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.