Written by Chelsey Xiong / Photos by: Wesley J. Yang / Photos by: Vlai Ly / Photos by: Jose Rangel
I was about eleven when I first discovered Hmong American popular music. One weekend, my older sister, brought home a VHS video tape with the words, “Mixed Videos” handwritten on the cover.
Someone had made her a copy because that was how we shared popular culture back then. This particular tape was a compilation of music videos made by Hmong American bands, and it introduced me to Paradise. I was utterly amazed at the Hmong people dancing in the music video glaring from my parents’ cheap television. My siblings and cousins would sit in front of the TV for hours and laugh with glee, because we were seeing for the first time people who look like us doing things that we only saw American Mainstream doing at that time on MTV.
This was at a time where much of the popular Hmong music were low budget old fashion imports from Thailand and Laos. But there was something special happening in Fresno in the 1990’s.
Years later I forgot all about that tape, but I remembered we would play that tape so much, that my mother hated it, and she eventually threw it away. It was just noise to our parents, but today I can understand why. It was something different.
In 2013, I finally saw Paradise performed on stage for the first time at the Hmong Music Festival. I turned to my friend and shouted, “I know all the words!”
He responded, “I know all the words too!” Paradise’s music took us right back in time to when we would watch the heck out of that bootleg VHS tape. But the story of Paradise didn’t begin with the VHS tape, they had humbled beginnings, and I am honored to have the opportunity to give voice to their story.”
Paradise’s journey begins in 1991 in the basement of Saint John’s Cathedral in downtown Fresno
The band was formed by Phong Yang from the inspiration and love of Hmong music and musicians such as Tub Lis Vam Khwb, Toj Roob Lis, Kab Nqos Vas, and KZ Band just to name a few. In the summer of 1990 Phong saved his money from picking okra at his parents farm and was able to buy a $50 guitar at the local swap meet. Phong along with his brother Ko used the basement at Saint John’s Cathedral to practice music with friends Fong Vang on guitar, David Lee on vocal, and Tou Lee on drums.
Long Her, Haget Yang, Nao Vang, and April Vang would join the band much later. They went without a name until 1993 when they decided they needed to come up with a name for the band.
Within the walls of Saint John’s, Phong recalls his older brother Davone suggesting a name with a connection to the church, even though not all their members were Catholics.
How the band decided on the name “Paradise”
“Our family had immigrated to France for about 10 years before we finally came to Fresno. We thought coming to America was kind of like heaven, but naming the band ‘Heaven’ just didn’t sound right nor was it appealing. Another common word for heaven was “PARADISE” because as refugees, we thought of America as paradise,” Phong said. The name serves as a source of inspiration and hope for who were aspiring to become.
The band released their first album, “Nhriav Tus Hlub” in 1994 but there was not an overwhelming response. They even changed their name to “Nuj Sis Loob” because they thought a Hmong band should have a Hmong sounding name in order to connect to the Hmong community. For a whole summer the band went by “Nuj Sis Loob,” with little results; so they reverted back to Paradise.
The band recalls, there were no fans at their booth at the Hmong New Year celebration in Fresno in 1996 even after they released their 2nd album, “Innocent Love.” There was not overwhelming support or positive reaction. Phong and Ko recalls, “We would stand out at our booth everyday with very few people coming up to talk us but we were determined to never give up on our music.”
It wasn’t until Derek Xiong came into the picture that the band started to move in a different direction. Derek saw something unique in the band. He believed in and saw something special about the music that was being written and produced. He decided to become the band’s full time manager.
With no band funds, Derek took a risk. He cashed out his entire retirement savings and poured it into the band. He predicted it was going to take 3 to 4 years before they could build a good fan base but he was willing to invest and sacrifice his time to make this happen. Derek believed in a strong marketing plan coupled with producing music that would touch the hearts of people. He was meticulous and intentional in the way he marketed and showcased the band. For Derek there was a greater cause… he wanted to advance and bring Hmong music to the next level knowing full well he was not going to make any money.
Ko says that, “For a first album to not launch successfully, a band would cease to continue. However, we went on to spend tens of thousand of dollars on professionally producing “Innocent Love” at a recording studio. That should have killed us back then; either we were so stupid or so passionate that we kept doing it.”
Derek was correct. Paradise did start to form a strong fan base over the next 3 years. They pretty much gave their first album away and sold very few of their second one. Only after their 3rd album “Lost in Paradise” in 1999 and the 4th album, “Heavenly Sent” in 2000 that Paradise would become one of the most iconic Hmong bands.
