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How a Hmong Song Tradition Is Kept Alive in the American Midwest

This article originally appeared on PRI.org on May 26, 2016, and is republished here as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Think of kwv txhiaj as song poetry.

Or better yet, think of it like a Hmong version of the blues. And in that vein, think of kwv txhiaj the way American writer Ralph Ellison thought of the blues: “an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”

Ellison's quote starts off a new book about kwv txhiaj and one of its singers, a man named Bee Yang. The story is by his daughter, award-winning author Kao Kalia Yang. It's called “The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father.”

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Her book shows that, like the blues, kwv txhiaj can be soothing for the soul.

“It connects me to my dad,” Yang says. “Everybody in America knows him, and for most of my life I've talked about him as a machinist. But I know that in his heart and in his mind he is a song poet. So when I hear kwv txhiaj, I think about the man who, long before I'd ridden a bike or a car, I saw the world from his shoulders. It was those shoulders that took me to the tops of the trees and said, ‘One day your little hand and feet will not dictate your life journey. You will walk on the horizons your father has never seen.’ So when I hear kwv txhiaj I think about his words and I think about the future he saw for me.”

It's a future that is distinct from a past filled with war. Her father fled Laos for a refugee camp in Thailand during the US war in Vietnam, and in 1987 settled his family in the US state of Minnesota.

“As a child of the Hmong people, I know that we come from a war. Growing up in America I never knew which war we came from because in history classes we only learned about the Vietnam War as between the Americans and the North Vietnamese Army,” she says. “To belong to a people that has been deleted so thoroughly from history I think is terribly sad. My father and other traditional Hmong kwv txhiaj singers have tried to document this in their songs, the stories of how war came upon a people, how lives were lost, and how we stood up again.”

So kwv txhiaj is also history.

Yang adds that for many refugee children like herself, songs like the kwv txhiaj call them home and raise them up. And only a select few can do it.

“You cannot just be a kwv txhiaj singer. You have to be born with a gift because your voice is the only music accompanying your words into the world.”

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