The Hmong qeej (pronounced GHENG) is an important musical instrument to this ethnic minority from the mountains of Laos. The wind instrument, traditionally made of a wood resonator and 6 bamboo pipes has a 4,000-year history and ties to Hmong language and funerary rites. Through visual, verbal, and musical poetry, the Hmong Diaspora in the United States (which fought alongside the CIA in the jungles of Laos during the Vietnam War) has defended traditional cultural heritage and synthesized new forms of aesthetic production outside their homeland. The tradition of oral storytelling, for example, flows through hip-hop songs by urban youth and the qeej is integrated into B-Boy dance competitions. Qeej Hero takes cues from and expands upon this lineage of cultural hybridity.
Contemporary trends in Hmong-American aesthetic practices inspired our research into the potential for the qeej to enrich the lives of Hmong youth and for young people to breath new life into the bamboo pipes of the ancient wind instrument. In the vein of the wildly popular video games Guitar Hero and Rock Band, Qeej Hero casts the Hmong qeej into the spotlight usually reserved for the guitar in the American pop-culture industry. In addition to teaching basics about the wind instrument and its songs, the game also facilitates Hmong language instruction via the six onomatopoeic pipes that create tones that directly relate to the tones of the Hmong spoken language.
Players manipulate a plastic qeej-shaped controller, pressing color-coded buttons and blowing into an air-pressure sensor, to “sing” the songs, which were recorded by Hmong qeej players, Qaib Dib. In the first phase of Qeej Hero, we developed the conceptual foundation and demonstrated a marginally functional version of the controller and video game in lectures and an art exhibition in 2010. With the help of a Propeller Grant, received for the year 2011, we have been developing a comprehensive redesign of the Qeej Hero video game to become more user-friendly and culturally accurate. We will keep you updated as Qeej Hero attempts to breathe new life into its users as the qeej instrument has been doing for generations!
July 2-4, 2011 Qeej Hero debuts at the Hmong Freedom Festival in St. Paul, MN.
September, 2011 Qeej Hero kits enters Chicago Public School classrooms in Chicago, IL.