All life is sound. For life is motion, and motion grows out of sound. Nature itself is full of sound, full of music. But the most remarkable things in life are not always easy to define - love, sadness, joy, imagination - like the Spirit of the Qeej. The qeej or khaene (pronounced roughly 'kling' and spelled qeej transliterated Hmong) is the most famous instrument in the Hmong culture. No other instrument in the world speaks like the qeej. It warms each heart and soothes each sadness; it leads the way when one seems lost. To study its uses takes a season, but to understand its meanings takes generations.
At first, I thought I would not be able to find enough information about the qeej to write my eight- to ten-page paper. I was thinking too shallow. I realize I cannot fit something that takes generations to understand onto even a thousand pages! The qeej has many functions in the Hmong culture. It is played during the New Year festivals, funeral ceremonies and other special occasions. The major dialects of the Hmong language (White, Green, and Black) are incorporated into the lyrics of the qeej. This bamboo and wooden mouth organ has been with the Hmong culture for generations. Its exact origin is unknown because the Hmongs had no written record then. While learning about this fascinating instrument, I hope to learn more about the Hmong culture, about their world view, and about myself.
WHAT I WANTED TO FIND OUT
I chose this topic primarily because I wanted to learn about the history, construction, purposes and symbolic significance of the qeej to my culture. The major focus of the paper is to explain the main roles of the qeej to the Hmong culture. These are the prime stretches that I undertook because knowledge of the qeej will influence how I view myself as an individual.
I am aware that my interpretations of the qeej do not necessarily reflect the interpretations or views of the Hmong people. My interpretations are based on primary sources and their experiences with the instrument. However, we must recognize that no single person can fully explain the complex purposes of this instrument.
To gather information about this topic, I went to several libraries (CSUC Mariam Library, Yuba County Library, Yuba College Library) and consulted articles and books on the Hmong, Chinese, and Lao cultures. I used the Internet to search for recent articles that are related to the Hmong culture and traditional customs, dance and music, arts and crafts, ceremonies and celebrations, and the Hmong qeej. In search to better understand the purposes of the qeej, I interviewed my father who is a qeej player, older story-tellers, and qeej masters and constructors. I interviewed elders with broad experiences and backgrounds who were from different clans and villages in Laos and Thailand. For example, qeej players (txiv qeej) Nhia Kao Lor who have lived in Long Chieng, Laos, Yia Her who came from Roob Dub or Black Mountain, Laos, and Chong Lor Xiong who have lived in Loung Phrabang Province, Laos. Because the qeej is used differently by various Hmong clans and villages, these qeej players provided me with a broader perspective and knowledge of the uses, history, and purpose of the instrument. Some of the information that I have consulted are from visual or oral presentations such as videos and cassettes. After many attempts, I could not find specific books on the qeej. Relying on my primarily sources, I have organized and used the most widely accepted facts and history about the qeej in this paper.
WHAT I DISCOVERED
The qeej is a bamboo and wooden mouth organ found throughout Eastern Asia. The qeej is "one of the oldest harmonic instruments in the world" (Falk 1998). Similar versions of this mouth organ have been found, some being first recorded in China about 1100 BC. For example, the Chinese sheng and its closely similar Japanese form sho are instruments that can be traced back 3,000 years. The sheng has the elegant shape resembling the legendary bird the phoenix. The sheng is different from the qeej in that it has 17 pipes, of which four dummy pipes serve to balance the instrument, rather than six. The sheng has a short mouth piece whereas the qeej has an arm-length wind chamber. Both instruments are made of bamboo pipes and produce sound through the free reeds that are made of brass tongues (Ardley 1989). "Sachs has truly described the harmony of the Laos mouth-organs as 'one of the most attractive musical styles in the Orient'" (Baines 1961). Other similar versions of this mouth organ are found throughout Southeast Asia, but none is more important to the Hmong than the qeej.
