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.