Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Kwv txhiaj from the Hmong of Phetchabun

The news from Thailand is not good. 6,000 Hmong refugees from Laos face an uncertain future (although, there have been recent plans to move them to a new camp--probably a better option than repatriation, for the time being.) At the same time, Lao government recently stepped up military action against the Hmong who remain in hiding (afraid of retaliation for their participation in the Secret War). While the UN and the United States have done little to effect change in the region, Hmong people around the world and human rights activists have drawn international attention to these pressing issues. A recent report presented to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (May, 2006) presented personal narratives from several Hmong refugees in the Phetchabun camp. The stories also appear in the documentary, "Hunted Like Animals," produced by filmmaker Rebecca Sommer (some clips from the movie). Both the report and the video contain some very disturbing material that may not be appropriate for all viewers, so use discretion.

On her website, Sommers offers recordings of kwv txhiaj sung by the Hmong now living in Phetchabun province in Thailand. I don't speak Hmong well enough to understand the content of the songs, but it is clear from the voices of many of the singers that they are under a great deal of stress. To be honest, they express such intense feelings that I found it difficult to listen for more than a few minutes. I make note of these recordings here with the hope that more people will learn about these ongoing problems, although it is unlikely that publicity alone will create a solution.

I don't know what can be done about the situation. If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to voice them here.

Recent news stories about the refugee crisis:
10/09/06 - Detained Hmong Refugees Released from Prisons
10/19/06 - 438 Hmong Lao Removed by Helicopters
11/09/06 - Lao Troops Fan Out in Jungles where Hmong Hide

Monday, November 06, 2006

A You Duo - A Closer Look

A little more investigation at www.ayouduo.com returns some great free .mp3s and videos (.rm), some of which were produced for MTV China. [Google Translate is your good friend if you don't read Mandarin. Babelfish works well for translating webpages, too]. According to Louisa Schien's article in Hmong Today, her most popular song of the moment is "Flying to the Miao Country and the Dong Villages" (飞向苗乡侗寨), perhaps a reference to the growing travel industry in the region. The song can be downloaded from A You Duo's website here. It begins with an ominous drone and chorus of women's or children's voices followed by the introduction of what in the parlance and "world music" might be described as "tribal drums." At this point, a distinct marker of the Miao soundscape enters, the reedy drone of a mouth-organ: lusheng in Chinese (similar the Hmong qeej). The instruments sounds like it is synthesized rather than performed live, but the drone pitches and the active, jumping melody are maintained. [For comparison: listen to this excerpt from a record of Miao music available from Calabashmusic.com: link (will open a new window with embedded player); contents of the entire CD listed here.]

Unlike many of her other songs, which highlight A You Duo's incredible vocal range, "Flying" creates a relaxed, intimate atmosphere. Her voice is quiet, almost speaking, accompanied by an understated electric bassline and the Indian drums called "tabla," another marker of "world music." The middle of the song features a dramatic climax made up of the interlocking of the original choir and a counter-melody. I have no idea if this material has any relation to traditional Miao (or more specifically, Hmu) music. In general, the music seems oriented outward toward the "world music" market, making only subtle references to the sounds associated with Miao culture.

Perhaps the most "Miao" song available on her website is 苗岭谣 (what our friends at Google translate as "Miao Mountain Rumors"). The song can be downloaded as .rm video (or you can just watch it on YouTube [embedded below]).

This song begins and ends without a steady pulse--A You Duo is free to develop a wide-ranging melody full of large leaps. This style is similar to the "Flying Songs" performed by various Miao groups. From what I have seen, these songs tend to be sung by young women and feature melodies in the extremes of the high vocal range. It could be that A You Duo is singing in Hmu in this example, as well. The jazzy piano fills support her vocal acrobatics without providing a definite sense of key.

Around 1:20, the band enters: a mixture of synthesized wind instruments and drums. As in the previous example, the obvious sonic reference is the lusheng and in the video, a young man appears playing a small version of the instrument (they can be several feet tall, as will be seen in a later example). There isn't a clear sense of harmony or chord progression due to the imitated drone of the lusheng. In the background of the accompaniment, the busy, jumping melody evokes the instrument as well. The lead synth line, with pitch bends to imitate an actual instrument, may have some reference in the real world, but also seems to fit into the imitated lusheng texture. Of course, it is the visual appearance of the instrument that truly marks this as Miao.

