Thursday, October 19, 2006

Chong Moua Lee - ncas maker

A vetran of the war in Laos, Mr. Lee now resides near Seattle where he continues to practice traditional Hmong music. Mark Poss of Mouth Music Press met him through the Folklife festival there several years ago and now sells Mr. Lee's ncas on his website. The audio example provided doesn't sound like a typical 'talking' performance on the ncas (which utilizes vowels and some consonant sounds). But the melody produced by the upper overtones of the fundamental frequency (the low, buzzy sound) is very clear. According to Mark, it takes Mr. Lee 8 hours to make the ncas and 2 more hours to make the case (made from bamboo imported from Laos). Mark also sells ncas from Hmong in Vietnam. These 'dan moi' come in a variety of sizes and tend to be of more delicate construction. Pictures and sound examples are available and make for an interesting comparison with Mr. Lee's ncas.

It's good to Hmong instruments being sold online with respect and credit given to the skilled makers who keep traditional crafts alive. Chong Moua Lee is also featured on the Washington State Arts Commision website in an article about music at the Hmong New Year festival.

From the article:
People also play other insturments at New year as a form of courthsip; the raj, a single bamboo pipe with a reed and the ncas, a tiny bamboo [brass] jew’s harp. Chong Moua Lee learned to play both instruments when he was young. “Youth in the Hmong people, they’re really shy. When they’re falling in love, they’re not going to tell anybody. So they will blow it to give the missing part of your heart. Boys always go at night to talk to girls, and they will use the ncas to communicate through the wall. And it’s not to say in the real words, but to speak in the ncas, so the girls and the boys, they get to know each other and fall in love.”
Lots more articles about Hmong music and culture from the WSAC.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The raj in Hmong oral history

Most first-generation Hmong Americans who play raj learned it before they emmigrated to the U.S. The raj being primarily a tool for courtship, boys and girls tended to learn how to play as teenagers. Here's a brief firsthand account of Hmong coursthip practices in Laos during the 1960s from the female perspective:
The way young men came to see a girl, so that her parents wouldn't know, they just followed her. If she went to get some water, they talked to her by the stream. If she went to work in the rice field, they just came there and helped her do things. If I was working in the rice field, they would help me to work in the field all day! Sometimes they came and played music outside my house at night, playing softly on their flute. If they liked me enough, they sent me a flute they had bought. So I had a flute, and I learned how to play it, but I never played my flute back to any boy. I only played to myself. I didn't really like any of those boys.

From: Xiong, May and Nancy Donnelly. "My Life in Laos." In The Hmong World, edited by Brenda Johns and David Strecker. Yale Center for International & Area Studies: Council on Southeast Asia Studies (1986): 201-244