The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Victoria's Ark

One woman’s campaign to preserve the music of the Golden Triangle hill tribes

A simple snowflake became a tantalizing clue for anthropologists tracing the origins of the ethnic groups that populate the Golden Triangle region where the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos meet.

Songs of Memory: Traditional Music of the Golden Triangle, by Victoria Vorreiter. Resonance Press, 2010. P 197.

The snowflake emblem is a popular motif on the embroidered traditional dress of the Hmong, even though probably few of their people have ever seen snow.

The Golden Triangle knows cold winters, but snow is virtually unknown in the areas populated by the Hmong. So where did they acquire a snowflake emblem?

The answer, according to some anthropologists, is that the Hmong originate far to the north—in Tibetan or Siberian regions of severe winter weather. The snowflake emblem was apparently passed on from earlier generations who had a firsthand experience of ice and snow.

A further clue to Hmong ancestry is found in their songs, which describe a motherland of “icy terrain and harsh winters.”

In the absence of a written history of the Hmong and other ethnic groups who have made the Golden Triangle their home, such details are invaluable to experts and enthusiasts who study their traditions and culture.

It’s a vast study—there are more than 130 ethnic groups and sub-groups in the region, each with their often overlapping traditions and cultural identities. The one thing that unites them all is music, which accompanies every phase and aspect of hill tribe life.

A Lahu Shi man with his baby and his drum. Photos: VLCTORIA VORRELTER

The songs of these people are their substitute for a written history, according to Victoria Vorreiter, who spent five years documenting and recording the music, poetry and songs of six major ethnic groups: the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Mien.

“Songs and stories reveal the wisdom of the first ancestors, passing in an unbroken chain from mother to daughter, father to son, shaman to apprentice,” she says in the book based on her exhaustive research.

“I spent about 40 percent of my time in Burma,” Vorreiter told The Irrawaddy. Weighed down by cameras and recording equipment, she ventured deep into the jungles and mountains of central and eastern Burma, hiking to remote villages of the Akha, Karen, Lahu and Lisu.

There, and in neighboring Thailand and Laos, she found “an extraordinary, unique world, distinctive in language, customs, arts, religion, dress and features.” Linking all these diverse ethnic groups was a musical tradition reaching back centuries, perhaps millennia.

An Akha Loimi woman plays a tune on a broad, fat leaf. Photos: VLCTORIA VORRELTER

She was fascinated to find that music played a central part in every aspect of community life, from birth until death.

“Traditional peoples listen to the songs, ceremonies and stories of their forebears at a deep level and with great reverence,” she writes in her richly illustrated book.

“These are the living archives of centuries of accumulated culture, history and tenets of faith, providing the eternal link between those who have gone before with those who will follow.”

From her interest in hill tribe music has grown a determination to do all she can to keep it alive and to help it resist the threat posed by outside influences, particularly from the West and China.

“With the advance of globalization and the rush to modernity, even in the most remote areas, young people are leaving their villages, foregoing the ways of their ancestors,” Vorreiter writes. “It is said that if one generation fails to transmit its knowledge to the next, millenia of accumulated wisdom can be lost in a few decades.

“The oral traditions that were once so vital a century ago are in jeopardy of vanishing with the wind. When we lose these, we lose a part of the richness of humanity.”

Apart from her book on hill tribe music, Vorreiter has produced a CD, a documentary film and she’s now working on a series of educational videos. She also plans to launch a foundation with the aim of finding “ways to encourage passing the ancestral musical legacy on to new tribal generations before it vanishes altogether.”

That’s quite a body of work for a woman who began her professional career as a musician. She is an accomplished violinist who graduated in the US with a master’s degree in music and researched the music of Morocco before settling in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. 

A “cultural Noah’s Ark” is how her work has been described by others in her field of research. Like Noah, she probably has a long way to go yet before her task of protection and preservation is done.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |