The Music of the Hmong in Australia

By: Dr. Catherine Falk

C O N T E N T :

1. Backgound
2. The funeral ritual - Kev Pam Tuag
3. Music of Courtship
4. Extemporised Singing - Kwv Txhiaj
5. The Future


Currently there are approximately 1300 Hmong people living in Australia (1), constituting one of the smallest resettled groups in the country. Australian Hmong are all originally from Laos and belong overwhelmingly to the White Hmong (Hmoob Ndawb) group, there being only three Green (Blue) Hmong (Hmoob Njua) families who nevertheless speak the White Hmong dialect. The vanguard arrived in 1968, when seven educated Hmong men came under the Colombo plan to undertake tertiary study in anthropology, medicine, economics, pathology, accounting and theology. They sponsored their relatives, the first refugee Hmong intake to Australia in and after 1975 following the victory of the Pathet Lao, who labelled non-communist Hmong as CIA mercenaries.

The Hmong community in Australia is situated predominantly in the large cities along the east coast of the country with some 350 people in Hobart, 410 in Melbourne, 280 in Sydney and 30 in Canberra. Following traditional patterns of frequent migration, a group of about 11 families relocated from the southern states to Brisbane and Cairns in Queensland where they now number about 250. The reason for this move was a preference for the northerly tropical climate, where most of the families now engage in banana farming. In 1982 the Catholic Church sponsored 42 refugees of the Yang clan and resettled them in Whyalla, an industrial city in South Australia. They were subsequently brought to Melbourne by the Hmong community and continue to embrace Hmong beliefs and ritual practices.

At present the Thao, Lee, Vue, Chang, Hang, Moua, Her, Lor, Pao, Yang and Vang clans form the basis of the Hmong people in Australia. The major clans are the Yang, Vang, Lee and Thao. They continue to sponsor their relatives from the refugee camps in northern Thailand under the Community Refugee Resettlement Scheme.

For a small group the Hmong community has achieved a relatively high profile in Australia. There are frequent photos of Hmong in traditional dress in both the local and national newspapers. For example, the Melbourne Times of March 31 1993 contained a photo of a Hmong girl in full traditional dress standing in front of her school. The caption reads " Future artist? Eight-year old Mee Yang was off to a good start this week, winning a $300 prize for her 'Shop Smart' poster in the Office of Fair Trading competition. Mee, a member of the Hmong community, arrived in Australia with her family just two years ago". Hmong handicrafts are also a popular consumer item, retailed at local markets and through frequent 'Hmong Cultural Exhibitions'. The proceeds are sent to Hmong relatives in the camps in northern Thailand, especially Ban Vinai camp.

The Hmong in Australia face many of the same problems as the Hmong in the United States, which have been well documented (2) . Unlike American Hmong, however, most Hmong in Australia have not been dependent on church sponsorship for resettlement and have not been under pressure to convert to Christianity. To a large extent, but with many legal and cultural restrictions, the Hmong in Australia have been able to maintain their most important traditions, including shamanic healing and divinatory ritual, funeral ritual, marriage negotiations and New Year celebrations. Two of the main difficulties they face in Australia are the small size of the community and its relative youthfulness. Being clan- exogamous, they have accepted that young people will inevitably have to enter into marriage with non-Hmong, most frequently with Laotian Australians. In addition, because of the small number of ritual practitioners, funeral ceremonies and marriage negotiations cannot always observe clan-specific requirements.

In 1978 the Hmong-Australia Support Society was formed. It aimed to transcend clan boundaries, proposing that Hmong refugees assist one another on the basis of a common ethnic background. One of the most successful activities of the Society was its Cultural Program Lobby with the Federal Government in 1986. New criteria were accepted for a special intake of Hmong from the camps . Those criteria included knowledge of the funeral ritual texts, both chanted and performed on the bamboo pipes (qeej or khaen) (3) , the ability to call souls and generally to be a cultural leader - a person skilled in the traditional mechanisms for providing resolution in times of crisis. As a result of this Lobby most Hmong communities in Australia now have a cultural leader (4) , at least one pipe player (5), a number of shamans (6) and a marriage celebrant.( 7)

Traditionally the vocal and instrumental repertoires of the Hmong have consisted of a relatively stable ritual repertoire for funerals and marriage arrangements and a relatively spontaneously created song and instrumental repertoire for courtship and for the expression of strong personal emotions in the form of improvised songs. The state of these repertoires in Australia is described below.

The funeral ritual - Kev Pam Tuag

Death is traditionally the most important ritual time for the Hmong. An elaborate three-day ceremony is required in order to give the soul of the deceased detailed instructions for its journey to the world of the ancestors (8). The instructions are first chanted in the Qhuab Kev or "Showing the Way" which must be performed as soon as possible after death. Following this a lengthy section is played on the qeej,called Qeej Tu Siav or "Song of Expiring Life" which in turn is divided into many subsections which are interspersed with qeej performance to accompany meals.

The recitation of the Qhuab Kev as recorded by Seng Thao of Melbourne and Nao Lue Lee of Sydney shows the use of scales of 4 pitches which are related to speech tones and a flexible rhythm governed by word rhythms with one note per syllable.

