Traditional folk arts boost health

By Clare Noonan, California Health Report

On a beautiful winter Sunday, the street in front of Merced Lao Family Community Inc. was full of wondrous sound. Atonal yet haunting tunes were coming from the curved reeds of the qeej (pronounced “kang”) played by 25 boys and young men of Hmong ancestry.

They are students of Ber Xiong, a master of the instrument that is an integral part of Hmong funerals. Four qeej are played at a funeral, he explained, and because services last two to three days, multiple musicians are needed.

But Xiong said that these young men are learning much more than the music that’s intrinsic to Laos, the homeland of their parents. He said they are learning how to speak Hmong, how to communicate with their parents and family members, the
importance of doing well in school and avoiding drugs.

“The kids in this class are learning more about language and culture,” Xiong said. “The Hmong have to have a culture to say, ‘We are Hmong.’ ”

Amy Kitchener has long believed that there is a strong link between staying in touch with one’s native culture and physical and emotional health. She heads the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, a Fresno‐based nonprofit that supports ethnic and folkloric arts and artists.

“The practicing of traditions in general are a part of community health,” she said, but “try proving it.”

To do just that, the alliance commissioned a study of its programs by the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities and Asian American Center on Disparities Research. The findings, published recently by the nonprofit, showed that participants in such ethnic arts as Haitian dance and drum, making Filipino lanterns and Native American bows experienced improved self‐esteem and physical and emotional health.

“The practice of folklore in any community is what keeps the people together,” said Kitchener. Practicing ethnic arts provides “what you need to do to be a whole person,” she continued, by connecting with ancestors and tradition.

Suelong Yang, 19, needs no convincing of the powerful effects of practicing native arts. He traveled 45 minutes from his home in Modesto to the qeej class, which he’s attended for 10 years.

He ticked off the benefits of playing the qeej. “I get relaxation, family, health, friends. Respect from my parents and other people.”

A self‐described “decent” player, Yang put the instrument to his lips, sending out a mournful tune about a man with no male relatives who wishes his life had turned out differently.

Even at his young age, Yang has his own regrets about his involvement in the Hmong culture. “I feel kind of sad; I started late. I don’t speak fluently,” he said.

His peers often can’t speak the language of their ancestors. “They don’t know where they came from,” Yang said.

The disconnect between American Hmong youth and the older generation is problematic, said Houa Vang, executive director of the Merced Lao Family Community. “A lot of our youth are getting a loss of culture and don’t have a connection with their parents and have a lot of conflict.”

In the qeej classes, the young men “learn how to respect people, work together,” Vang said. “They’re happy. When they learn things adults go to them and ask for help with funerals.”

Kevin Lor, 16, is just learning to play the qeej. He got the idea to begin when he attended the funeral of a Merced High School freshman last year. In the Hmong culture, only males play the instrument at services.

“I wanted to keep the culture,” Lor said. “Sooner or later you have your own kids. They say, ‘Why do we do this?’ We can go back and find our history and it’s more fun when you learn with others. Keeping our language is important, too.”

Merced High offers Hmong classes and Lor, a junior, is in his second year of study. The first year concentrates on language while the second focuses on Hmong history and culture.

Lor’s cousin Tony Lor is one of Xiong’s two assistants. He’s been playing the qeej for 17 years. “If I did not learn about this,” he said, “I would not care” about Hmong culture. He added that had it not been for the class he might have hung out with the
“wrong people.”

Xiong acknowledged that young men who are in gangs have come to the class. But when alarmed parents protested, he asked them to let him handle it in his own way. He spoke of a 15‐year‐old who “came here one or two times and then I start talking to him about how you dress.”

Xiong said he would ask the teen privately, “Hey, you think you can change that?”

Seven years later, the troubled youth is married and a dad and leading a good life, Xiong said. “I change many kids coming here to be good kids.”

The alliance’s Kitchener praised Xiong, who has been teaching the qeej classes for 11 years.

“He’s devised new systems for teaching kids, notations and fingering to learn the repertoire,” she said. “Hmong was only transliterated in the ‘50s,” she added, noting its “longtime oral tradition.”

“It’s so inventive and fascinating how the tradition has been adapted,” Kitchener said. “The young people who get good enough are actually performing at funerals. They get paid and it’s a big responsibility.”

It’s hard to believe, though, that the prospect of making money alone could bring a large group of young men week after week, year after year, to learn how to play a Hmong instrument. As assistant teacher Lor pointed out, some weeks the class
attracts as many as 60 budding musicians.

Kitchener is convinced that learning and practicing a native art connects people and makes them feel healthier. “There’s been a recognition of factors that are bigger than just the absence of disease or sickness.”

“Every time we make a site visit, people talk about making a community,” she said, “being a whole person. Those are health outcomes.”

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