Ko added, “What you need as musicians is a lot of passion.”
Phong couples that with, “you need passion but you have to also be resilient. No matter how many times you get beaten down you still have to get up and keep going. It’s the keep going that makes the difference no matter what anyone thinks or says.”
The Late 90’s
At the peak of their success and popularity, Paradise was one of the most well-known Hmong American bands nationally. Among them were bands such as Whyte Shadow, Sounders, and Destiny. The Hmong music industry suddenly made its way to much larger venues. Local Fresno based bands competed to block key dates for years in advance at venues like the Rainbow Ballroom in order to put on larger concerts. The four bands were at the center of Hmong American pop culture, fusing western pop and rock musical elements with the Hmong language.
With several popular bands in a small Hmong market, the competition was healthy for everyone. Paradise members recall that decade as the most competitive time because bands were working so hard to survive in such a small community. “That competitive environment taught us to work hard,” said Phong. “In a positive way, the abundance of talented bands during the time pushed Paradise to stretch their music creativity and become more proficient musicians. It was a friendly but fierce competition. The challenges built you. If they have a CD, you better have a CD. If they’re going to do a big show, you have to do a bigger show. Everyone ended up pushing everyone to do better.”
“Competition drove the music to be better,” Ko said. “In my opinion, the Hmong music industry reached a different level because the competition kept concerts and CD prices low in a saturated market. You had to be on top of your game to be relevant from one year to the next. With what I know now, in order for us to advance and bridge out into the greater community we have to support one another. This is the only way we will be able to go mainstream. We will only grow when we start supporting our own people.”
Paradise worked hard to create their own original style and music. Over the years, they developed their own signature sounds. Their musical styles have influences from American and French pop and rock music. They pushed the music envelope by experimenting with sounds less explored in the Hmong music arena at that time. The band reaped the rewards and at times, suffered the consequences for their courage while exploring new musical frontiers. For example, the band agreed that Fine Girl, released in 2001, was one of their more well-produced albums but it was also one of the least favorite albums among the fans. Paradise quickly found out that the community was less willing to embrace drastic changes.
The band had their breakthrough with “Good Night Tus Kuv Hlub” from the Heavenly Sent album.
Long Her summed up the experience of producing that album with these words: “As a musician, you can hear your song in your mind. Nobody else in the world can hear that song or imagine that song the same way. So it is your job to produce the song the way you hear it. It’s such a beautiful thing when the song comes out right. That’s when you know you just made something special. There’s no better feeling knowing that the one song you just made might possibly have an impact on future Hmong music.”
When “Good Night Tus Kuv Hlub” came out, we knew we had created a new sound that Hmong people didn’t hear before.
As musicians who are one hundred percent involved in the process from songwriting to production, Paradise speaks fondly of their creative process.
As people who are involved in telling stories, each of us has our own way of hearing the stories before we put them out. Writers use written words and musicians tell stories with songs. Each song has a message and reason for why it was written. It’s beautiful when you make a song come to life and people can feel the deep emotions within it.
Long expressed it as the ability to “turn audio into visual in terms of what you create for the listeners to experience.”
Hmong Language in American Popular Music
Paradise recognizes the importance of the Hmong language in their music. Even though the Band has used a mixed of English, Hmong, and French in their songs, Long believes some songs are often more beautiful in the Hmong language even if they initially wrote the songs in English during the creative process. “I feel like when the words are sung in Hmong, it’s smoother,”
Long expresses “There are simply words in Hmong that you can’t translate into English. These words are very simple but are so deep they lose their true essence in English. When we sing in Hmong, we feel like the meaning is more complete.”
The language is also their way to connect with their Hmong culture and the Hmong community, especially for Nao Vang who lives in the Bay Area.
Nao didn’t grow up around in a circle of Hmong friends so being a part of the band gave him a chance to learn about Hmong music and engage with the community. Nao currently resides in Oakland where there are few Hmong, and he enjoys his time in Fresno. “I feel it’s rewarding – that’s why I’m still here; this is my way into the Hmong community.”
He emphasizes an appreciation of Hmong language because “The music we make is heavily influenced by American pop and rock music but at the same time we’re trying to translate that into ideas that exist in Hmong culture, with concepts that tie to our language. I think it’s a pretty awesome way to build bridges between our youth, elders, and the greater community.”
Today, some Hmong youth may not know how to speak Hmong fluently, but they could sing in Hmong fluently. “I think that’s why some of the younger generation listen to Hmong music, because they’re trying to connect with who they are,” Phong said. “It’s important that we remember who we are and that the Hmong language is incredibly beautiful. It’s something to be proud of.”
