- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) - Jason Yang initially needed some prompting before agreeing to take qeej lessons.

The 17-year-old North High School student began learning the traditional Hmong reed instrument made of six bamboo pipes four years ago under the tutelage of Vong Yang, who has been playing for more than 30 years.

Playing the qeej often means performing in front of large groups, including at funerals, Hmong New Year celebrations and other ceremonial events. Jason said he was much shyer before he started lessons and the thought of playing in front of crowds intimidated him.

“My dad first forced me to do it,” Jason said. “But then I caught on and then it was pretty fun because I started learning so much about our culture.”

Jason is now one of some 30 youth to receive instruction from Vong through a program started in 2012 and supported by Sheboygan’s Hmong Mutual Assistance Association and Qeej Society to help recruit more young Hmong-American musicians and keep traditions alive, the Sheboygan Press Media (https://shebpr.es/1F6wiKv ) reported.

“It’s a very important part of cultural history in the Hmong culture,” Vong Yang said through a translator, Thomas Lee, who is president of the Qeej Society.

In 2013, Vong Yang received grant funding from the Wisconsin Arts Board for his efforts, making him part of the WAB’s Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Founded in 1986, the statewide Folk Arts apprenticeship program is an annual competitive grant program that supports respected master traditional folk artists in teaching their skills to apprentices. The program was one of the first of its kind in the country, according to a news release from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

On May 30, Vong Yang and two of his apprentices, Jason and Meng Yang, got the chance to perform as part of the WAB’s first Wisconsin Folks: Masters of Tradition concert, which featured five apprentices involved in the program.

In addition to Jason, Vong Yang works with local youth in elementary school through high school three days a week for five hours each session.

“The hard part is if you don’t play it, you don’t remember,” Lee said. “It’s not an easy instrument.”

During the five-hour practices, students learn breathing techniques and the fingering of the instrument. They also learn the dances or routines that accompany the playing.

Part of Vong Yang’s instruction also includes teaching youth some of the Hmong language so they can sing songs that are traditionally part of qeej performances. Because so many youth don’t know the language, they quickly forget what they’ve learned without continual practice, Lee said.

For Jason, learning the qeej has brought multiple benefits.

“One thing with learning this instrument is we gain respect from the elders, from the community,” Jason said. “I learned how to be more open and speak out more. It builds my confidence, too.”

“These kids are privileged now to be part of the community. Not a lot of kids can learn how to play this instrument,” Lee added.

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Information from: Sheboygan Press Media, https://www.sheboygan-press.com


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