you play the qeej; if you rush, it will sound bad. The qeej is like a Hmong bagpipe in sound and in the way you blow.
Thai’s qeej playing was excellent. I wonder if Mark and Pao will sound that good after ten years. I bet Thai is almost a master. To me, all qeej music sounds the same. I wonder if Hmong people who are learning qeej think that or have they heard it before and can tell it apart.
Dang Yang Playing Music
Dang makes many beautiful and unique instruments, including the qeej, a Hmong violin, a Thai recorder, and two different flutes. The Hmong violin is called a violin, but it is VERY different than the picture that comes to mind. I’ll start describing it from the bottom, and make my way up. On the bottom there is a hollow 3D circle, a bit bigger than a softball. There is a little piece of wood with holes on it to let the sound out. Connected to this bottom piece is a maple tube about two feet long, with two strings. Strangely enough, the horsehair bow is attached to the instrument between the two strings. After that there is a piece with four knobs to tune the strings, and then…a beautifully painted snake’s head. Not many people know how to make the carved oak snake’s head—only about ten in the whole USA! This awesome instrument makes a somewhat scratchy sound, but it is also quite pretty sounding.
The Thai mouth organ is definitely my favorite of the many instruments Dang brought in. It has 16 bamboo pipes in all, 8 laid over 8. One layer consists of eight pipes, starting with the shortest, second shortest, and so on, each being about an inch or two longer than the last. The pipes and layers are bound together three times (once at the bottom, once at the middle, and once at the top) with beautifully embroidered two inch wide strips of heavy cloth. The player blows into a tube in a hollow wood sphere.
I love the sound.
Dang also brought in two flutes and a Hmong recorder. The two flutes are made out of bamboo, with five holes. At the top, in a tiny rectangular hole there is a piece of metal with a tiny hole in it to let sound out. The recorder is like the kind we use in Music class, but is made out of polished, light wood, and has tattooed designs and only six holes.
I learned a ton from Dang. He kept me very interested. Instead of just talking about one thing (which would get boring) he talked all about his life in Thailand and Laos and America, and his instrument making. I hope we get to see Dang and Lee and experience their awesome work again.
Dang made his violin in Thailand and brought it to America in 1980. The Hmong violin looks like a banjo. The bottom has a drum-like piece. Covering the drum is a slab of white pine. In the middle, is a bar below the strings made out of maple. The head on the violin is made from a very strong wood. The bow is made of horse hair and bamboo. It goes in between the two strings so that you can not take it out of the violin.
The har flute is a very small flute that has a sound that can travel one mile. Young men and women used the flute to communicate with each other. It has a very high sound. Dang can only play three or four songs on the har flute.
Dang and Lee want their children and grandchildren to know about their culture. They want their boys to have the knowledge [about instruments] Dang does. And they want their daughters to do needlework and have the knowledge Lee does.
Dang Yang was born in Laos. When he was very young, his father showed him how to make instruments. By the time he was four, he had made an instrument. When Dang was still young, his father got killed by Communists. He, his mother, sister and brother, cried and cried. To cheer them up, his uncle threw a party. There was a mouth organ player and a person who played the Hmong violin, which Dang made later on in his life.
The violin that Dang makes has a serpent’s head on it. That is not really traditional, but the violin is of a very high quality. To play a Hmong violin, the bow must be under the strings, not over them. There were flutes and a recorder, too. One flute is used to court. The boy plays the flute and chases the girl. Another, a tiny one, is used to wake girls up at night and talk to them.
The mouth organ is used to talk to girls when it is evening. They like music better than talking ’cause it’s more interesting. “You don’t got this, you got no girl,” Dang says.
The little Hmong flute is used to communicate with the ladies while they are farming. [To reply] The ladies would take a banana leaf and blow on a piece of it to say come over here! So the guys would do that, back in Laos.
The sound of the little flute goes a mile, so you can talk to far away friends. In his country, they use the flute instead of cell phones.
Dang makes the violin with different woods for different parts. These woods are maple, white pine, oak, and another. The bow is made from horse hair. The strings are the same as guitar strings, but how they are tuned makes them sound different. Dang uses no fancy tools, just a knife, to make the parts. He also puts decorations on it. “I am not an artist,” he said. But the instruments looked really good to me!
What I learned when Dang came is that people can make flutes. I learned that they can make a qeej pipe with just one knife. Dang taught me to believe in people who make things.
His dad taught him how to make instruments. He just looked at his father’s hand, and started to copy him.
In Laos, people play the Hmong violin to soothe worries about their future. The Hmong mouth organ has 16 holes and can produce over 100 sounds. Not many people can play it. When Dang’s father was killed, they played the Hmong mouth organ.
