Music & movement

Any ceremony or festivity held by the ethnic H’Mong people is accompanied by their very own instrument and dance, both called khen.

By Le Diem on October 18,2017 02:35 PM

Music & movement

Photos: Tam Long, Cao Ky & APT

Among the ethnic H’Mong people, women must know sewing and weaving and men must know how to play the khen, a type of pan-pipe. H’Mong boys are taught to play and dance by their fathers from when they’re little, to gain the respect of others in their community. It has become a unique instrument that plays an important role in the lives of the H’Mong people.

More than an instrument

The H’Mong number more than 1 million people in Vietnam, living primarily in mountainous areas of the north such as Ha Giang, Dien Bien, Son La, Lao Cai, Bac Kan, Yen Bai, and Tuyen Quang provinces and in the central highlands, including Gia Lai, Kon Tum, and Dak Lak provinces. Wherever they reside, the khen resounds, recounting their culture and history of thousands of years.

Music & movement

There are different legend explaining the origins of the khen but all contain the idea that it started out from a family with six children, hence the instrument’s six pipes, according to Nong Van Tu, a resident of Nhan Mon commune in Bac Kan province. The most popular story has it that the parents were sick and then died, and their six kids created the pan-pipes to play together as a way to send their love to the next world. The new instrument created melodies of different levels, sometimes whispering like the sound of the wind and at other times sounding sweet and gentle like a murmuring stream or fierce like a storm, and it soon touched the heart of many.

The khen was therefore only used at funerals initially, to express the gratitude of children to their parents and their respect to the deceased. The khen is a key feature of funerals, as the H’Mong people believe that without its sound, the spirit of the deceased can’t find its way to the ancestors.

It also makes funerals of the H’Mong people quite distinctive, as it possesses a festive ambience, not mournful, and accompanies dancing. As dancing is always associated with the playing of the khen, not only the performers but also all those in attendance join in the dance to say goodbye to the deceased.

The attraction of the khen saw its use spread to merrier events like weddings, festivals and performance competitions. At the recent Independence Day Festival, one of H’Mong people’s two largest festivals of the year, the khen performance was one of the highlights and left an indelible impression on many tourists.

Unique performance

The khen is also played spontaneously, expressing the happiness or sorrow of H’Mong men. Every man carries a khen with them from the age of 13. To play well, young boys need to practice hard. The khen requires a special skill to play, and combines a regular pan-pipe with a flute. There is one hole in each of the six pipes, creating a different sound based on the skill and creativity of the player. A good player can control his breath in a ‘selected’ pipe while his fingers open or cover holes at the same time to produce the sound.

Music & movement

But this is just the half of the art; the other half is the dance. No H’Mong person plays the khen while standing still, according to Tu. They always move in time with the melody, bending their bodies. Another unique feature of the khen is that it is not performed solo. At least a couples of players perform together. The moves for the dance are varied, including jumping, moving in a circle, sitting, lying down, and going forwards and backwards. The more skilled the performers, the faster the moves. The dance is also special for its ‘kicks’. In some places, performers dance in a way where their feet kicks others, while in other places, each performer kicks their own feet. Whatever the kick, it’s fun to watch and join in. ‘The biggest difficulty is playing the khen continuously and moving in circles and kicking at the same time,’ according to Tu. ‘It’s easy to be distracted while dancing and neglect playing, or vice-versa. It therefore requires both passion and patience to be a good player. Khen performances show not only the qualities and talent of H’Mong men but also the strong and brave spirit of the people, who live in the mountains and face a lot of challenges from nature.’

A khen performance expresses the local culture and the attachment between family members and festivity. Some places have performances where a H’Mong men may flirt with a woman, but it’s all for show. ‘H’Mong men don’t use the khen to flirt; that’s just what other people think,’ Tu said.

Together with playing and dancing with the khen, some H’Mong also learn how to make it. The materials are easily found nearby and include bamboo and wood, according to Ma Dau Pao, a khen performer and maker in Thanh Van commune, Ha Giang province. There are two types of khen, one a souvenir and the other for playing. The latter requires a lot of time and skill in selecting the appropriate bamboo and making the reed. Despite the appearance of the internet and new genres of music and instruments, the khen business is still healthy because ‘being a H’Mong, you can’t leave the khen,’ according to Pao.

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