Department of Music

Musical Minorities

The Sounds of Hmong Ethnicity in Northern Vietnam

The Hmong reside among a culturally diverse range of ethnic minorities who populate the rugged mountains of northern Vietnam. Numbering one million in Vietnam and five million throughout the world, this research comprises the first comprehensive study on their music and the first by a foreign scholar on the musical culture of one of Vietnam’s officially designated minorities.

The research traces the circulation of live and recorded music that northern Vietnamese people recognise as iconic of the Hmong, the minorities, and the mountainous provinces to investigate the politicised manifestations of ethnicity through sound.

Hmong master qeej player and singer in northern Vietnam, 2010

Hmong master qeej player and singer in northern Vietnam, 2010 

Project overview

Case studies on sounds that reference Hmong ethnicity are the focal point of this study. During the war of independence, the Voice of Vietnam radio used musical stereotypes of the Hmong to engage with the minorities. Later in the twentieth century, indie pop artists appropriated these sonic artifacts to accentuate their own countercultural identities, and nationalist composers assimilated features of Hmong traditional music into their compositions for aesthetic effect. When these propaganda recordings were circulated in the minority regions, many Hmong began to look elsewhere for their cultural needs. From the 1980s, new networking opportunities to connect with minorities in Asia and the diaspora were afforded via shared musical media. Minority language recordings and online materials from this transnational community filtered into Vietnam, causing many there to reconsider their identity from a more global perspective. Christian missionisation divided the minorities along religious lines, and new compositions influenced by European missionaries replaced traditional singing styles in converted communities. Minority-themed shows for tourists also became commonplace. These diverse examples shape the fluid social definitions of Hmong and minority identities in Vietnam.

In Musical Minorities, Lonán Ó Briain draws on over two and a half years of ethnographic fieldwork to present a study on the musical constructions of ethnicity in northern Vietnam. The research moves beyond abstract binaries (eg, minority versus majority) to look at how and why people take part in musical activities associated with Hmong identity on a daily basis. This approach challenges polarised conceptions of the musical Other through a more nuanced interrogation of key perspectives on the boundaries of ethnicity in Vietnam. Analyses of recordings and interviews throughout the region are used to show how music shapes and is shaped by social identity. This project outlines the full multiplicity of Hmong musics in Vietnam to provide a fascinating account of music, minorities, and the State in a postsocialist context.

Project outputs


Ó BRIAIN, L., 2018. Musical Minorities: The Sounds of Hmong Ethnicity in Northern Vietnam. Oxford University Press.

Ó BRIAIN, L., ed, 2017. Special Issue: Sounding Ethnicity: New Perspectives on Music, Identity and Place. the world of music (new series). 3(2),


Funding bodies

Leverhulme Trust

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Principal Investigator

Dr Lonán Ó Briain



Department of Music

The University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts Centre
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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