Dang Yang is an instrument maker and player. He makes and plays the Hmong violin, Hmong flute, Hmong recorder, Laos mouth organ, and many more. The Hmong violin looks like an American violin, but has only two strings, and the bow is attached to the instrument. The Hmong recorder looks exactly like an American recorder except that it gets narrow at the end and is made of bamboo. The Laos mouth organ looks like a pan pipe.
Wausau Dance Club
We stopped for the night at WAHMA, Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Assistance. WAHMA has a dance group. We saw about six or seven of the dancers, mostly girls about 10 to 12 years old. (All were related, except for the girl in the green dress.) They all wore traditional Hmong clothing. The skirts they wore had very small pleats and looked too heavy to dance in, but they did fine. Most of the dance was girls walking into formations, turning around, and stepping side-to-side with their hands and arms in different positions. The song they danced to was about a girl saying to her ex-boyfriend that she wished time could turn around, and at this point in the song the girls started turning around and walking away from each other…
After a little dancing, they invited us to come up for a dance lesson. First, they taught us to step side-to-side. Next they taught us the peacock movement, here you put your pointer finger and your thumb [in the air] and twist your wrists…The dancing was great.
On our trip we got to learn a Hmong dance. The people who taught us were children! The girls wore traditional Hmong clothes. It is rather hard to explain the dance, but it was basically side-stepping and turning with the feet and legs and LOTS of graceful movements with the arms and hands. That dance was so beautiful when the Hmong girls did it, but I felt clumsy. Now that I know a couple of Hmong dance moves I could probably make up my own Hmong dance. What I learned from this besides the dance was that all cultures have dances and all of the cultures’ dances are different. I never really liked to dance until I learned that Hmong dance.
We were learning the same song they danced and it was really hard! You have to be REALLY coordinated. A lot of us could do the stuff with our hands but not with our feet… Their teachers, Mai Choua Mova and Pam Vue, are really good. They’ve made movies. They danced for us and they really know what they are doing.
Ger Xiong, Qeej Player
Ger Xiong brought two Hmong flutes and a qeej. He started off by playing the small flute, the most popular [instrument]. He played a lovely song [that goes like this] “I left my land to this land, I miss my homeland, my friends and relatives…” The flutes were used to communicate from far distances long ago, when they didn’t have phones or anything…
When there is a funeral, you need a qeej player to guide the dead person. The qeej talks to the spirit…[to guide it] to ancestors. It’s really difficult to play the qeej and learn the many different songs [for] funerals…Ger Xiong’s dad taught him how to play the qeej, so he got good at it…There are not many qeej players. About 50 or 60. I’m just estimating. That’s not very many Hmong guys…Me and Pao are learning how to play the qeej!!!
Ger won first place at the tournament for doing nice keng playing. He can do lots of stuff while playing the keng like jump, hop, stand on his neck, and flips. He said he is the best keng player in the world. He also said that he learned how to play when he was small like our age.
Ger Xiong is a k’eng player, a flute player, and also a really neat guy. Ger has lived in Eau Claire since 1991 and works as a machine operator. He plays the keng at Hmong New Year and at funerals. He says it is very difficult to learn how to play the keng, since there isn’t written music or even notes. You learn from a “master” and copy what he does. If you don’t study hard, you can’t play. Ger thinks it is very important to pass on the keng playing tradition, because if it is dropped there will be no way to talk to the spirits.
Ger Xiong himself is a very talented player. He won first place in the Hmong International competition. In order to be a good keng player, Ger not only had to learn how to play the instrument, but how to dance. When he plays the keng he swoops his body around and crosses his feet. He can do pretty fancy things while playing the keng, like flips, somersaults, and headstands. Ger also brought two flutes to show us. The flutes are played when a boy comes to a girl’s house at night and tries to beckon her outside. Ger Xiong was a really awesome guy. I’m glad I got to see him.
The flute was used to communicate through the mountains, and to communicate between a boyfriend and girlfriend. It is very, very complicated to learn. As Ger Xiong played, his fingers moved quickly, and he moved his lips up and down to control the amount of air going into the flute.
Ger Xiong has been living in Eau Claire since 1991, and he works as a machine operator. He and his kids sometimes do cultural shows. He learned how to play the qeej from his dad when he lived in Laos. He brought two flutes and played them for us. He moves his mouth up and down to make different sounds on the flute. He also played a qeej and told us about playing the qeej at funerals. Normally the qeej players are people known by the family of the deceased. It is very hard to play the qeej. You have to be very good to play it at a funeral. He thinks it is important for youngsters to learn the qeej, so that the tradition can be passed down and kept alive.
Ger Xiong wore Hmong clothes in bright colors like white, yellow, pink, orange, green and blue. One of his flutes was made out of part of a soda bottle. Ger Xiong put it there so the sound would come out better. Back in Laos, instead of using soda tops they used tall fat bamboo. The qeej needs six or seven pieces of bamboo with a hole in it for different sounds. Ger Xiong said that the flute and qeej say words. To understand, he said you have to be Hmong.