The Hmong in Australia do not regard either of these two sections of the funeral ceremony as music ( Kwv Txiaj ). Rather, they are a set of instructions. The rendition of these recited and played texts at the time of death is central to being Hmong. Without it the soul cannot return to the realm of the ancestors or be reborn into the correct clan. Indeed the bamboo pipes are emblematic of the Hmong both to the community itself and to the mainstream community. 'Multicultural' events staged in Australia frequently feature a qeej player in full traditional dress. A Hmong anecdote tells how a young boy who had recently arrived in Australia was asked to describe his reactions to the new country. He drew a picture of a kangaroo playing the qeej against a background of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

In Australia the Hmong lacked ritual practitioners until the Cultural Lobby described above. However, there is a very real fear that when these experts die the tradition will be lost. The demands of schooling and employment coupled with a perceived lack of motivation or interest amongst the younger generation preempt training. The instrument and its texts can no longer be learned on the way to and from the fields and because the funeral texts are very powerful they must not be performed inside a private dwelling in case a living soul be sent inadvertently to the home of the ancestors. In Australia this ritual must be discussed and learned in a public park or in buildings which are not private dwellings. Away from the rhythms of traditional agricultural life a special effort must be made to arrange a time and a place for the oral transmission of the funeral texts.

Australian laws and customs have also led to changes in the conduct and the text of the ceremony. For example Federal law allows for the unrefrigerated storage of a corpse for up to eight hours. The three day ceremony has had to be telescoped into this time scale. Further, animal sacrifice has had to be limited to chickens without the traditional inclusion of a sacrificial ox or buffalo at the end of the ceremony when the corpse is escorted to the gravesite. There is no choice of burial site, which was traditionally determined by geomantic conventions. Domestic architecture and floor plans are frequently referred to in the texts. These references have been adjusted to suit different conditions - for example a brick veneer house in the outer western suburbs of Sydney or a high rise housing commission flat in inner city Melbourne. In the case of accidental death, Australian law requires an autopsy. This is not understood by most Hmong and is very distressing to them both because the Qhuab Kev should be recited to the soul of the deceased as soon as possible after death and because of the fear that foreign materials such as metal or plastic have been sewn into the corpse. This would impede the rebirth of the soul. This problem became evident in September 1992, when autopsies were performed on three youths who were drowned in a canoeing accident (9) . During the ceremony the soul is instructed to pick up its 'shawl' -that is, its placenta, which is buried beneatth the family house after birth. This instruction will probably be omitted from the ceremony in Australia in the future, as many Hmong women now give birth in hospital and do not take the placenta home for burial. In any event, the construction of houses in Australia generally makes this difficult,. It is impossible for people who live in flats.

Resettlement in Australia has also given rise to a problem of geographical distance from the realm of the ancestors in southern China. A leader of the Hmong community, Dr Pao Saykao, has suggested that the text might eventually be altered to include instructions to the soul of the deceased guiding it onto a Qantas plane so that it can be transported to the southeast Asian mainland from where the journey to the land of the ancestors can begin.

There is a concentration of qeej players in Melbourne. When a death occurs interstate - as in the case of the drownings in Sydney - the players and many of the community travel overnight by bus to the home of the deceased. Because of employment commitments most funerals take place between Friday and Sunday evenings.

Music of Courtship

There is no general term for this, but traditionally when young men visited the village after work, "going out", they called it Mus Yos Hluas Nkauj - a 'time to meet with the girls'.

The soft sounding jaw's harp (nja) and the free reed pipe (cha mblay) traditionally used by lovers to communicate in privacy and in coded text between the thatched walls of village huts have no place in the lives of the Australian Hmong youth. The telephone (and now email and IRC) fulfils the function of these instruments adequately.

On the other hand young Hmong are avid consumers of cassettes of Laotian popular music both from Laos and from Hmong and Laotian bands in the United States and France. The songs on these cassettes are almost invariably love songs, called Nkauj - a new term for song to distinguish the genre from the traditional chanting and singing, Kwv Txiaj. There are currently two rock bands in Melbourne. The musicians are self taught on drumkit, keyboard and guitar and reproduce American Hmong, Laotian, Thai and Chinese rock songs. They are not active in composing for themselves. One band previously called "The Boomerang Band" and now called "Deja Vu" arranged a tour of Hmong communities in the United States in 1991. They were unfortunately turned away in Hawaii because of visa problems, but proceeded to perform for Hmong communities including many of their kin in France and Canada. "Deja Vu" and the other rock band "Neej Tshiab Band" ("New Life Band") perform at Hmong wedding receptions, fund raising activities and New Year celebrations. They also engage in a "Battle of the Bands " competition with the four Laotian rock bands in Melbourne, the "Mekong Band", "Saythara", "7-up" and the "Wodonga-Albury Band".

New Year celebrations are also traditionally a time of intense courtship and result in many marriages. Adolescent boys and girls face one another in a row singing extemporised songs in couplets in an ever-intensifying competition to substitute witty alternative rhyming song line endings. In Australia this tradition continues, taking its place alongside the rock bands, the traditional costume fashion parade, speeches and Laotian and Hmong dances which are to be found at New Year celebrations.

