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Gaosong V. Heu is a Hmong-American musician, actress, and storyteller trained in both western classical and Hmong music. She believes that music and stories are a great way to bring people from different cultures together, and that these differences are actually very beautiful. Her goal is to bridge the gap between western classical and Hmong music by celebrating the differences as well as the similarities.
Heu was born in Minnesota, but her parents came from Laos as refugees from the Vietnam War. The war actually involved many more countries in Southeast Asia than just Vietnam. Heu's parents had helped the Americans and that gave them their ticket, as it were, to a life in America. However Southeast Asia is not the original homeland of the Hmong. Centuries ago they actually lived in China, and one can discern Chinese influence in their language and in some aspects of their culture. When they lived in China, the Hmong people were prosperous until they opposed those in power, which led to enslavement by their Chinese overlords. The Chinese also took away the Hmong history books and forbade the use the Hmong language. So the Hmong had to resort to clever, secret ways to preserve their language and history in their clothing, story cloths, and music. As a result, the Hmong culture has many folk stories that have been passed down even throughout hard times. Because of this oppression, the Hmong migrated further and further south until they ended up in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam in the 1800's. However, due to refugees fleeing the Vietnam War, there are now Hmong all over the world, with one of the biggest populations being in the Twin Cities.
Because the Hmong have had to move around a lot throughout their history, nuances in their culture and language dialect are naturally based on geographic location. There are two dialects in the Hmong language: white and green. They both use the same words — so people from the white and green dialects can understand each other — but the tone of certain words is different. Whether one speaks the green or white dialect is based on geographical location, but the white dialect is generally more prevalent. Whilst the Hmong language is related to Chinese, the green dialect sounds a lot more like Chinese than the white dialect due to the tones.
Traditional Hmong clothing is also based on dialect and geography. The basic elements of a ladies outfit are a bodice with three-quarter length sleeves, a skirt, a belt, an apron in the front with a tail round the back, and a headdress. Heu speaks the white dialect so her skirt is plain white, but a skirt from the green dialect is more colourful and has more symbols on it. The belt, apron, and bodice always have colour, decoration and symbols. The many symbols in the fabric have different meanings and are another way that the Hmong could hide their language from the Chinese. The cut and fabric of Heu's outfit is in a modern style that is more typical for Hmong-Americans, but there are still pieces that are traditional. For instance, she has hundreds of "money" pieces that jangle off her dress. Actually some of them are Francs, as the French colonised Laos and Vietnam in the 1800s so there is still a strong French connection there. The more money a girl had on her dress, and the more details in the d écor showed her eligibility as a bride. The money was a symbol of a wealthy background, the details on a dress showed how hard of a worker she was, and the many layers made a women look larger showing that she could afford to eat well. A girl would essentially be wearing a symbol of the dowry that she could bring to her husband's family.
The Hmong did not only use clothing to preserve their history. Incredibly detailed embroidered tapestries called Story Cloths tell stories of the Hmong life throughout history. Subjects can be about daily life; agriculture has been and still is a major part of Hmong life so working in the fields is a popular topic. They can also cover major life events like weddings or historical events like the Vietnam War. For example, Heu's story cloth shows the Hmong people escaping from Laos by crossing the Mekong River into neutral Thailand. The Mekong is a very big and swift river and the crossing was incredibly dangerous for two reasons: the means of crossing was either by swimming, inner tubes, or rafts, and there were guards patrolling the shores so the crossing had to be made at night. Many Hmong braved this to escape the Vietnam War and find refuge in camps hoping to reach a new life in a different country. There are many story cloths out there that document different aspects of this terrible journey and life in the refugee camps.
Sewing, textile work, and fabric are obviously a massive part of the Hmong culture, but music has also been an essential part of cultural preservation for the Hmong. There are three purposes for making music in the Hmong culture: courting, rituals, and storytelling. Whether or not there is singing does not mean that there are not words and meaning being conveyed through the music. There is a poem behind all music even if it is instrumental because the Hmong language is very tonal. Each word naturally has a pitch. Therefore even a spoken phrase in Hmong has a melody and every musical phrase in an instrumental melody has a meaning behind it.
Nature has played a big role in the crafting of Hmong instruments. Heu's main instrument, the qeej (gulp in your throat and say "eng" at the same time and that's essentially the pronunciation), is a wind instrument made out of bamboo, but decorated with ribbons and jangles. When she dances whilst playing this instrument the combination of the qeej plus the percussion of the jangly bits and the stomping of her feet turns her into a one-woman band! Her dancing is fairly simple, but there are competitions where players do acrobatics whilst playing smaller qeejs (Something for her to aspire to). Up into the last few decades, the qeej was only played by men and is still not played by very many women; Heu is one of about ten women in America who plays the qeej. In fact, there are not many people who can even make the qeej anymore, so it is rather tricky to find one hence there are no longer very many players in general.
A lack of instrument makers, however, is not a problem for players of the banana leaf (well as long as one has access to a banana tree). It is just as you would imagine: a big leaf from a banana tree blown on the same way one would blow a piece of grass. It even makes the same squeaky sound. The banana leaf played a very important role in the Vietnam War. It was used to send coded messages across the mountains. The coded message was hidden in the musical phrase, the pitches of which would correlate to the tones that the spoken words would make.
Just as the banana leaf can be used to send codes, other instruments are used particularly for courting messages. The little jaw harp is one such instrument; a boy will speak the words of a love poem to a girl that he is interested in into the metal bit. It almost has a robotic sound that doesn't sound remotely romantic to Western ears, but it really is in Hmong culture. Here's a typical situation: a boy would walk through the jungle at night to visit his romantic interest's hut. He would then knock on her hut and play her the poem outside her wall (as of course it would be inappropriate to go inside). He couldn't do this during the day as he would be too busy farming. If the girl liked the song, then she would open a window and they would be able to talk through the night. If she didn't, she would tell him to go away and he would have to walk all the way home through the jungle. So it was really something to do only if you were pretty sure of a positive result since the jungle is full of dangerous animals. This courting ritual still happens in some rural areas of Asia where the Hmong people live, but in America texting and calling is the norm. This is another example of how the Hmong have adapted to their situation.
The Hmong people have had a lot to adapt to and survive through in their history. They've proved courageous and resilient, making the preservation of their heritage a priority, particularly through textiles and music. Heu's philosophy — that celebrating cultural similarities and differences is incredibly important — is the key to building community. In particular, music is a wonderful medium for this work as it is present in every culture. Whilst the sounds may be worlds apart, what is behind the music — the feelings and purposes — are something that everyone can understand. It helps us transcend our differences, and remember that we are all human and what a beautiful thing that is.