Melody of Bamboo

A film by Ka Xiong

An older Hmong man on the outskirts of Luang Prabang struggles to balance two wives, eight kids, and his true passion for perfection in the only thing he can truly control — the bamboo flute.

The Hmong are one of the largest ethnic groups in the People’s Democratic Republic of Lao, migrating into the country since the beginning of the 18th century. The Hmong are as ethnically diverse as the country itself, having four subcultures within the country: Black Hmong (Hmoob Dub), Striped Hmong (Hmoob Txaij), White Hmong (Hmoob Dawb), and Green Hmong (Moob Leeg/Moob Ntsuab). These groups are named after the dominant colors or patterns of their traditional clothing, the style of their head-dress, or provinces where they live.

In Hmong culture, having more than one wife is a prime status symbol. It is a sign of wealth for the husband to able to afford the price of having more than one bride. It is also a guarantee for a more prosperous future by having more children, thus increasing the amount of labor that can be used to generate additional income. Though having such a large family can be a delicate balancing act, and such a loss of control may only be recovered through simple melodies played through an instrument.

Music is an important part of the Hmong identity. Hmong instruments have a tonal quality to them that allow words to be heard through playing melodies. This has proven to be incredibly useful during times of war. The nplooj, an instrument made entirely from certain leaves in the forests, was once used to send signals and secret messages during combat. This instrument is also featured in certain Hmong tales to help rescue a woman that is taken away from her husband by a tiger. 

One of the most common Hmong instruments is the raj, a small wind instrument. There are about four different types of raj: the raj nplaim, the raj lev les, and the raj pum lib, raj nploog. In Melody of Bamboo, an older Hmong man is crafting a raj nplaim, which is a free reed pipe made with copper in order to create a buzzing tone. These instruments play words rather than melodies by setting pitches to match certain tones of words in the Hmong language. While not everyone can master the art of playing the raj, most Hmong people can understand the messages that are played on the instrument. Most of these messages were either about loneliness or love. 

These traditional forms of music are not as common among younger generations of Hmong. Nonetheless, this type of lyrical music can still be heard at various Hmong cultural festivals, usually being performed by elders in the community. Today, contemporary music is highly influential, and many Hmong bands and solo artists are growing as a result. 

To learn more about the Hmong people in Laos, watch the Hmong Shaman Ceremony and the tale about The Orphan

About the Filmmaker

Ka Xiong is a photographer and emerging filmmaker in Luang Prabang, Laos. He has attended and showcased some of his work at various photography and filmmaking workshops supported by the Swiss Embassy and NGOs in the region. Currently Ka teaches beginner and more advanced classes in photography and filmmaking at @ My Library with the support of the Swiss Embassy. Ka’s goal is to open up a local media center in Luang Prabang as a hub for emerging artists to share their work and refine their filmmaking and photography skills.

Credits

Director: Ka Xiong

Writer: Ka Xiong, Sean Chadwell

Producer: Sengphet Southnavong

Director of Photography: Cyril Eberle, Houmphan Phahongchanh

Editor | Colourist: Ka Xiong

Music: Nengcheu Vang

Created for the Directing the Documentary Workshop in Luang Prabang

(2015)