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Where EAST meets the Northwest

CULTURAL CONNECTIONS. Michael Thao, left, plays the Hmong qeej while three girls in the Hmong Language and Culture Enrichment Program dance along, in Madison, Wisconsin. The Hmong program was created to help Hmong children establish deeper connections to their cultural roots. (Lisa Speckhard Pasque/The Capital Times via AP)

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #15 (August 5, 2019), page 8.

Program teaches kids Hmong traditional musical instruments

By Lisa Speckhard Pasque

The Capital Times

MAIDSON, Wisc. (AP) ó Three girls in traditional Hmong dress hopped, dipped, and twirled their white skirts in unison. Each one danced with a qeej, a traditional Hmong instrument, in their arms, as Michael Thao played a qeej to provide accompaniment.

The girls were performing as part of the summer Hmong Language and Culture Enrichment Program, and Thao was responsible for teaching them to dance with and play the qeej. Heís one of two artists in residence for the summer program, tasked with helping pass traditional Hmong music on to the next generation.

"Iím glad Iím teaching kids this instrument, because if I donít teach them, nobody else is going to teach them," Thao said.

Helping Hmong kids establish deeper connections to their cultural roots is exactly why the Hmong Language and Culture Enrichment Program was created. This is the seventh year of the program, with 59 kids enrolled.

The program was created in 2013 after the Madison Metropolitan School District released data showing that Hmong-American children were lagging in academics. Ninety-three percent of Hmong-American children were not reading at grade level and 74% were performing below grade level in math.

Mai Zong Vue and Peng Her co-founded the program and function as its volunteer co-directors. They fashioned a summer curriculum that teaches Hmong children about their culture, history, and language through immersion.

The idea of the program is that it provides culturally relevant learning and a safe place for Hmong children to understand who they are, Her previously told The Capital Times. By building confidence, self-esteem, and cultural support, kids should be better equipped to tackle academics.

For the last three years, the program has been supported by the Wisconsin Arts Board. This year, the grant provided funds for Thao and Wacha Xiong to teach the kids about traditional Hmong instruments, music, and dance.

"One of the most important things we can do is both recognize the different cultures in the community and make sure theyíre vital," said George Tzougros, executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board, as well as introduce those traditions to the general community.

"If we donít keep our arts and music alive by teaching our kids, then there is a real fear that it will die or go away," Her said.

Her added that arts and music programs are generally the first things cut in tight school budgets, "so we want to do our part to keep those arts and music alive."

Exposing kids to Hmong music is meant to encourage some kids to become more serious about learning the instruments, Her said, and itís working so far.

Ani Xiong, 12, got interested in the qeej because she "thought it was a cool instrument to learn, and itís the most unique one I guess in the Hmong culture," she said.

Thao came to the program to teach the kids the qeej, which features six bamboo pipes and is played by inhaling and exhaling into a mouthpiece. Asked what western instrument it most resembles, Thao said he didnít think thereís a comparison that would do the qeej justice.

Qeej music isnít solely music, he said; the notes convey words. An article in the Hmong Studies Journal described it this way: "to the Hmong, the qeej is not an instrument designed to produce music; it is a bamboo voice that intones a highly stylized and ritualistic language."

Thaoís been learning the qeej for four years, giving up weekend time to attend practice, and probably knows 100 songs, which are performed from memory.

"Out of all the Hmong culture, traditions, and everything, this is the hardest to learn. Because you have to memorize everything," Thao said.

Luckily, participant Kashia Her, 13, was looking for a challenge.

"I like to do things most people wouldnít, and Michael, he said this was one of the hardest instruments to learn," Her said.

She plays the violin in school, but this is trickier, she said, especially as you often dance while playing.

"Violin, you would just sit down or stand, and just move only using your hands. But this you move around," she said.

Kids in the summer program are also introduced to the raj nplaim, a Hmong flute, and ncas, a jaw harp. All these instruments provide more than entertainment, Her said, theyíre used in Hmong cultural practice. The ncas is used for courtship, Her said.

"In the mountains of Laos, yelling across the valley is hard because your voices donít carry. The tone of the jaw harp is very loud, so that carries a long way," Her said. "Then, you know, ĎOh thereís a bachelorette in the valley over, and Iím going to go check her out.í"

The qeej is sacred and is used at funerals, and is meant to guide the deceasedís spirit in the afterlife.

"If this isnít here, then also the tradition of the funeral isnít complete," said Thao, who regularly plays at funerals.

Itís rewarding to teach the younger generation how to play, Thao said, because many donít know much about the Hmong culture.

"Itís really fun," Xiong said. "I feel like more people, like kids our generation, should try learning a Hmong instrument because not that many people play Hmong instruments."


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