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Joe Bee Xiong

Hmong Traditional Music
Eau Claire, WI

Joe Bee Xiong with qeej. Photo by Bob Rashid.Joe Bee explained that the qeej is made from six bamboo pipes that have been soaked, steamed and bent into gentle curves. Each pipe contains a free reed. The free reed vibrates when Joe Bee blows into it. The vibration is what makes a sound. That’s how a harmonica works too!

The bamboo tubes have one finger hole. When Joe Bee covered a hole, air was forced through the reed. When he didn't cover a hole, the tube was silent. Qeej players usually play two or three notes at a time. The blending of the sounds makes harmonies and counterpoint. The bamboo tubes are bundled together and attached to a wooden wind chamber that holds air like the bag on a bagpipe. The wind chamber allows the qeej to play a constant, steady drone. The chamber’s steady air means the qeej keeps playing notes even when the musician pauses to take a breath.

Joe Bee Xiong with qeej. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.Have you ever seen someone play the qeej? If so, you probably saw him move around a lot while he played. Part of the art of playing a qeej is dancing. The qeej player dances as he plays the instrument, often in a crouching position. Sometimes the player spins or hops on one foot.

The dance style comes from an ancient form of a Chinese martial art. Long ago, qeej players held competitions where they would play music and do battle using their feet at the same time. They don’t compete like that anymore but the movements have stayed with the music.

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“The gheng player is not only a musician, but a dancer, a song-writer, an actor and a poet.”

– Joe Bee Xiong

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