Musical Minorities

Seb Rumsby

Until recently, Hmong studies has overwhelmingly focused on the more accessible Hmong populations in Thailand, Laos, and Western diasporas, despite the fact that three quarters of Hmong live in Vietnam and China.

Along with Sarah Turner, Christine Bonnin and Jean Michaud 1 Sarah Turner, Christine Bonnin, and Jean Michaud, Frontier Livelihoods: Hmong in the Sino-Vietnamese Borderlands, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015.  and Tâm Ngô, 2 Tâm T. T. Ngô, The New Way: Hmong Protestantism in Vietnam, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016.  Lonán O’Briain’s new publication Musical Minorities: The Sounds of Hmong Ethnicity in Northern Vietnam is a welcome counterbalance. Like the others, O’Briain situates his work in relation to James Scott’s controversial but influential thesis 3 James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.  upland Southeast Asia being a ‘zone of refuge’ for avoiding or resisting state structures. He is not the first to apply this concept to the realm of Hmong music – Catherine Falk’s work on the qeej’s (a musical instrument with multiple bamboo pipes) concealed meanings 4 Catherine Falk, “If you have good knowledge, close it well tight”: Concealed and framed meaning in the funeral music of the Hmong qeejBritish Journal of Ethnomusicology 12(2), 2003: 1–33.  is an interesting precursor – however, O’Briain’s monograph is more detailed and offers a wider sociopolitical contextualisation.

Taking an evolutionary approach to assess the resilience of Hmong music cultures in Vietnam, O’Briain attempts to avoid unhelpful stereotypes and disciplinary partitioning by pointing to the wide diversity of musical practice within one minority group, emphasising the outside influences and constant flux of music cultures. The book’s main argument is that ‘attempts to categorize ethnicity by using cultural traits such as music are futile unless one cuts out the inconsistencies, the participatory discrepancies that keep these communities of creative practice relevant and vibrant’ (p. 180). This is precisely what the Vietnamese state (and, later, tourist industry) has done by exploiting and sanitising minority music to promote national unity. A fascinating example is the so-called ‘Hmong flute’ (sáo mèo), the iconic sound of Hmong ethnicity in Vietnam, which is in fact not a native Hmong instrument but was created by an ethnic Kinh (Vietnamese majority) in the 1970s. While O’Briain acknowledges the creative possibilities of such hybridization, unequal majority–minority power relations are never far away as Kinh representations of Hmong culture tend to drown out minority voices.

One strange feature of the book is the order of chapters. O’Briain starts with two chapters on the importance of Vietnamese state and media influence as a form of cultural imperialism, arbitrarily categorising and essentialising minority music cultures, before focusing on Hmong traditional music and folklore in Chapter 3. The book’s core argument may have been delivered more powerfully if the reader were to first appreciate the plurality and depth of Hmong musical cultures, and then move on to observe the destructive effects of such cultural imperialism. Of course, this is only one side of the story and in later chapters O’Briain highlights the agency of Hmong musical actors in accommodating, resisting or adapting to shifting external pressures and opportunities such as tourism, Christianity, and Hmong transnationalism. Nevertheless, the book ends with a warning that ‘although the multiplicity of styles enhances the resilience of their cultural practices, certain outside influences are placing unprecedented pressure on the ecosystems in which these practices exist’ (p. 181).

Musical Minorities is an engaging read with much to commend, not least the thick descriptions and ethnographic observations which bring the book to life, along with the accompanying audio-visual materials available online. O’Briain’s extensive fieldwork over the space of several years and interviews with key state actors allows him to reveal not just detailed technical and linguistic features of Hmong music but also give voice to divergent interpretations and contestations within the Hmong community and further afield. The author’s outsider positionality is acknowledged, adding character and sometimes humour to the fieldwork vignettes. Furthermore, the book’s interdisciplinary nature, drawing on wider historical, cultural, and political debates, makes it both accessible and useful for a non-musicology audience.

Upon rigorous scrutiny, there are a few minor errors such as historical records of Hua Miao in southern China being termed as ‘flowery Hmong’, although the former is a linguistically distinctive group better known as the A Hmao (albeit sharing many cultural traits with the Hmong). Some readers might also find the uncritical reproduction of Scott’s anti-state thesis problematic. However, this reviewer is more critical about O’Briain’s engagement with Hmong Christianity in Chapters 5 and 6. Firstly, why does O’Briain only record the music of Hmong Catholics, who are vastly outnumbered by the numbers of Hmong Protestants, even in the supposedly Catholic district of Sapa where O’Briain conducted most of his fieldwork? Perhaps it was too politically sensitive to research Hmong Protestant music at the time; if so, it would be helpful to acknowledge this. Later, O’Briain incorrectly claims that the majority of Hmong in the United States are Christian, when in fact the figure is only around 30 per cent. This then calls into question his claim that Christianity is the ‘unofficial religion’ of the Hmong ethnonationalist community.

Nevertheless, Musical Minorities remains a highly commendable ethnomusicological study with important ramifications for ethnic relations, tourism economies and the politics of representation in Vietnam and beyond. More than that, this book provides a model for those wishing to conduct interdisciplinary research on the performing arts of marginalised groups.