Pipe dreams: the tale of the Mong pan flute
by Dinh Tien Binh

According to Mong (known outside Viet Nam as Hmong) mythology, there once lived a happy couple residing high on a remote mountain side. The couple had six healthy boys who grew up to be very hard-working and were loved by all the villagers, especially the local girls.

The Crenh: pan flute traditional among the Mong people of Viet Nam. Photo Douglas Bishop

One day the father passed away. Stricken by grief, the boys sat motionless around his body, letting out heart-rending cries. The boys could not bring themselves to leave their fatherís body in the forest for the birds and wild animals, as was required by the local tradition, and so they decided to keep him close to them at home.

Their cries of grief moved even the wild animals. The birds stopped singing. The bests stopped their nightly howling. The boys cried and cried until their fatherís body began to decompose and they grew faint from thirst and hunger.

Unwilling to stop mourning, the boys thought of replacing their fading voices with bamboo pipes. The eldest son made the longest and biggest flute and the youngest the shortest and smallest.

Day after day and night after night they played their flutes until the body had deteriorated so much that they had to bury it in the jungle.

Shortly afterward, the mother and the youngest son died of exhaustion. The boys continued their mourning, and while to an outsider the sound may have seemed the same, to the brothers something was missing.

In order to preserve their original sound, the brothers went to the forest and selected some wood from of the po-mu tree to make a flute holder so that one person could play all six flutes at one time, and the crenh or Mong pan-pipes were born.

All dressed up: Mong girls at the spring festival, where men play pipes and dance. ó VNA/VNS Photo Hoang Chung

Since the Mong language is rather complicated, many pronounce crenh as khenh or khen, which has now become the popular name of the instrument.

The Mong minority of Viet Nam live mainly in the highlands in the northern province of Ha Giang Province, especially in the districts of Meo Vac and Dong Van.

The ethnic group can be divided into distinct sub-groups: the Mong Do (Red Mong who live in Then Chu Phin, Thang Tin and Chin Pho districts), the Mong Hoa (Colourful Mong in Xin Man and Hoang Su Phi), the Mong Den (Black Mong in Nan Ma and Xin Man), the Mong Trang (White Mong in Meo Vac and Dong Van), the Mong Xanh (Blue Mong in Ta Su Choong, Ban May and Hoang Su Phi) and the Mong Ha (mostly in Nan Ma, Xin Man, Thuong Tan and Vi Xuyen). The name of each group is derived from the appearance of their traditional costumes.

The Mong live in rather concentrated communities and, as such, have been able to successfully preserve their cultural identity, especially their traditional music.

While only males can play the crenh, itís music is important to the entire community. In fact, it is so highly regarded that it plays a central role in the education of members of Mong society.

Wherever the Mong live, the sounds of their traditional music ring out. In the fields, at home or at the market, day or night, the Mong are never without their melodies.

These songs are a very important part of Mong spiritual life. Witch-doctors have a number of tunes that they use during ceremonies such as lan da (invoking spirits), hu-pli (inviting particular spirits), ua-nech (mediation) and khua ke (seeing-off spirits).

In tune: The Mong flute was born of the desire to blow six flutes at one time. ó VNS Photo Ba Tich

To each of the above tunes, lyrics are created to suit the particular circumstances.

Crenh music is usually accompanied by dancing, either individually or in groups, depending on the community. The Mong Trang dance in groups, with one participant kicking the foot of the other, while Mong Hoa dancers go it alone. The dances can be performed in a number of different postures such as lying on the ground or stepping on a bamboo pole that is laid across a giant pan of boiling oil.

The crenh is usually played with other instruments like flutes, drums and gongs. The high tones of the instruments represent fathers while the lower ones are dedicated to mothers.

The Mong use the instrument to express love to a special person, be it the musicians wife, parents or mother nature. It is also used during tragic or mournful moments.

These days, many visitors to Mong communities conclude that the crenh is used solely to play tunes of love. This view fails to take into account the important role it plays in all aspects of life. It is essential that more research is done to further our understanding of this unique instrument. ó VNS