- Musical Minorities: The Sounds of Hmong Ethnicity in Northern Vietnam by Lonán Ó Briain
Hmong populations, belonging to the Hmong-Yao ethnolinguistic family, are settled in several countries of continental Southeast Asia: China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Many also migrated to other continents—primarily North America (United States and Canada) and Europe (especially France). Part of the many minority groups of these Southeast Asian countries, the Hmong and their identity are often clearly and rigidly defined, either by the former colonial power, the local authorities, or neighboring ethnic groups. Due to the community's history and numerous migrations, Hmong culture and music have been described largely by scholars and amateurs in comparison to other ethnic groups of the region. Rare are the research works, however, that provide as subtle and nuanced an understanding of the sounds of the Hmong community as does this book by Lonán Ó Briain. The book is introduced with two case studies that directly plunge the reader into Ó Briain's fieldwork in Vietnam. These sketches from the field are regularly used throughout the different chapters of the book, describing musicians or providing specific interpretations. The author bases his reflections and analyses on these empirical examples that perfectly illustrate the "several ways of experiencing ethnicity" (5).
As indicated by its title, the book discusses several aspects of the sounds surrounding Hmong communities, which are influenced by history, economy, politics, tourism, and religion. The different recordings available on the companion website are a valuable addition, as the twenty-four videos and seven audio recordings of traditional and pop music, rituals, and touristic performances illustrate the variety of sounds and music of the ethnic group. The author uses the Hmong RPA (Romanized Popular Alphabet) for the Hmong terms and explains the writing system to the reader. A very useful glossary of Hmong and Vietnamese words also appears at the end of the book.
Ó Briain approaches ethnicity and its boundaries not only "in relation to the state" but also as a complex and multivalent phenomenon carried out by a population endowed with agency and resilience (8). He examines "the manifestation, manipulation, and contamination of ethnicity through sound," pointing out that "the circulation of these symbolically loaded sounds perpetually reformulates the meanings of Hmong ethnicity and minority identity in Vietnam" (9). This use of sound as a medium to approach Hmong identity "liberates the concept of ethnicity from fixed boundaries and categories," [End Page 149] illustrating the malleability and complexity of the concept (9). As he does for ethnicity, the author avoids compartmentalized musical categories, as they don't produce "conclusive results because of the diversity of contexts" in which Hmong music is performed. These categories should be understood as continuously in mutation, in flux (80).
With this volume, Ó Briain offers a work of great intellectual integrity and transparency, based on empirical work illustrated by case studies, discussing the research of other scholars and presenting his own interpretations based on his personal experience and his informants' perceptions. The book genuinely reflects the constant mutations of Hmong culture and the representations of their identity.
The first chapter, "On Becoming Vietnamese," examines how popular Vietnamese-language songs build the image of minority groups in Vietnam and participate, with all the stereotypes these songs carry, in its inscription within Vietnamese national consciousness.
Chapter 2, "Hybridity and the Other in Modern National Music," explains through the case of a modified Hmong reed pipe how Hmong musics and sounds were integrated into the national musical landscape. This case study illustrates "the potential of music to reflect and refract social and political dynamics" (57). The next chapter, "Hmong Traditional Music and Folklore," presents different perspectives on Hmong traditional and folkloric music performed in the Sa Pa district that counter reductive portrayals of minority groups in Vietnam. The chapter is built around...