Traditionally, the payment for a Hmong funerary musician, a txiv qeej (pronounced “tsee kheng”), is three ribs of the cow slaughtered for the funeral meals and a token payment, usually only enough to cover gas. There are a lot of traditions attached to the qeej, the set of bamboo pipes played by a single mouthpiece. And even though Hmong culture has only just begun settling into the US since the first wave of refugees came from Laos in the 1970s, funeral traditions are among the first to begin fading away.
Teng Her is one of those dedicated to preserving them. To that end, he teaches the art of the qeej, both privately and at a Hmong community center.
At his home, Her mostly teaches lessons around a fire pit in his backyard. And his students, some as young as ten, others older than Her’s own 24 years, sit in a circle, each with one of the long instruments balanced on their knees. Each will play a verse of of the same song, circling around and around between themselves in a melody that can last for hours.
When played as part of a funeral, each verse is a message to the spirit of the deceased wishing them safe passage onward, and the songs can last upwards of nine hours, melancholy and unbroken.
When Her began teaching in 2010, Fresno had two other qeej teachers. One was Her’s brother-in-law, Peng Cha, who had taught Her himself. Now, both of those men are deceased, and Her is the only qeej instructor in the second-largest Hmong community in the United States (Minnesota has the largest).
For $25 a month, he teaches twice a week at home and weekly in the community center, and his classes are always full. On weekends, he and a small group of other players, many his own students, play for local funerals. That’s not a business – he takes only the traditional payment. He regards it as community service. That’s true of his teaching, too.