When Thai was the ripe age of 7 he was taught the qeej. He is now a master at it and can identify the old Hmong played through the deep, low pitches of the qeej. Many people his age and older cannot match his ability. One reason is he has a talent of course, but what made it easier was that his grandpa, father and brother played it and he grew up hearing the qeej. To be a master qeej player you have to know 50 or 60 songs, as well as the words. As he plays he tells himself the words he is playing. The qeej is played mainly to talk to spirits, because unless you’re a shaman you can’t directly talk to them. Thai Vang is only 17 and already is a master at the qeej, as well as the movement or dancing that accompanies the qeej playing.
Thai’s father had two wives because he played the qeej. In those days, if you played the qeej, you were like a superstar. Then all the girls’ parents would want her to get married to him, because then he could take care of her and things like that. That’s why his father got two wives.
The qeej was passed down in Thai’s family. Thai and his brother inherited it. The qeej is an instrument with 6 pipes, one large, short pipe and 4 long, skinny pipes. The last pipe is skinny, but it’s shorter than the large pipe. Inside each pipe is a metal reed. There are 8 different notes you can play on the qeej. It is usually used in funerals, New Years, and it used to be played at weddings, but they lost the music to weddings. So they don’t play the qeej in weddings anymore.
The rooster song is played at funerals. It talks about how the sun and the moon would not come up. The people tried and tried to make them come up, but it was no use. Finally, the rooster came and with his cry he called the sun and the moon up. He played the story on the qeej. That sounds sort of cool, playing a story.
Long, long ago the qeej was only used for weddings but as time went on it was used for more. Next it was used for funerals then even more. Now it’s used for New Years and other celebrations. On New Years the songs are joyful and the qeej is used to show off and attract girls and people. At funerals the qeej plays slow mournful music. It’s used to call the spirits and tell them to leave this place and not come back. A real qeej master can hear what the qeej is saying. The master can then tell if it is a real qeej player that he is hearing. Antoehr thing about the qeej is that women are not allowed to play it. The reason is tradition and also they’re not able to call as well so spirits may not leave. So men play the qeej.
The Qeej is probably the best known Hmong instrument. It is used for funerals, weddings and Hmong New Year. The qeej talks in a way to the spirits. The person playing the qeej senses the spirits through the qeej. Qeej songs have different meanings. In funerals it is mainly about being reborn. At New Years it is wishing people a good year. The qeej can also tell stories. Very few people can understand the words to the qeej music. It is very old. To play the qeej at funerals you need to know 50-60 songs because you can be playing at a funeral for weeks!
Years ago, the qeej was only blown at weddings, but now, the qeej is blown at funerals. Thai has been to a lot of funerals. The qeej can talk to the dead spirit to help it get to another world.
The qeej is culture. The first time people would play the qeej was four hundred years ago and they were only played at weddings. The qeejs talk with the spirits at funerals and also at Hmong New Years. The way to make a qeej is out of special bamboo. If you bought one it would be $200. You have to take your time when you play the qeej; if you rush, it will sound bad. The qeej is like a Hmong bagpipe in sound and in the way you blow.
Thai’s qeej playing was excellent. I wonder if Mark and Pao will sound that good after ten years. I bet Thai is almost a master. To me, all qeej music sounds the same. I wonder if Hmong people who are learning qeej think that or have they heard it before and can tell it apart.