11/14/2013 3:00:00 PM Hmong singer/poet from CF awarded grant to record traditional "kwv txhiaj"
by Ken Haggerty
Bee X. Yang, 57, moved to Cannon Falls in April from the Twin Cities to share in the making of a home with his daughter and son-in-law. They live on forty acres on a small hill west of Hwy. 52, not far from Avalon Trucking
Yang was recently awarded a $75,000 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to compose and record an album of the form of Hmong song poetry known as "kwv txhiaj." With some interpretive help from his daughter, Kalia, the Beacon interviewed Yang on his background and art.
Yang was born and grew up in northern Laos, in the province of Xieng Khuong, on the outskirts of a small city named Voungxai.
His village was called Pha Khao. It was in a valley in the mountains, with 5,000 in the village. The youngest of nine children, Yang's father died when he was two years old.
"I was raised by my mother, a shaman, a medicine woman, and a healer," said Yang. "I grew up surrounded by traditional Hmong song poetry, kwv txhiaj. My adopted big brother, Shong Moua Yang, was a wonderful singer. His reputation for song poetry extended beyond our village. Unfortunately, as a young boy, I was unable to learn from him. By the time I was yearning to learn, the country was falling apart, and we could not remain together; my family was separated by the war.
I ended up in Thailand in 1979 because I grew up in a village that the CIA turned into a prisoner camp for the North Vietnamese Army. After the Americans left in 1975, my village faced the retribution of the Lao Communist government and their North Vietnamese allies. There was a declaration of genocide. We fled to Thailand in order to preserve our lives. In 1987 I took my family to Minnesota because my boyhood best friend and my nephew had resettled in the state and he agreed to serve as my sponsor. Minnesota was an important choice for me because I had two daughters and I wanted them to have an opportunity to become educated. In Minnesota, I have worked to provide for my children by working with my hands. I have worked in many machine shops and along many assembly lines."
Yang's wife's name is Chue Moua. She was born in 1961. His children are: Der Yang (34), Kao Kalia Yang (32), Xue Lor Yang (24), Sheelue Yang (23), Shell Yang (20), Taylor Ntxhais Yang (18), and Maxwell Hwm Yang (9).
Yang said his younger children are still embedded in schools, pushing to grow, but his two oldest, Der and Kalia, have worked hard and fulfilled many of his wishes for life in this new country. "However, my position as their father, is that they all continue to strive and grow, far beyond my wishes, into their own."
Kwv txhiaj is a learned form that necessitates training and strength of voice, said Yang. "It is a rhymed form whose origins come from deep within and each song must articulate the Hmong experience, the human experience. As a form, traditional song poetry that seeks to explore the human heart is longer, the shortest ones are about five minutes but most are about 15 minutes. There are many verses and they take the form of story. It is a complicated art where the human voice is both the musical vehicle and the carrier of meaning. In order to engage an audience, the song must be a marriage of both melody and meaning. It must carry emotion."
Hmong traditional song poetry is made up of personal memories and communal histories. "It is the way in which the Hmong people have been able to voice the love and loss of the heart," Yang said. The songs are about the evolution of a personal relationship; it is the story of how we became orphans in the world of war and poverty. The form itself necessitates sharing of one's experiences and a connection to that of others. It is an articulation of shared experiences; like the best of the country songs."
One must learn from elders and masters of the form, he says. "There must be models in the art. For an individual to be able to create his or her own songs, they must have had experience and exposure to the form. Most people who sing traditional song poetry in the Hmong community do so by learning the songs of others and giving it their voice; however, practitioners of the form must create original songs. We must be the song writer, the composer, and the performer. Because kwv txhiaj needs an accomplished voice, not everyone who loves it can do it well. Not every father can pass down his songs to his children."
Kwv txhiaj and another form of Hmong song poetry, lus taum, have no direct translations into English. Yang says he's been told it is like jazz (improvised) and rap (rhymed rhythm and meaning).
There are different melodies, different ways of singing, says Yang. "Sometimes traditional song poetry works in competing duets and sometimes it is one man or one woman carrying the whole song. There are different types of songs; each can deal with the loss of a parent, the joy of a union, the death of a people. The content is entirely fluid. It is based on one's ability and ambition."
The most popular settings for kwv txhiaj are weddings, new year celebrations, and any time a community gathers except for funerals, said Yang. "Because of the emotional nature of the form, kwv txhiaj, like all musical traditions, can be employed whenever there is lonely or lovely to celebrate, joy or sorrow to express. Many people record kwv txhiaj and they listen to it on their own time. Many kwv txhiaj songs, the best of them, are learned and adopted like greatest hits."
What sets Yang apart from other practitioners? He says it is his voice in the form. "It is what a person is born with, their instrument. As well: my songs. They are about my life, but also the lives of many I know. I work hard to capture emotion and to articulate mass experience. It is a form that fewer and fewer are practicing. Many of the great masters are dead. In America, because of the growing loss of the Hmong language, the ability of the people to appreciate and sing are declining. It is an endangered form."
After a popular performance at a Hmong New Year's Festival in 1990, Yang recorded a tape that was well received in the Hmong community. "I believe we made over $5,000 in profit," he says, but he has made no other recordings since.
"I look forward to using the Minnesota State Arts grant to record a second album. I am ready."
Yang will record at home with simple equipment purchased by the grant. He will use grant monies to professionally produce a second album, a CD. He will also perform at community venues and celebrations.
Part of the impetus behind the grant is to record an album for those interested in learning the form. There are fewer and fewer traditional song poets in the Hmong community. "I want to preserve the form and share it," said Yang.
Yang said he has enjoyed the move to Cannon Falls and he looks forward to growing old here. "I like the quiet of the woods, the tall trees, and the fresh air," said Yang. "In Minnesota, this place recalls my long ago home more than any other- the rise and fall of the hills, the people who are still connected to the land."