For sheer spectacle, it's hard to beat 苗岭飞歌 (or "Miao Mountain Song" according to Google.) A couple of versions are available, but the video version (.rm download) is really worth watching. The song is catchy and world beat oriented (featuring a rock organ solo and rap-esque bridge), but the production is outstanding. The stage performance includes screaming fans and a Miao costume fashion show, a staple of ethnic cultural renewal in China.

A You Duo can clearly hold her own in a variety of musical settings. It is evident that she is well schooled in traditional forms of music especially. Another clip from CCTV available on YouTube [embedded below] shows the singer taking on a more conventional "flying song."

Visually, the production is straightforward, but the lusheng (a marker of traditional Miao culture) is foregrounded. Four male performers flank A You Duo playing lusheng in a variety of sizes, including one extremely tall one. They are accompanied by double-headed drums and a gong: instruments that are familiar in Hmong culture as well. Immediately, it is evident that her singing style is drawing on a tradition outside of the Westernized world of pop music. In the upper reaches of her vocal range, she sings pitches that seem in constant motion--always falling towards more stable lower pitches. I cannot say if the arrangement (alternating with the male musicians) is traditional, but the sounds certainly are. [Compare with a "flying song" from the previously mentioned CD at Calabash music: link (opens a new window with embedded player.)

Previously: A You Duo - Miao Pop Star

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A You Duo - Miao pop star

Louisa Schein draws our attention to the popular success of a young Miao singer from Guizhou province (for the full article see: Hmong Today - 13 October, 2006). A You Duo (also spelled: A Youduo or 阿朵作品, in Chinese [at least I think]) is actually Hmu, one of the several groups that make up the Miao nationality (minzu) in China. She performs in both Mandarin and the Hmu dialect of Miao (the Eastern branch of the Hmong/Miao language group). Still, she is identified by Schein (and many posters on the internet) as Hmong--part of the transnational trend to include all Miao people in the Hmong ethnic group.

As Schein says in her article, A You Duo is more than just a pop star. She is an "ethnic performer" who utilizes her position as an ethnic minority in her performances. This includes singing some songs in the Hmu language (which shares some words with White and Green H/Mong) and singing about places, practices, and themes associated with the Miao people. In fact, much of her success has come through the promotion of Miao culture for regional tourism. Her traditional Hmu costume (featuring intricate embroidery and dazzling silver ornaments) is a work of art and a brilliant advertisement wherever she performers--a visual parallel to the beautiful scenery of Guizhou province she describes in her lyrics. Some people may find this commercialization of Miao culture to be inauthentic. But ethnic minorities in modern China travel multiple boundaries (ethnic/cultural/linguistic/geographical/etc) and are just as much a part of the modern, globalized world as anyone else. At the same time, they create continuity with the past though ongoing practices, like performing music and wearing special clothes. There is a definite sense of pride in A You Duo's work--pride in her Miao heritage and pride in being an outstanding musician who can hold her own against any pop singer in the world.

A number of videos have popped up on YouTube (
search: Ayouduo) and of course, she has her own website: www.ayouduo.com (it's in Chinese, but here is a translated version via Google). Her website actually features a number of .mp3 downloads which showcase her amazing voice (translated music download page). The production is great, too--strings, percussion, synthesizers (often cinematic in scope). Schein mentions the phenomenon of "Miao pop," of which A You Duo is a part, along with "Song Zuying, Luo Xiuying, the “three sisters” A Sang, A Duo and A Yi, and Mee Hang." In fact, people from many ethnic minorities are currently involved in blending old and new musical sounds, especially young people who have left rural homes to work in major urban centers. In A You Duo's performances, she asserts her identity through costume, language, and topics, but also sound. While I'm not terribly well-versed in the intricacies of Hmu music, there are definitely some traditional sounds that A You Duo has brought into her style. Over the next few days, I'll discuss a few examples to highlight these sounds and discuss how they interact with musical framework of her performances.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Chong Moua Lee - ncas maker

A vetran of the war in Laos, Mr. Lee now resides near Seattle where he continues to practice traditional Hmong music. Mark Poss of Mouth Music Press met him through the Folklife festival there several years ago and now sells Mr. Lee's ncas on his website. The audio example provided doesn't sound like a typical 'talking' performance on the ncas (which utilizes vowels and some consonant sounds). But the melody produced by the upper overtones of the fundamental frequency (the low, buzzy sound) is very clear. According to Mark, it takes Mr. Lee 8 hours to make the ncas and 2 more hours to make the case (made from bamboo imported from Laos). Mark also sells ncas from Hmong in Vietnam. These 'dan moi' come in a variety of sizes and tend to be of more delicate construction. Pictures and sound examples are available and make for an interesting comparison with Mr. Lee's ncas.

