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Hmongs keep past present; Ancient culture lives in music classes

BY: Megan Lindow; Megan Lindow is a Union-Tribune intern., August 6, 2000, Sunday

Tou Fang and his father stood side by side, blowing into their wood and bamboo pipes and filling the courtyard of the public library with the slow, mournful notes of a funeral song.

As they played, the father and son took measured steps, turning slowly in circles, making graceful bowing and stooping motions.

When Nou Yia Fang, Tou's father, was 12, his father paid his grandfather two silver balls, the currency of his Hmong village in Laos, to teach the youngster to play the qeej, an ancient, harmonic instrument played in Hmong funerals and ceremonies.

Now, almost 60 years later, and half a world away, Fang is passing on the tradition by teaching Hmong children in Linda Vista, including his own sons, to play the qeej (pronounced "klang").

They practice on weekend mornings at the Linda Vista branch of the San Diego Public Library.

The qeej program is sponsored by a partnership between the library and the Bayside Settlement House, an organization that serves immigrant communities such as the Hmong, who are concentrated in Linda Vista.

The qeej sounds like a cross between a harmonica and an accordion, although it also gives off clear, single notes.

The song practiced by the elder Fang and his son on a recent Saturday morning would be played just before dawn at a Hmong funeral.  Like each song, this one tells a tale: God has just created the sun and the moon, the folk tale goes, but the sun does not want to rise yet, so God sends the rooster to ask it to come out.

As is the case with many Hmong people in America, the elder Fang is a refugee of war.  The mountain-dwelling Hmong people in Laos collaborated with the Americans during the Vietnam War, and many were forced to flee when communists took over the government in 1975.

Although thousands of Hmong refugees arrived in San Diego County after the war, volunteers at the Bayside Settlement House estimate that the Hmong population has dropped to between 1,500 and 2,000 in recent years because of the high cost of living in San Diego.

The refugees' children have grown up drinking Coke and playing video games, instead of tending pigs and cows in the mountain villages, but the tunes the youngsters learn at the library on weekend mornings have become a bridge to a country where they have never set foot.

"This is my culture, and I want to keep it alive," said Ger Fang, 13, Tou's younger brother.  "It's in danger of going away.  Not a lot of people are learning this now."

Tou Fang, a 14-year-old sophomore at Kearny High School, first picked up the qeej when he was about 5, blowing into it and walking in circles in imitation of his father.  Ger, about to start eighth grade at Montgomery Junior High School, soon also picked up the qeej and began to play.

Now the youngest children in the class, ages 5 and 7, do the same, blowing into miniature versions of the wood and bamboo instruments, producing what sounds like a noisy orchestra of car horns, and spinning around in circles until they get dizzy.

As the children learn the different notes, tunes and steps, they also learn the meanings behind the music.

Every note played on the qeej translates into a word and is also accompanied by a specific motion or step.  The tunes are intended to communicate with the dead, guiding them through the funeral process, telling them when to eat and when to go to the cemetery, and wishing them well in their next lives.

Hmong funerals can last several days, depending on the importance of the dead person.  It takes years of practice to become good enough to play in a funeral, Tou said.

"Sometimes it's just too hard, and you get tired of it -- but once you start you can't stop," said Tou's friend Tou Lia Her, 15, who started playing almost five years ago, after seeing the qeej played in movies.

Because he is known as a master of the qeej, the elder Fang is often invited to play in local Hmong funerals.  Tou sometimes accompanies him to study the complicated tunes and footwork, and to help play during certain parts of the ceremony.  He is not allowed to play some of the tunes yet, because he is too young.

Tou says he sometimes feels a heavy sense of responsibility because, as one of the few Hmong youngsters learning the qeej, the instrument's future in the United States rests with people like him.

Like some of the other teens studying the qeej, Fang says he feels half American and half Hmong.

He speaks Hmong at home with his family and English at school.  His school friends are Hispanic, Vietnamese, Chinese and Hmong.  And when he isn't busy with schoolwork or the qeej, he is busy planning dances and other events a president of the Linda Vista Teen Center.

"If it weren't for my culture, I wouldn't have to learn so many things at the same time, but it's still nice to learn it," he said.

The elder Fang said he is happy that his children are playing the qeej. Although it is important to adjust to life in America, he said through a translator, playing the instrument is a tradition that is uniquely Hmong, and he would like to keep it alive.

Until recently, the Hmong had no written language.  Knowledge of the qeej has been passed down from generation to generation, and it is thought to be one of the oldest harmonic instruments in the world.  The Hmong believe it has magical powers to soothe, to mourn, to guide, to communicate and to heal.

And now, for the older generation so far from their homeland, it is one of the few reminders of the world they left behind. GRAPHIC: 4 PICS; 1,3. Sherrlyn Borkgren / Union-Tribune 2,4. Nelvin Cepeda / Union-Tribune; 1. Youngsters Pao Yang and Tou Fang practiced playing the wood-and-bamboo-piped qeej -- a traditional instrument from the Hmong culture -- on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Linda Vista branch of the San Diego Public Library. 2. Nou Yia Fang with his qeej in hand. In Laos, his father taught him to play it; 60 years later, and half a world away, he teaches his sons. 3. Youngsters Tou Fang and Pao Yang literally compared notes emitted by their instruments during a recent practice session at the Linda Vista library. (B-6) 4. Teacher Nou Yia Fang gave his students a demonstration of how to get the most in the way of slow, mournful funeral tones out of the ancient Hmong instrument.