Innovation in the Guise of Tradition: Music Among the Chin Population of Indianapolis, USA

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Asian Music


March 2005: I am sitting on the floor of a small apartment in Indianapolis, Indiana. The tenants of the apartment, recent arrivals in Indianapolis, are a married couple in their early 30s. They are members of the city's Chin community, a group of some 300 people who fled their homeland of Burma, where they are a struggling minority. The couple, upon hearing that I have come to Indianapolis to research Chin music, invited me to their home so that I could view some of their collected DVDs of Chin musical performances. But first, they show me their wedding video. They were married in Hakha, the capital of Chin State in northwest Burma in 1999; they screen the video so that I can see a traditional Chin wedding. As the film rolls, I see video of buffalo being slaughtered, and then a Baptist wedding service inside a church. However, it is the sounds, not the sights, that grab my attention. As young Chin men kill buffalo—a scene that has been repeated at weddings in the Chin Hills since time immemorial, and is now redolent of everything traditionally Chin—I hear Dolly Parton singing. The American country music star is singing about breaking up, not about falling in love. I question the couple, through our translator, about this: Why did they choose this song to serve as the soundtrack for their wedding video? The couple smile and reassure me. They do not speak English, and so they did not realize the meaning of the words when they selected the song. They chose Dolly because they love the sounds she makes—her music is so "Chin" (Van Lian, personal communication).

We then engage in a discussion of Chin music. According to this couple, and to their fellow Chin in Indianapolis, Chin music is divided into two categories: their terms for these categories are "traditional Chin music" and "modern Chin music." To them, "traditional" means music associated with what is known as laiphung, that is, the pre-Christian way of life, in Chin State. By contrast, "modern" means music associated with what is known as krifa-phung, or the Christian era and way of life, which began in the 20th century.

Tradition versus modernity: the Chin are not the only people to organize their musical understanding according to this binarism. Scholars and lay people alike often make this distinction when discussing cultural forms of expression. Yet the categories are not so distinct. The traditional and the modern frequently overlap, as they did in the wedding video. Furthermore, they do not always operate as we might expect: Traditional music does not always function to preserve the past, and modern music does not always drive change. As this article will show, for example, Chin music makers use modern technology and sounds to preserve their traditions—or more precisely, to sustain their notion of a traditional Chin identity. And their traditional music is not confined to a bygone way of life, but is alive and well in the most modern of contexts: among refugees in the United States. There, Chin immigrants participate in both traditional and modern Chin music, affirming their sense of themselves as a distinct and unified people.

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University of Texas Press





Peer Reviewed