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Tradition With a Twist


It's probably safe to say that the Hmong pop group Destiny is one of the few musical acts around whose repertoire includes Santana as well as haunting ancient folk songs from the Laotian highlands.

"It's pretty easy to get gigs, but sometimes the older folks want us to play songs for them, so we just try to play along and match the song," said Ks Vang, 21, who plays keyboards for the five-member band, based in Brooklyn Center.

Destiny -- performing some songs in Hmong, some in English and some in both languages -- was one of several Hmong musical acts Saturday at the Minnesota Hmong 20th Annual Sports Tournament at Como Park. But the band also is part of a growing roster of Hmong pop groups carrying on a tradition as old as their people.

Music has long been an important part of Hmong culture and has been an important way of preserving the folk tales of the Hmong, who survived without a written language until the 1950s.

This latest crop of Hmong musicians does the same thing, using contemporary Western beats, rhythms and instrumentation. The groups have names like the Loners, Freeman, Paradise and Whyteshadow.

"I guess there are more teen-agers now, and they're more into music. There's more kids than before, but we've always used folk songs to pass down stories," said Meecha Thao, of Fresno, Calif., whose husband, Thai Thao, sings and plays guitar for the Fresno-based band, The Sounders.

The table at Thao's booth was filled with The Sounders' new CD, "Dua Rhe Nplooj Siab," which loosely translates to "when the guy is going away, `I'm sorry for leaving you, my heart is broken.' "

Saturday was the first day The Sounders' new CD was available, and it was no accident that the band timed its release to coincide with the Sports Tournament.

As Hmong pop music goes, the tournament is a combination of Nashville's Fan Fair, Austin's South By Southwest Music Conference and the Minnesota State Fair. The two-day tournament draws Hmong from across the country, and as many as 30,000 people were expected to attend each day.

The stars of contemporary Hmong music go there to be seen. Still, the key attraction of the tournament remains the soccer games. In all, 60 teams from Minnesota, California, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and even Canada are competing, said Tou Sue Lee, sports director of the Lao Family Community of Minnesota, Inc., the tournament's organizer.

"This is the event for the Hmong community throughout the country," Lee said as he overlooked the oblong-shaped depression that is McMurry Field, where several games were going on.

The grassy areas between the field and Horton Avenue are lined with booths selling everything from phuams (the wrap Hmong women wear on their heads for certain ceremonies) to various traditional foods to a "Micro-computerized Rice Cake Maker."

The heavy emphasis at this year's booths is the music. Rising stars of Hmong pop come to the tournament to get a toehold in the marketplace, to get some name recognition and to sell some CDs.

One such performer is Peter Pao, 27, of Minneapolis. He plays guitar and sings, and he was standing behind a table at his booth, trying to sell a wide range of tapes and CDs, including his own tape, "Nco Ntsoov Tias Kuv Tseem Hlub Koj" ("Remember That I Still Love You").

Getting gigs in the Twin Cities is hard for new Hmong acts. For one thing, the community isn't large enough to support a lot of Hmong music acts, he said.

Pao writes much of his own material. What does he write about?

"Depressing, lost love, the past," he shrugged. Pretty much your everyday pop, rock or folk fare.