The young Hmong in Victoria also established a Hmong Youth Club in 1990. Its functions are described in its inaugural brochure as follows: "Although only a small community in Victoria, the Hmong are a close knit one who seek to mutually help and care for each other. The Hmong Youth Club ... seeks to bridge the generations from providing interpreters for the community's elderly, to tutors for children whose education has suffered from lack of opportunities in refugee camps. The club runs tutorial classes in English and maths at the Health Centre every Friday night... The club also seeks to preserve and promote Hmong cultural heritage".

Extetemporised Solo Singing - Kwv Txiaj

This repertoire belongs mainly to the elderly of the Hmong community, who rarely speak English and who do not read or write the Hmong language. The songs are fundamentally an expression of loneliness and estrangement from the traditional natural and social environment. The songs are recorded on cassette and sent to relatives in Laos, in the refugee camps, and in France and the United States. Poetic language in song not only provides people with a vehicle to express emotions which they would be too shy to speak or write; it also provided a mechanism for bypassing the censorship of letters by the Communist regime in Laos, especially between 1975 and 1980. Women in particular use this genre, especially after the prohibition on singing after marriage is removed when they become widows. Song words have changed to reflect the resettled context - for example there are references to 'yellow hair', (people with fair hair), to 'crows' (aeroplanes) and to ' night stars" (electricity).

The Future

The spokesmen for and leaders of the Hmong community in Australia are the educated men, now in their forties, who initially came to the country for tertiary study (10) . They are articulate and literate in both English and Hmong but themselves have no real knowledge of the performance of the funeral texts, the conduct of marriage negotiations or the use of courtship instruments. For this reason and in order to bring ritual expertise to the Australian Hmong community they instigated the Cultural Program Lobby. They are now concerned to document all the sections of the funeral ritual in audio and video recordings with transliterated and translated texts and musical transcription which includes the combinations of the pipes of the qeej which are used for each word of the funeral text. Two versions of the complete ritual have been recorded and subjected to this process. One version was performed by seventy-year old shaman Nao Lue Lee, who comes from Nong Het in northeastern Laos, and the other by thirty- two year old Seng Thao, who comes from Luang Prabhang in central Laos. It is anticipated that these fixed versions of the oral tradition will provide a basis for the education of the next generation when it matures sufficiently to take an interest in its cultural heritage. The maintenance of the funeral ritual, even if not clan-specific, not transmitted orally and somewhat modified for the Australian context is one of the central concerns of the Hmong in Australia.


Falk Catherine 'The Hmong in Melbourne' Tirra Lirra 4 (2) 1993:3-43
Falk Catherine 'The Hmong: Music and Ritual' Tirra Lirra 4 (3) 1993:9-13
Falk Catherine 'Roots and Crowns. The Funeral Ritual of the Hmong in Australia' Tirra Lirra 4 (4) 1994: 9-13

1 Statistics in this entry are estimates made by the Hmong community. The 1991 census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics did not include an ancestry question, nor was Hmong coded as a language. Thus the Australian Hmong are concealed amongst the statistics for Laotian migrants in this census.

2 See for example Downing BT and DP Olney eds The Hmong in the West Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Southeast Asian Refugee Studies Project, 1982 and Hendricks GI, B Downing and A Deinard eds The Hmong in Transition New York: University of Minnesota, 1986

3 For a description of the construction of this instrument and the relationship between vocal tones and musical pitch realised in its polyphonic emissions see Schworer Kohl G "Uber den Begriff NTIV in der Musikterminologie der Hmong in Nordthailand und Laos" in Jahrbuch fur Musikalische Volks-und Volkerkunde 14:68-83, 1982

4 Including Sai Her Thao, Paj Kaub Vang, Vue Thaow, Lau Ly,Nao Lue Lee and Ge Vue

5 Including Seng Thao, Chue Kee Thao, Vangmoua, Boua Pao Vang, Doua Thao and Charton Lee

6 Including Cha Koua Vang, Txawj Nchaiv Vang, Va Neng Vang, Xio Ze Hang, Geu Vang , Neng Chue Thao and a female shaman, Xyo Ly

7 Including Vue Thao and Xia Ze Hang

8 For detailed descriptions of the conduct of the ceremony see for example Symonds PV Cosmology and the Cycle of Life: Hmong Views of Birth, Death and Gender in a Mountain Village in Northern Thailand PhD diss., Brown University 1991 and Tapp N "Hmong Religion" in Asian Folklore Studies 48, 1989: 59-94

9 For a description of how the Hmong adjusted the ritual to cope with this tragic event see Falk C "Roots and Crowns. The Hmong Funeral Ritual in Australia" inTirra Lirra 4 (4), 1994: 19-24

10 In particular Dr Gary Yia Lee, Mr Vangmar Virathone and Dr Pao Saykao. The writer is indebted to them for their assistance.

Copyright 1994 Catherine Falk
This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. Request and inquiries concerning reproduction rights should be directed to:
Dr. Catherine Falk
Faculty of Music, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

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