Redefining Success as Musicians
Getting into the Hmong music industry with a western sound was a very new concept to sell to the community. The band members recall the doubt from their own families because artists and musicians couldn’t make a professional living solely with music.
It’s logical that in a community like ours, it makes sense that the definition of success usually doesn’t include musicians or artists. Even today, our community prefers doctors and lawyers because of the impact on our lives and the “prestige” it carries, but Long asks, “how could musicians and artists make our lives better?” Creating music and having that platform allows musicians to deliver their message to an audience without even being present. He believes musicians and artists can also be a definition of success. Musicians through their music and lyrics, can reach thousands of people who hear their messages and are impacted by their songs. This is equally as important as a doctor or a lawyer.”
Phong emphasizes that the “influence” from artists and musicians is far greater than what people think. “In Paradise’s case, who knew people would still be listening to our music? If we were physicians, people might have forgotten about us already but because we have some cheesy music videos out there, we are still on their minds thus still have the opportunity to impact them. I once walked into a high school Hmong language class and the teacher was using a Paradise song to teach his students how to listen, read, write, and pronounce Hmong. I, myself, taught college Hmong and did the same exact thing with various artists’ music. That’s influence. If anything, years from now, I consider it a small footprint that I leave behind for my kids and future generations.”
The Future of Hmong American Music
With social media, the internet, modern technology and access to so much information, there are many different ways of creating and putting music out into the world. Many solo artists now have access to promoters to produce their music and put on shows. “Back then you were your own promoters because you were your own funders. Bands like Paradise, Sounders and Whyte Shadow – we funded, produced and promoted ourselves,” Long said. Paradise released their music under their own label, Paradise Records and Entertainment.
“It’s great that nowadays, Hmong artists are finding support from promoters, but there is just something priceless in producing one’s work from scratch; from writing to composing the music; to securing show dates and organizing/operationalizing how the show is going to run; to marketing, selling your albums and concert tickets. When you do everything its life skills that you acquire and use to make yourself into a better human being.” said Phong.
“I think the most rewarding thing for me was having the opportunity to get involved in all aspects of the band that contributed to our success. From writing to singing, rehearsing then to performing on stage and all the business aspect in between. The business aspect is extremely important. If you want to go reach your goals as an artist, you definitely need a strong business plan and have enough courage to execute it. I got to do everything.”
Giving Back to the Community
The band sees that younger generations of Hmong recognize their music react positively to them when they perform at conferences, charity, and other community events. Members of Paradise could have stayed focused on just their careers but they chose to be active and support worthwhile causes. For the band there is a deeper cause for making music now. It’s about empowering and inspiring the next generation of artists and giving them a platform to truly see their potential.
In the last few years, the members devoted themselves to several community events, including significant involvement in Hmongstory 40, Fresno State Journey to Success and various educational events. Their engagement with the community is one of the reasons why young adults like myself appreciate having them. What is different and special about Paradise is they have found a way to use their music and expertise as an empowering tool to speak to young people and inspire them to be better in all aspects of life. Their message transcends HOPE and RESPECT for artists in our community into the greater community.
“You don’t realize that you could be a role model. When I joined, I was a teenager. It didn’t dawn on me that 15 years later whether I liked it or not, I would have people looking up at me. I had to always push myself to maintain that standard both musically and professionally,” April said.
Nao adds, “It’s difficult to be as involved as I would like because I live a few hours away, but I do try to do whatever I can to support the Hmong community. I think it’s important to show those who want to get into music that it’s doable; if you’re willing to work hard and stick to it.”
After taking a 15 year leave to focus on their own families, education, and careers, “There is a renewed desire to create music for our fans young and old but Paradise has always given on many occasions to the Hmong community. Many of us never stopped doing music. It was just in different ways but we never really stopped.” Long said.
Paradise is also ever evolving. This is a characteristic the band is most proud of. Recently, Paradise brought on two new band members: Donny and Nathan Yang – a father and son duo who have yet added another layer of flavor to the band.
Donny tells us, “The main reason why I decided to join Paradise when I was asked was because of their level of care for giving back to the community, their dedication to becoming better, and work ethic. I think it’s powerful and inspiring to be able to work with individuals I look up to and deeply respect. I allowed my son, Nathan, to join because I hope when he grows up, he would aspire to follow the same footsteps. These are individuals I want my own children looking up to.”