Although there are no published records, stories do exist about the origin of the qeej. There are many tales about the qeej but I decided to use one of the shorter, more commonly told stories. Most of the storytellers (also qeej masters) say that the qeej was given to the Hmong people by the god of the sky, Saub. The Hmong then learned the music and lyrics of the qeej from the dragon (Zaj) that ruled the land and sea. The qeej was first used to celebrate Hmong weddings. About this same period, the instrument was played for entertainment. Later, when Death and Evil came into the world, the Hmong went back to the dragon to learn the songs of spiritual healing and songs of death so that they could communicate and guide the lost souls to re-unite with their ancestors in the afterlife. This instrument is believed to have magical powers--the power to soothe, to mourn, to guide, to communicate, and to heal (Lor, Ger).
Much craftsmanship and patience is needed to construct this instrument. First a qeej maker must obtain the raw materials and proper tools. Strong, lasting wood is used to construct the intricate wind chamber (taub qeeg)  ([#] See Index for Qeej Measurements) that will serve as the body or "lungs" of the qeej. Five bamboo pipes (kav xyoob) of varying lengths but nearly same sizes and one other pipe of distinctly larger diameter are made hollow, soaked and then steamed. Before each pipe is gracefully bent into gentle curves, the qeej constructor carefully inserts each pipe through the wooden chamber, marks the appropriate distances for the thumb, index and middle fingers, and drills a small finger-hole  in the marked center of each pipe. Each pipe is then re-inserted through the tight openings of the wooden wind chamber that serves as a reservoir for the player's breath. Then the pipes are banded into a cluster with tough plastic (fasteners) strips (thi) .
From an overhead view of a typical-size, finished instrument, the first-top-right pipe  is the largest, but shortest of all six pipes. This pipe is usually about one-half the length of the longest pipe, the second-middle-left pipe . Each pipe contains a rectangular-shaped copper, free reed (nplaim)  with a carefully cut "V" shaped center that vibrates when the single small fingerhole on the pipe (ntiv) is covered. Because each piece of the qeej must be made from scratch and the sound quality can only be tested when all the pieces are fixed together, constructing a "good," resonating qeej may take months (Xiong, Nhia P.).
Although similar to the bagpipe and accordion in some respects, the qeej sounds quite different. "Each pipe has its own name, which is onomatopoeic as well as meaningful" (Falk). For example, the first pipe, ntiv luav (rabbit pipe), produces the highest pitch and sounds most obvious. The second pipe, ntiv laig, (conjuring pipe) is used in conjunction with the other pipes to communicate with the spirits of the ancestors and sets the drone (a deep monotonous sound). The names of most pipes rhyme with the sounds that they make. As the musician exhales or inhales into the mouthpiece of the wind chamber, the free reeds enclosed within it vibrate but do not produce clear sounds. Only when the player's fingers or thumbs cover the single hole in each pipe is the reed able to produce sounds through the bamboo pipes.
The sound is usually nasal, a kind of droning lament. The upper and lower pipes produce a drone, while the inner four pipes sound the notes which sing the lyrics of the funeral song. The drone itself can also be used rhythmically. Thus the qeej is capable of creating melody, rhythm and harmony simultaneously (Falk). This instrument can resonate (vibrate) all at once with all the pipes, with each pipe producing a different chord. The ntiv luav sounds most obvious, but it is possible to recognize each separate pipe even when they are all sounding at the same time. There is no single, most important pipe, however, because the lyrics require all of the six pipes. The tones are used in Hmong songs to simulate the levels of tone in the spoken Hmong language, so word messages can be communicated by the qeej without singing.
According to the majority of elders that I interviewed, the qeej was first used for the purpose of celebrating Hmong weddings. It might have been used for this special ceremony because the rich harmonious melody, rhythm and tone of most Hmong musical instruments are combined into the qeej. A long time ago the qeej was used during weddings to bring joy and happiness to the lucky couples. It may have "sung" songs that helped guided the couple's new life together or blessed them with a prosperous future. The qeej was also played during other celebrations such as the birth of a couple's first new born child. These roles of the qeej were gradually abandoned when the Hmongs started to use the instrument in funerals. Grief and love are not compatible. The qeej is no longer used in celebrations because its appearance became more common in ritual ceremonies. Another reason for the lost of this role is probably because weddings are now coordinated by vocalists rather than instrumentalists. Moreover, since qeej players became too hard to find or the original wedding songs were lost after many generations, the Hmong decided to use vocalists because of ease (Lor, Nhia K.).
