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 on Thursday morning, and Thao was responsible for teaching them to dance with and play the qeej. He’s one of two artists in residence for the summer program, tasked with helping pass traditional Hmong music on to the next generation.
“I’m glad I’m teaching kids this instrument, because if I don't 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 percent 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 Cap 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 they’re vital,” said George Tzougros, executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board, as well as introduce those traditions to the general community.
“If we don’t 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 it’s working so far.
Ani Xiong, 12, got interested in the qeej because she “thought it was a cool instrument to learn, and it’s 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 didn't think there’s a comparison that would do the qeej justice.
Qeej music isn’t 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.”
Thao’s 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 wouldn’t, 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, they’re 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 don’t carry. The tone of the jaw harp is very loud so that carries a long way,” Her said. “Then you know, ‘Oh there’s a bachelorette in the valley over, and I’m going to go check her out.”
The qeej is sacred and is used at funerals, and is meant to guide the deceased’s spirit in the afterlife.
“If this isn’t here, then also the tradition of the funeral isn’t complete,” said Thao, who regularly plays at funerals.
It’s rewarding to teach the younger generation how to play, Thao said, because many don't know much about the Hmong culture.
“It’s 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.”