Hmong-American Artists:  
Listening For Their Cue
Debby Tewes is Asian
Wisconzine's Contributing
Writer in the Milwaukee area
commonly ended its interwoven narrative with an airplane that signals the arrival of the Hmong community in the
United States.

Accordingly, Dr. Yang insinuated that many in the younger Hmong-American generation are listening for their cue to
continue the narrative. The event’s line-up of performers asserted a list of willing candidates for the task.

HASA reflected their “Rise to Stardom” theme with Christmas lights outlining the front of the stage and the
performances of three singers that are successfully popular among the Hmong-American generation.

Pagnia Xiong ascended the stage with nervous confidence, high heels and a sports jacket. Yet her powerful
Soprano voice garnered audience applause barely 20 seconds into her first song. She used these assertive vocals
to sing about struggles within the Hmong patriarchal society.

In her opening song about forbidden love for the 21st century woman she sang, “Vim koj cav tsis yeej, kuv los tawv
tsis dhau,” which she roughly translates to “because you couldn’t argue enough to win and I wasn’t strong enough
to overcome it.”

“I think that right now I’m touching base on more female issues that a 21st century woman would not hear from the
'90s or from the '80s,” said Xiong in a post-performance interview.

In Xiong’s next song she gave a voice to Hmong domestic violence victims. Her live performance contributed
symbolic strength to the narrative by sitting at the beginning and fully rising by the first chorus. The emotion in her
face reverberated with liberating vocal strength and a pleading open palm gesture.

She even jerked the microphone away at the end of strong lines as if it couldn’t handle the height of her vocals. Her
subject matter demonstrates her own view on music’s potential to represent unvoiced hardships.

“[Music and the Hmong culture] tell the stories and feelings that Hmong people stubbornly and cowardly do not
want to tell,” said Xiong.  

Her next song “Txoj Phuam Txoom Suab” imaginatively captured an unspoken dialogue of a newly married woman
getting dressed in preparation with her mother.

The song’s emotionality was captured in the hard-hitting lyric “Tsis xav kam muab lub npe ntxhais no sib faib,”
which roughly translates to “I do not want to split my maiden name.” In an interview Xiong expressed concern that
many listeners from the younger generation don’t know those commonly unused words.

While speaking to the previously unaddressed topic of Hmong women’s issues, Xiong’s music also helps
preserve the Hmong language with the help of a co-writer who she says has “the vocabulary of a grandmother.”

The final performance was an acoustic duo, The Kong and Shu Project, formed by brothers Shu Lor and Kong Lor.
The group belongs to the same music label as Pagnia Xiong, Evolution Records Entertainment.

The brothers’ natural chemistry was clear from their melodic harmonizing during songs and even from intro as
Kong spoke mostly while Shu lightly played background music on guitar.

While Shu’s words appeared reserved for humorous commentary, he wasn’t at all shy in ending each song in
skillful, yet goofily overdramatic mini rifts with either the guitar or keyboard.

The group’s opening song, “Nyob Zoo” (“Hello”) set the mood for their performance with “feel good” positivity in
lyrics like “Mus Dawb, Mus huv” which is a goodbye blessing that the other person stay well or healthy. The brothers
switched off sharing the vocal lead while Shu played guitar.
   
Next the brotherly duo sang “ib txhis” (“Forever”), which takes the perspective of one promising commitment to a
partner in a relationship. This song carried the tradition of using songs for courtship, which Dr. Yang mentioned
was a result of earlier Hmong society customs where emotions required an intermediary to be socially expressed.
Hence, love songs had served as “an indirect way to communicate” affection in Hmong culture.

In a post-interview Kong and Shu agreed that their art was instrumental for them to learn more of the Hmong
language and tap into their own culture. As a result, Shu said their goal with music is to “bridge the gap between
our parent’s generation as well as our grandparents and the youth.”

In contrast to the duo’s opening “hello” to the audience, they ended their set with a song about the difficulties of
saying goodbye. However, after a question and answer period the brothers performed an encore request of another
crowd favorite called “Ib Txoj Kev,” which roughly translates to “there’s a way.”

The event’s line-up of local artists included Kouser Yang, Xiong Mee Xiong, Hue Lor, Xao Xiong, Kong Xiong and
Dou Vang. Most were university students except for Xao Xiong, a 36-year-old singer who opened with a modest
disclaimer then surprised the audience by hitting high notes at the emotional climax of his songs.

As professor Dr. Yang noted, music has been transformed from strict ceremonial purposes to more recreational
means. Pagnia Xiong, Shu Lor and Kong Lor noted the initial difficulty in receiving parental support for pursuing a
“non-traditional” route. Yet after years of hard work and listening for their cue, the artists have gained support in the
Hmong-American community to join the chorus of Hmong music with their own original songs.  

“Through music [Shu and I] hope to bring a positive message to the younger generation, our generation and even to
the older generation that we still know our roots,” added Kong. “We know where were going to take culture and our
language.”

Marlon Eric Lima is a student at UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication; a First Wave Hip-Hop
Theatre Ensemble - Scholar; and a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.
By Marlon Eric Lima

If you listen to enough music, your mind can function as a mental jukebox of
songs with memories that trigger to a familiar chorus. The classic catalogue of
Hmong songs has served to preserve the Hmong culture in the collective
memory of its people.

On March 24th the Hmong-American Student Association (HASA) hosted “Rise to
Stardom,” an event dedicated to music’s important role in preserving the
narrative of the Hmong community.


“In a traditional agrarian lifestyle… the Hmong actually did not have a lot of time
for recreation or for entertainment,” explained visiting assistant professor Dr. Ava
Yang in an opening speech. “Any source
of entertainment has to include some
practical function.”

According to the event’s program, since
the Hmong language lacked a writing
system until the 1950’s, music and art
necessarily became a means to
document Hmong customs, traditions
and their way of life.

By contrast Dr. Yang noted that today
Hmong music appears to have
transformed into serving a more
recreational function. She also noted how
Hmong embroidery art, Paj Ntaub,
(Top left) Pagnia Xiong: (above, L-R) Kong and Shu of the Kong and Shu
Project.--
Photos courtesy of TP Lor Graphics