It's good to Hmong instruments being sold online with respect and credit given to the skilled makers who keep traditional crafts alive. Chong Moua Lee is also featured on the Washington State Arts Commision website in an article about music at the Hmong New Year festival.

From the article:
People also play other insturments at New year as a form of courthsip; the raj, a single bamboo pipe with a reed and the ncas, a tiny bamboo [brass] jew’s harp. Chong Moua Lee learned to play both instruments when he was young. “Youth in the Hmong people, they’re really shy. When they’re falling in love, they’re not going to tell anybody. So they will blow it to give the missing part of your heart. Boys always go at night to talk to girls, and they will use the ncas to communicate through the wall. And it’s not to say in the real words, but to speak in the ncas, so the girls and the boys, they get to know each other and fall in love.”
Lots more articles about Hmong music and culture from the WSAC.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The raj in Hmong oral history

Most first-generation Hmong Americans who play raj learned it before they emmigrated to the U.S. The raj being primarily a tool for courtship, boys and girls tended to learn how to play as teenagers. Here's a brief firsthand account of Hmong coursthip practices in Laos during the 1960s from the female perspective:
The way young men came to see a girl, so that her parents wouldn't know, they just followed her. If she went to get some water, they talked to her by the stream. If she went to work in the rice field, they just came there and helped her do things. If I was working in the rice field, they would help me to work in the field all day! Sometimes they came and played music outside my house at night, playing softly on their flute. If they liked me enough, they sent me a flute they had bought. So I had a flute, and I learned how to play it, but I never played my flute back to any boy. I only played to myself. I didn't really like any of those boys.

From: Xiong, May and Nancy Donnelly. "My Life in Laos." In The Hmong World, edited by Brenda Johns and David Strecker. Yale Center for International & Area Studies: Council on Southeast Asia Studies (1986): 201-244

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Archive of Traditional Music in Laos Project

From the Lao Language and Culture Learning Resources website (from the Center for Southeas Asian Studies - Northern Illinois University): Information about a recent project to document traditional music in Laos, including Hmong music.

From the website:
Begun in Vientiane in May 1999, the project was funded by DFG (German Research Association) and by GTZ (German Association for Technical Development Cooperation). It was affiliated with the Oldenburg-Ostfriesland-Wilhelmshaven in Emden Fachhochschule in close cooperation with the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin. From May 2001, the Phonogram Archives of project is privately funded by Dr. Gisa Jaehnichen. Tel.: 00856-21-251250
Details of the recordings and current holdings:
Up until May 2002, the project made field recordings in the provinces: Huaphan, Luang Prabang, Xiengkhuang, Vientiane, Bolikhamsay, Khammuan, Savannakhet, Salavan, Attapeu, Sekong, Bokeo, and Champasak. The project includes 1123 audio recordings from 25 different ethnic groups, 1690 minutes video recordings, 764 photographs, 135 transcriptions of music and 70 drawings and descriptions of musical public. instruments, which are accessible for the public.
They have made several tapes of this music available online, albeit with limited documentation. The first tape: Instrumental Music in Laos (Selection 1) features three recordings made of Hmong musicians. Each of the following may be streamed with RealPlayer. (Titles written as they appear on the website [i.e. with some spelling errors])
  • Track 3: Hmong Lay Folksong: Tueoti / Pii Hmong (Flute) / Xamtai/1999
  • Track 5: Hmong Khao Folksong: Khuamhak / Toen / Sam Neua/1999
  • Track 6: Hmong Lay Folksong: Khithot Phusao / Phi Hmoung (Flute) / Sam Neua/2000
[Track 3 is actually a raj nplaim performance. Track 5 is ncas, and track 6 is raj ntsia or a similar flute-type instrument.]

While I enjoyed listening to the recordings (which are of fairly good quality), I am even more fascinated by this tiny glimpse into the music and culture of Laos. Besides a few second-hand reports from Hmong Americans I have spoken with, there is very little information about Hmong music from contemporary Laos. Such a recording at least confirms that as recently as 2000, traditional forms of Hmong music were still practiced by Hmong in Laos. It would be more interesting to know the age of the performers: is the practice being maintained by the younger generation or are these older musicians? It would also be interesting to know more about the holdings of the archives, but I have been unable to find any information on the internet.

