Behind the scenes: Hmong musicians


They have passion, respect, a vision, humanity and integrity. They do what they love, making music and the Hmong people a priority. They have a clear vision of the future and it’s not just about the money, but to look, listen and learn.

There were times we were eager for some of our Hmong favorite musicians to come out with their next albums such as KLS, Whyteshadows, Paradise, Sounders and High Voltage. Now we have a new breed of Hmong artists ranging from pop, folk-pop, hip hop artists, and rappers. They may not be 50 Cent, Kelly Clarkson or Madonna to leave an ever lasting imprint into our music industry, but we do have those who are taking their music to the next level.

“You’re going to have your ups and downs; times when you just want to hate the world because you’re struggling with something.” – Alfy of Rare, Milwaukee, WI.

Once you have a vision, a source of red bull waking you up, creating music can be easy right?! Every song writer works differently, but for some of us the lyrics and music comes all at once. The music and lyrics push each other along hand in hand until there is a tune and completed lyrics to go with the flow.

They all work twice as much as anyone else. They all have a common goal and a dedication in promoting a positive outlook into the Hmong community. They all have full time jobs from 9-5, school and yet their reasons are to convey in sending messages, if not through painting or drawing, their voice is a God given talent which is better than nothing.

“It could be hard, stressful, but that’s not going to stop us from making or producing music. It maybe difficult, but it’s worth it.” – Sonny, Manager of Reflections Band, NC.

After locating and leaching all the important parts of a new song, practice makes perfect. It’s important to make it sound the way you want before putting a mike in front of you. It takes time and patience to put together an album. It’s not as easy by snapping your fingers. For those who watched “The Ashley Simpson Show” on MTV, you can see how hard it is to write your own songs, re-recording your materials over and over again because you either missed a stanza or your voice wasn’t good enough.

Thanks to the generosity of Alfy of Rare, Telo Tony, Sonny manager of Reflections, ONO and Hmong Idol winner Pagnia Xiong, I spent well over five hours conducting interviews and observing what goes behind the scene of these talented Hmong artists. I’m going where no other Hmong reporter has gone before, to look inside the artists. If you listen closely to track number two “Hard Enough” or number eight “Superstar” on Telo Tony’s debut album “Where I Started: Before & After” it will surely convince you of the many trials and tribulations of what goes behind every young Hmong musicians out there today.

“Sometimes your dreams don’t match your expectations, actions or a solution of what is going on. It’s tough, you see something you want and desire, yet can’t have it happen, you can but you’ll have to wait and be patient.” – Alfy

All groups are close as any family; they may argue and fight at times. It’s not out of anger towards each other, but the stress they all deal with at a certain point. Everyone has their own agenda to tend to, sometimes don’t even have time to get together to practice. Money also plays a key factor for they have no direct funds. It all comes from their pockets.

Having recorded, it’s time to use your brains, ears, and fingers. Have someone you trust for making all the sounds you recorded come together in a manner that makes sense. This is where the tedious work starts, the physical recording component, vocals, mixing and editing. It can be simple: the key is to do what makes you as comfortable and happy as possible.

“Live a day in my shoe, you’ll understand what we really go through. If it’s a sacrifice that you’re willing to make, then give it a shot. But if you’re not serious about this path, don’t even jump into it.” – Alfy

From out of Telo Tony’s mouth, it took him four years to finally complete and release his first album this year. There might be something controversial in his lyrics, but Telo speaks the truth compared to any other artists that I’ve ever come across. It’s not one of those love songs that some people get tired right away, his lyrics speaks of life in society. As for Hmong Idol winner, Pagnia Xiong, who recently released her album this year in Nyob Ib Sab. She was in for an experience of a lifetime; it may not be the Kelly Clarkson experience but an experience no less. It can be hard to get the mix the way you want it. The trick is really listening, stepping away, and coming back. Adjust levels accordingly.

“Chao Chi of Micon Studio expects high expectations, if you don’t meet up to it, it’ll make you feel bad. It’s not what he expects, but also how much more you want it for yourself. For me, I learned a lot more about myself, to see what else I can do.” – Pagnia

ONO had never expected or any intentions of becoming a group, they just love to sing. It was their family and friends who encouraged them to where they are now. ONO has been a group for four years who thrives on competition. Without that, they would have no motivation. ONO has released four different albums and is currently working on their fifth. I don’t see them slowing down any time in the future. For a beginner like Pagnia, she didn’t know what to expect from other contestants in the beginning of Hmong Idol, I’m sure she’s not the only one who shares her view.

