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Hmong arts and culture festival set to return to Landmark Center


The second annual Qeej and Hmong Arts Festival, which organizers say is the country’s only event of its kind dedicated to the traditional pipe instrument, is coming to downtown St. Paul next month.

The festival, which is organized by the Hmong Cultural Center, is free and will take place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 4, at Landmark Center.

In addition to highlighting master qeej performers, the festival will also include championship dance crews, other musicians and a fashion show with both traditional and contemporary garments. A Hmong shaman will also perform poetry, said festival organizer Kang Vang, a citizenship educator at the Hmong Cultural Center.

Plus, local crafters will have wares for sale, and Hmong and other Southeast Asian food will also be available.

The qeej, which is pronounced somewhat like the English word “king” but with a more guttural first consonant, is an important element in many Hmong life cycle events, particularly funerals. The instrument, which can play multiple notes at once, is typically quite large and has a strong, resonant sound.

“You can’t just learn the instrument without also learning the cultural aspect of it,” Vang said. “They go hand-in-hand.”

And youth are getting involved. The Hmong Cultural Center’s youth qeej program now has a waiting list, Vang said, and the center is seeing increasing interest from youth in learning the Hmong language, too.

Vang, who was born in Thailand and came to the U.S. as a refugee at 10 months old, grew up in St. Paul’s Hmong community. So much Hmong history has been lost over centuries of migration and oppression, he said, and as elders pass away, the community is at risk of losing its cultural heritage. It’s up to people like him, he said, to “take on the role as cultural heirs” and teach the next generation.

“The arts is one of the only things that has kept our culture alive,” Vang said. “Everything we do in our culture, including some religious ceremonies, is done through the arts now. There’s no separation between arts and culture.”

Last year’s inaugural qeej festival was likely the first in the U.S., Hmong Cultural Center program director Mark Pfeifer says, and it came on the heels of the center’s expansion. A storefront museum and library opened in late 2021 in Frogtown, on University and Western avenues.

“There’s this increasing interest for the community to reach back and rediscover themselves through the culture,” Vang said. “It’s just a beautiful thing.”

2023 Qeej and Hmong Arts Festival

What: A free cultural festival showcasing the qeej, a traditional Hmong instrument

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 4

Where: Inside/outside at Landmark Center; 75 W 5th St.

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