The rest of the music is well recorded and it is a treat to hear such a wide variety of performances. Definitely worth a listen. (There are three more tapes available at the website.) It's also worth noting that the SEAsite has lots of language and culture information about other countries in the region. Even the Lao website has much more to offer about Lao literature, arts, and folklore.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Qeej on "Music from Thailand and Laos" CD

One track on the CD "Music from Thailand and Laos," titled "Hmong khaen, features a qeej performance. The recording quality is rather poor, but you can hear the jingling of bells as the player moves. Not sure about the details of where the recording was made, but the ablum is available through Calabash Music. Tracks can be purchased individually. The rest of the album seems interesting, as well, and includes music from a wide variety of locations in Thailand and Loas.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Nyob zoo pauj hauj!

I've written up some instructions on how to install fonts and software on your computer to facilitate converting Hmong RPA to Pahawh: type a word in RPA, hit the space bar = Pahawh!
(Note: Once installed, you can print Pahawh or save the text as an image. As you will see in the instructions, the font is not rendered properly without the installation. Pahawh words will appear as nonsense characters or question marks in other applications.)

-My instructions
-Fonts and software

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Hmong and Miao Folklore Research

I'll be presenting on Hmong oral traditions and rap at the upcoming American Folklore Society meeting as part of a panel entitled, "Issues in the Translation of Asian Folklore." The panel also includes a presentation on Miao oral traditions by Dr. Mark Bender (the Ohio State University) and will feature a talk by a poet with whom Dr. Bender has been documenting and translating Miao folklore. [A book of these stories is due out this fall.] The panel is from 8:15 to 10am on Thursday, 19 October.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Delicious Venom Videos on YouTube

From a performance on 4/29/06
Tequila Moonrise
30 Year Secret
(Too bad you can't hear the lyrics very well, its a great performance)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Qeej for sale online?

Bamboo qeej pipes, 'Hmong Ceremony'
[update: link no longer active]
$294.95 through Novica.com (apparently associated with National Geographic). Little information about it in the description except that it was made in Thailand. They do mention that words can be played on the instrument. From the website:

"Brass inlays add beauty to this qeej, hand-crafted of rain tree wood and bamboo. A wind instrument, it is unique to the Hmong people and figures in ceremonies to connect with the spirit world. It is vital in funerals, and its tones emulate the sounds of the Hmong language. Thus it is sometimes used to communicate in "words." This instrument features six bamboo pipes."

My favorite part: apparently it is "on sale" from $454.95 (as if everyone is comparison shopping in villages across Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam before purchasing their qeej online.)

Update 7/11/06: No more qeej available on Novica.com.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

“Evil Kwv Txhiaj: Intersecting Oral Traditions in Hmong Rap”

I'm presenting at the upcoming Midwest Society for Ethnomusicology Conference at the Ohio State University, this weekend (schedule). The paper is part of a larger project on relating current Hmong verbal arts to oral traditions I'll hopefully be presenting at the annual American Folklore Society Meeting.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ntuj No Tuaj Lawm

A classic Hmong song that continues to inspire new generations of musicians and music fans. It's iconic status provides a good example of how what is usually consider popular music can take on a "traditional" character over time.

From what I have been able to piece together, it was written by the prolific Lis Pov (Paul Ly/Lee Pao) currently of the Pheej Ywg Band (website). The earliest version I'm aware of is by the Kaab Nqausvas band with singer Vaaj Ntxawg, but I'm not sure of the date. This version is also available on the "Kaab Nqausvas Best Collection" album, which contains songs from their four previous albums. Information about Kaab Nqausvas is difficult to come by, but I'll post again as I learn more.
The Kaab Nqausvas albums are for sale at Long Chang (LoobCeeb) Entertainment
[note: the page contains audio examples of all the songs, including Ntuj no tuaj lawm]

Here is a clip from a movie (purportedly "Kev Hlub Txiav Tsis Tau") using the song over an emotional reunion. YouTube - Ntuj No Tuaj Lawm

Cover versions (that I know of):

Luj Yaj - unknown album [song retitled: Koj nyob qhov twg]

Rasmi Moua - currently posted at Cyber Brain

Jay Xiong (of Hmongdictionary.com) - Jay sings over a karaoke version of the song (.mp3 download)

An excellent version also appears in Kang Vang's new movie "Tou and Mai" (more info). A demo version (vocals by Becky Vang and music by Kenny Lee) is currently available on YouTube

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hmong Research Fulltext Online Resources

As part of an ongoing bibliography project, I'm keeping track of online resources for research in Hmong studies (not including the Hmong Studies Journal and other sources associated with the Hmong Resource Center.) I'll update it as necessary.

