- Hmong Songs of Memory: Traditional Secular and Sacred Hmong Music; Essays, Images, and Film by Victoria Vorreiter
Encountering either of Victoria Vorreiter's books, Hmong Songs of Memory: Traditional Secular and Sacred Hmong Music or Songs of Memory: Traditional Music of the Golden Triangle (Resonance Press, 2009), in a Bangkok bookstore, one cannot help but become engrossed in her artistic design as well as her books' amazing array of eye-catching color photos, all printed and bound by a high-end company in Hong Kong. Vorreiter, however, is not just a gifted artist who produces her own photographs, audio recordings, video recordings, [End Page 127] and design but also a skilled ethnologist with extensive musical training and a penchant for detail. The result is an unusual combination of solid ethnography and artistic presentation.
Although Vorreiter originally studied Western music as a classical violinist, a number of mentors inspired her to change direction—including ethnomusicologist William Malm at the University of Michigan; composer/author Paul Bowles, who recorded traditional Moroccan music; and Shinichi Suzuki, who taught her mother tongue (oral tradition) pedagogical method around the world. These influences eventually led Vorreiter to northern Thailand, where she has worked for thirteen years as an independent researcher.
Her earlier book, Songs of Memory, is essentially an extended guide to the elaborate exhibits of upland musical instruments, clothing, and other kinds of material culture that she has mounted for museums, universities, and cultural societies. In this book she covers the music of six ethnic groups (Karen, Hmong, Mien, Lahu, Ahka, and Lisu) in a text linked to a CD of the same name intended to accompany her exhibits. An "Instrument Archives" at the end of the book illustrates and describes 106 upland instruments, certainly the most complete inventory yet compiled.
Her newest volume, Hmong Songs of Memory, concentrates on a single ethnic group, based on extensive fieldwork in both northern Thailand and the PDR Lao. Vorreiter divides her study into two unequal parts, the first on Hmong secular music (64 pp.) and the second on sacred music (185 pp.). Because she has approached this study as an ethnographer rather than as an ethnomusicologist, her attention is focused on genres and instruments instead of the analysis of musical sound. Indeed, associating the word "music" with the Hmong is somewhat problematic in that what sounds like Hmong "melodies" to outsiders are actually poems recited in heightened speech. The apparent musical characteristics of both recited poetry and surrogate-speech instrumental realizations are derived in part from speech tones, although within a simple scale or mode. What Vorreiter has provided instead is the text of a complete vocal ballad (performed on the accompanying DVD) in both romanized Hmong and English translation. The Hmong text, however, makes use of the RPA (Romanized Popular Alphabet), a system not of her making first developed in the 1950s that combines consonant-vowel with tone, the result of which is extremely challenging for those not familiar with it. For example, a ballad is known as Kwv Tshiaj, but I found myself unable to sort out her perfectly logical analysis of the poetry using all the proper terms. For example, she writes, "The majority of kwv txhiaj performances are based on four bi txwm, with eight corresponding ib sab txwm" (18). Vorreiter, however, also offers English phonetic pronunciations for every Hmong word when it is first [End Page 128] introduced and explains both the meaning and context. The RPA romanizations also appear as subtitles in the video recording.
Part I also focuses on four musical instruments: ncas (lamellophone), raj ntsaws (side-blown flute), raj lev les (single idioglottic aerophone, or "folk clarinet"), and rab qeej (free-reed mouth organ). After she discusses the construction, making, use, and repertoire of each instrument, the poetic text that is realized in the DVD performance is presented in...