“How were you supposed to guess who will win? Other contestants were all devoted, some had experience behind them and their voices were sensational which you wouldn’t expect that from Hmong people. It’s been one incredible experience, so yeah I had the chills and very nervous. Being there is one of the best moments in Hmong history of all time.” – Pagnia

Be that as it may, they all had to have started off somewhere, whether Pagnia was launched by the Hmong Idol talent search, ONO who were encouraged by their parents and Rare who emerged from friends into business partners. Reflections of North Carolina also started with an all brother band, however careers changed and life goes on. Sonny, who manages Reflections, saw potential of each of the individuals. Even with the loss of former members, new members were added into the mix with a more extreme quality sound base for the band.

“With Corey, Nai, Kong, and Seng, they all develop so much as a group, when together I had to see where we all can achieve.” – Sonny

The mastering process runs the album through high-end equipment to make it sound big, clear, and strong dynamically. Once the album is finished, ask for favors from friends to design your album covers, because it’s cheap that way. They have all come a long way. Each of their albums is full of sounds, feelings and will perhaps one day be featured in other Asian magazines or newspaper.

Chue X Vue, creator and designer of the Split Horn Studios developed Hmong’s first animated feature film for kids called “The Frog & the Tiger”, who also shared a booth with Reflection by the way. Mr. Vue has created an animation film where no Hmong artist has gone before.

“I created the film for my kids, because they don’t know how to speak Hmong that good. It’s one of my many main reasons of creating “The Frog & the Tiger”. It’s about your parents, family and other Hmongs. You just have to hold onto them all before they go.” – Chue X. Vue, Split-Horn Studios, NC.

Like any other Hmong band, Mr. Vue had a reason in creating this film, to teach our Hmong American children our Hmong culture and its values. We have the H Project, which launched their debut collaboration to spread awareness about situations presently happening to our fellow Hmongs across the ocean, while everyone else are paying certain attention to Iraq and hurricane Katrina. We are not as different from others who have experience in surviving a storm.

With an open mind, music and artists alike are all communicating through their visions of creation. They all have inspirations, family, friends, and the knowledge of self-accomplishments. Yet most importantly, they do it for the Hmong community. To give back for all the hard work our ancestors and parents has endured.

Sure Hmong musicians want to be where the action is, where the music is. They even want to life the club life, hearing rhythms of their music blast in stereos and observe the pride in being Hmong in others. Music is an art form, where some Hmong music is being played in underground clubs, they have survived and finding themselves being sought after.

“Freedom of expression and giving back to the community is what inspires me. Especially since Hmong does not have a home and the situations that are currently happening in Laos. We need a voice; someone’s gotta be that voice. It’s not like I’m that voice, but if it takes one person then I’ll do it.

I’m sensitive to a lot of issues to the world. I’m affected by what’s going on. We have situations and issues that need to be explained, people who needs to be aware of what’s going on.” – Alfy

One final question which remained for last has my subjects thinking, affected and even hoped it would happen someday. We have all watched the American music awards, the Golden Globes and those other American important awards live on national television. We have seen live concerts, where some celebrities united as one in order to support a cause they all believe in.

Well, we do have a cause. The H Project has already started uniting bands together to spread out awareness. Now I would like to know, would it be possible that there will be a day, all artists from past, present and future be united as one to perform live to fight for cause they believe in?

“Definitely! We are trying to make our music be heard by everyone including Americans, Thai, Lao and other Asians. If it’s a cause, we’ll support our Hmong community, its culture, traditions and belief.” – Sonny

“Yes there is, I heard MN actually had a concert for the people in Laos. I believe it’s the H Project. e need to keep our culture, without a culture, we’re not Hmong.” – Chue X. Vue

“Honestly, I don’t believe there will be a day. Someone has to take that leadership to unit in a way to fight for a cause.” – Anonymous

“Anything can happen, I never thought of it. But I believe it is possible, I hope it will happen, it’ll be amazing to see the outcome, and I want it to happen.” – Pagnia Xiong

“I don’t see it happening; I don’t see the old band mates: KLS, High Voltage, Paradise or even Sounders coming together. If there was an opportunity for everyone in the music industry to reunite as one to perform live, I’ll definitely jump in and do it. But I don’t see it happening anytime soon.” – Alfy

There you have it, if Brenda Song can become the first Hmong/Thai American actress on the Disney channel. Why can’t we step up and challenge the American industry that we also have talents as well. Our music has a certain beat that are unlike anyone else, we need courage not only to stand for something, and we need courage to do something about what we stand for. For courage we speak out on critical issue that confronts and confound our organizations and society. We can’t show courage if we keep our ideas and inventions to ourselves.

Behind each musician lies a heart, they are poets, and has faith in what they do. I’m a critic when it comes to music, one by one listening to all my subjects’ music. I have to say, we have finally established our Hmong celebrity, big names or not. It might have started from the mountains, but with new developments and improvements to the Hmong music industry. There is actually hope for a brighter future. There is hope that Americans will open there doors for Hmong entertainers.