The qeej is also used to entertain. For example, during the New Year festival, individuals are dressed in traditional Hmong clothes, wearing elaborate silver necklaces and exquisite embroidery with silver coins attached which tinkle as he or she performs on stage, to demonstrate his or her acrobatic movements. Contests are held to see which player can perform the greatest feats - turns, twists, spins, somersaults - while maintaining the clear texts and precise melodies of the qeej. These lucky qeej players may win a lady's heart because they know the right dances and the "sweet" words ("sweet" as in poetic and figurative language). Sometimes the sound can be comforting, strange, soothing, cold, depressing, sad or sorrowful. However, one does not need to know or even understand what the qeej is saying to like its music; depending on the situation, one can hear whatever he or she wishes to hear. I am astounded by the complex, moving sounds that the instrument makes.
A sound qeej player is respected by many people around him because of the help he provides during a time of grief--not because of how well he plays. The elders view showing off one's musical skills as immature. It is not appropriate to play ritual songs during any occasion other than a ritual ceremony. Moreover, any song of sorrow is inappropriate during the New Year festival. On the other hand, demonstrating one's acrobatic skills is encouraged. The melodies and songs during playful performances, however, are not connected with any of the funeral melodies and songs. A song about one's orphanage is sometimes allowed to be played during a new year. Most songs played during the this event are about love and friendship, stories of the Hmong people or their prosperity. The main purposes for these performances are to entertain and display the player's agility.
The most important function of the qeej for the Hmong is during the funeral ceremony when it is played continuously for a number of days depending on the departed person's age, wealth or prestige. Usually a funeral may last three to four days. The Hmongs view the qeej as a necessary tool for this ceremony because without it, the soul of the deceased cannot return to the ancestors. During such an event, the qeej is the instrument for communication between the soul of the deceased and the musicians. No other instrument accompanies the qeej during this ceremony except a large barrel-shaped drum. The drum player must recognize the start, chorus and ending melodies of the qeej so that he can perform his task. The mandatory dance performance during this event is significant. For instance, the qeej player executes many circles, turns or spins to confuse evil spirits that may try to prevent the soul of the deceased from joining his ancestors (Xiong, Chue).
During a funeral, one or two appointed qeej players play three times a day. For example, they play before meals, to invite the soul of the deceased to eat before the assembled mourners eat. Musical phrases telling the time of day, that is, dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, night, and midnight, precede each song. Because most songs are repeated several times with only minor changes in the chorus or melody, a single "complete" song may last from 30 minutes to two hours. Repetition of the songs allows the qeej players to play continuously for long hours, day and night, during the three to four days. The qeej player plays for long hours because otherwise the mourners will have little to watch and get bored (Xiong, Nhia P.).
The qeej guides and offers directions to assist the spirit on its continued journey to the after-world and back to earth again. For instance, he advises the soul that special shoes of bamboo and hemp must be worn in one region because hundreds of insects would otherwise attack the soul's feet (Catlin 15-16, 1986). The Hmong people believe that when a body passes away the soul does not know what to do or where to go, so it must wait the musicians' instructions. "If the soul tries to go its own way without waiting, the journey will be rough and it will run into dangerous traps. The soul must listen carefully and follow the musicians' instructions exactly or it will end up dying again and never reach the ancestors and be reincarnated" (Xiong, Chong L.).