The REN, Inc. Bookshelf The Refugee Educators' Network makes available several out-of-print titles as part of their library. The variety and rarity of the titles is amazing and the quality of the scans is excellent. Many of the books are standard texts for anyone interested in Hmong studies, although some of the information is outdated. A sample of titles offered as .pdf for download (* marks outstanding titles):

A Life Apart: Viewed from the Hills, Boyes/Priban
Allons Faire le Tour du Ciel et de la Terre: Le Chamanisme des Hmong Vu dans les Textes, Mottin
English-Hmong Primary Word Book (Revised), National Center for materials and Curriculum Development
History of the Hmong, Mottin
The Hmong in the West: Observations and Reports, Downing/Olney
The Hmong in Transition, Hendricks/Downing/Deinard
Hmong Folktales, Johnson
Hmong Recipe

Kr'ua Ke (Showing the Way): A Hmong Initiation of the Dead, White [English translation of Lemoine's French transcription of the Hmong funeral ritual in L'Initation du Mort]
L'Initiation du Mort chez les Hmong, LemoineThe Meo of Xieng Khouan Province, Barney/Halpern
Minority Groups in Northern Laos: Especially the Yao, Iwata
Songs and Stories of the Chu'uan Miao, Graham

The Hmong in the West
contains three articles, significant for their contribution to the study of Hmong music in the United States, which began shortly after Hmong immigrants arrived.
"Speech Surrogate Systems of the Hmong: From Singing Voices to Talking Reeds." Amy Catlin
"Aesthetic Language in White Hmong." Brenda Johns and David Strecker
"Some Secret Languages of the Hmong." Maria Derrick-Mescua, Judith Berman, and Mary Beth Carlson.

The Hmong: An Introduction to their History and Culture (2004) A fairly up-to-date and comprehensive introduction to Hmong history, language, and culture produced by the Center for Applied Linguistics. Features multiple authors and input from Dr. Gary Yia Lee and Dr. Martha Ratliff.
Chapters are available online at (links at the top of the page): http://www.cal.org/co/hmong/index.html
The entire booklet can be downloaded as a .pdf: http://www.cal.org/co/hmong/hmong_FIN.pdf

Field Guide to Hmong Culture (2004): written by Dia Cha (PhD, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies, St. Cloud State University) and produced by the Madison Children's Museum. A booklet aimed a a young audience. Those looking for a general introduction to Hmong traditions (art, folklore, history) may find this to be useful. Includes several pictures.

Hmong World (1986): a fulltext pdf of this important (and out-of-print) volume. Contains oral histories, stories, and scholarly articles.
Link to the page at Yale: http://www.yale.edu/seas/VietText.htm#Hmong
Link to the pdf: http://www.yale.edu/seas/VietText.htm#Hmong

The Hmong Primer (last revised 1999): extensive collection of language learning materials via the Refugee Educator's Network (including a glossary, frequently used word list, and graded Hmong language stories.)

REN also has a downloadable copy of Grandmother's Way, Grandfather's Path (Yang/Lewis) an outstanding collection of stories and songs in Hmong and English. [One of the sections does not download properly.]

Hmong Visual, Oral, and Social Design: Innovation within a Frame of the Familiar (1993) by Judy Lewis: also hosted by REN, Lewis's masters thesis

La Musique des Hmong (1976) is Eric Mareschal's groundbreaking document on Hmong music practiced in Laos. 

Linguist David Mortenson has pdf copies of several unpublished articles about (H)mong language on his academic website (scroll down for the list): http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~dmort/

Markedness of White Hmong Tones (1996) by Brian McKibben.
Available through via Internet Archive: http://web.archive.org/web/20010617131118/members.citynet.net/brianm/thesis/thesis.htm

Of course, there is always the extensive collection of articles at Gary Yia Lee's website: http://www.garyyialee.com/
and Kao-Ly Yang's trilingual website: http://www.geocities.com/kaoly_y/historyculturelanguage.html

I know there are a multitude of resources available, but hopefully these are few of the less obvious ones that people will find useful. A frequently updated list of of the Hmong related websites I find is available at: http://del.icio.us/nfposs/hmong