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Hmong Songs of Memory: Traditional Secular and Sacred Hmong Music (Review)

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Victoria Vorreiter. 2016.
Hmong Songs of Memory: Traditional Secular and Sacred Hmong Music
Thailand: Resonance Press
ISBN 9780998123905

In Hmong Songs of Memory: Traditional Secular and Sacred Hmong Music Victoria Vorreiter presents a survey of Hmong traditional music in northern Laos and Thailand. Comprised of an illustrated book and 75-minute ethnographic film, the volume provides detailed accounts of several important traditional music practices by elderly Hmong culture bearers. This volume follows on from Vorreiter’s previous book, Songs of Memory: Traditional Music of the Golden Triangle (Thailand: Resonance Press, 2009), by focusing exclusively on the traditional music cultures of marginalised minorities in upland Southeast Asia.

Language is central to Hmong traditional music and folklore. Although not a fluent speaker of Hmong, Vorreiter’s research was supported by an impressive team of Hmong guides, linguistics and academics in Southeast Asia and the United States. This team helps to legitimise the process of cultural translation and reduce the potential for misinterpretation. Their contributions are evinced in the extensive song transcriptions and translations, which highlight agrarian associations with the natural landscape and the spiritual world. One notable feature of these texts is the use of bird imagery in kwv txhiaj vocal recitation, which Vorreiter illustrates with photographs of each of the birds.

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of this book is its illustrations and audiovisual resources. High-quality photographs portray the Hmong dressed in traditional textiles; other images illustrate the plethora of tangible cultural artefacts that remain important to Hmong throughout Southeast Asia, albeit increasingly in symbolic form. The accompanying ethnographic film (ISBN 9780998123912) also offers a rich introduction to Hmong traditional music and dance, which is made accessible to a bilingual audience through the inclusion of subtitles in both Hmong and English. The footage covers secular and sacred practices, including shamanic rituals and a qeej mouthorgan and drum funeral performance – curiously, following a trend that emerged among Hmong refugees in the United States, the qeej is constructed using durable synthetic materials rather than from the traditional materials of bamboo and mahogany.

Vorreiter’s explicit goal for Hmong Songs of Memory is for the collection to ‘serve as an inheritance for the Hmong and for humanity’ (p. 4). When considered alongside her website (www.tribalmusicasia.com) and previous publications, we learn that they were ‘created with the intention of supporting and preserving the age-old traditions and wisdom of these tribal cultures’ (p. 269). Her uncritical orientalist framing of these texts is problematic. By recording only traditional cultural practices, many related features of daily life are edited out of the compilation. Furthermore, several of the filmed excerpts appear staged for the purpose of the videographer rather than as examples recorded in context. This approach leaves no suggestion that Hmong traditions may exist alongside, and perhaps as an important antidote to, modern ways of living and engaging with the wider world. These criticisms aside, the collection adds musical depth to Gary Yia Lee and Nicholas Tapp’s Culture and Customs of the Hmong (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2010). Vorreiter has inscribed valuable elements of these traditional practices in an accessible way that should be valuable to future generations of Hmong if they are made accessible to the relevant people.

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