Along with and after the funeral ceremonies, the qeej is used for a ceremony called "releasing-of-the-spirit" (tso plig), in which the musicians invite the departed soul back to his homeland to join him at a feast for the last time. This ceremony may take place several years or several months, usually at least or after 13 days, after the funeral. In this ceremony a cow is sacrificed so that the soul may finally join its ancestors and take with it all the sickness that the family or relatives it leaves behind may face in the future. Again, the soul must wait for instructions from the qeej player during its last, dangerous journey to the afterlife.
Changing Role of Qeej
The role of the qeej and qeej player has changed slightly as the Hmong people migrated from China to Laos, to Thailand, to the United States, and to other parts of the world. The majority of elders whom I interviewed were born in Laos. Because most of the Hmong lived in Laos and kept connections with their friends and relatives during their migration from Laos to Thailand, there was not a major change in the role of the qeej or qeej player. Since many Hmongs have resettled in the United States and other foreign nations, we began to see some major changes, not only in the language but in religion. Because of the diversity of religions, some Hmongs have preferred the Christianity way of organizing a funeral ceremony over the traditional way where the qeej is used and incenses are burned. Moreover, in the U.S., single, young ladies are seen performing in groups with the qeej. Whether or not ladies, if they want to, will be allowed to play during religious ceremonies remains a silent question.
In past years, the number of qeej players has increased because more youths are learning to play and perform with the qeej. Qeej teachers are found in the bigger cities of California such as Fresno and Sacramento. Qeej players are not uncommon in other cities and states, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, where groups of Hmong have settled. Young boys are seen accompanying their father, who is a qeej player and masters, during funerals. Sometimes they help beat the drum or play the qeej.
The sound of the qeej is harmoniously pleasant yet esoterically strange. I did not realize the complex fingering and melodies of the qeej until I experienced it with my own lips, fingers and ears. Because there are no written musical notes or cords for qeej songs, one must rely on one's memory. Yia Her commented, "Learning to play the qeej takes a long time because the musical words do not always sound the same as the spoken words." I learned that in order to "speak" clearly with the qeej, one must know both when to inhale or exhale and the appropriate tones; simultaneously, they must recite from memory the text of the songs and the rhythmic melodies of the chorus.
I discovered, from doing my research, that learning the chorus of a song is more difficult than learning the lyrics, because the fingering patterns (multiple notes and chords) are harder to follow and memorize. Although the choruses are more difficult to learn, they are essential to the ritual songs. The choruses not only serve to distinguish between beginnings and endings of songs, but also as "resting cushions" to relax or lessen the player's tired lungs after long moments of play. One important fact we should realize and understand is that the qeej is not like a guitar or most other instruments where all of the same songs are played exactly the same way (or uses the same chords) by all players. This is because different qeej masters have their own "chords" that they see it best fit the lyrics.
The qeej plays a very important role in the Hmong culture. It is used not only as a musical instrument to entertain and revive but also as a tool to communicate with the soul of the deceased. It calms when one is frightened; it soothes when one is saddened; it leads the way when one is lost. Knowing more about the Hmong culture and language will enable one to better understand this complex instrument. Even then, one cannot fully explain its meanings.
Although many people strive to become qeej players and performers, only those who willingly set and focus their mind on this challenging task will become true qeej players. Generally, one is recognized as a true qeej player when he can direct, play and perform in the funeral ceremony. Like learning a completely new language, it may take years of practice before a beginner becomes a "true" qeej player. An elder story-teller, who is a qeej master, says that one has mastered the qeej when he can blow flames of fire out of the bamboo pipes and unearth giant poles with the tips of the neat pipes.
I have gathered such information about the qeej because I feel that it is of great importance for today's generation to learn and maintain our Hmong custom and identity. Knowledge of the qeej and its purposes will allow one to see more clearly what it means to be Hmong: a group of people with unique talents and special values and beliefs. If we want tomorrow's generation to remember us, we must remember our heritage. When we can understand the views of our culture, we can better relate to other cultures and be able to accept our uniqueness and realize our similarities. However we may change, either good or bad, others will still consider us Hmong. It is easy to change our appearance, but impossible to change our past, our legacy.
Rab Qeej Hmoob
Gayle Morrison 1997
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