Story by Pachia Vang / Photos by Kong Vue / photos by Vlai Ly
Among a new generation of Hmong artists, Kub Vaj Loog Tsua has emerged as a star that has taken the Hmong-American community by a storm. A singer from Laos with a voice that penetrates the soul, Kub’s songs have touched the hearts of both young and old, speaking to the hardships we have endured as a people of diaspora. His music reconnects severed generations to uncover how a love of people and a longing for home continue to be the things most dear to the Hmong people’s hearts.
On stage Kub captivates an audience not just with his phenomenal voice but also his unique confidence and brazen humor that comes out in between songs. The feeling he gets from performing, he says, is the best in the world because it allows him to see how people can come together despite their differences and troubles. This connection to the crowd inspires him because it allows him to see how the power of the Hmong community that continues to be strong even in being separated throughout the world.
If you catch Kub off-stage, however, beneath this rockstar persona you will find a man who is soft-spoken and mild-mannered. This is a trait that pays tribute to his upbringing as a boy in the refugee camps of Thailand.
Heartbreak in the Camps
While the refugee camps are often attributed to difficulties and struggles, Kub’s memories don’t do justice to these issues. Although camps were often overcrowded, Kub remembers it filled with friends and fun get-togethers like singing competitions. Life wasn’t easy but they had each other and that’s what got them through the hard times.
“It isn’t until you get older and look back,” he says, “that you realize how much sadness you actually felt living in a place like that.” The camps may have provided a sense of safety but they didn’t necessary provide a sense of security because everything was temporary.
“I wanted us to have a place we could stay, a place that we could call our own but we had to keep leaving.”
Although Kub’s music has never been personal, he can sing about heartache and loss because it’s something he knows well from his time living in the camps. Because his dad wanted to return to Laos and his mom’s was set on coming to America, his parents decided they were going to separate and split up the kids. When his mom told him he would have to stay with his dad, he almost died. His heart broke and his soul ran away. They called a shaman to make sure it was called back home, but home would be changing in a matter of days.
They resettled in a small town called “Ab Liab” on the outskirts of Vientiane, where they were given small house and land. Kub spent his youth here in the fields growing up as a farmer’s son. Short on money but rich in time, he taught himself how to play the guitar and listened to classics like Luj Yaj and Lis Pos.
Music was always a way for him to feel connected to something bigger in the world. Although he dabbled with it a lot in his free time, it wasn’t until he discovered The Sounders that his perspective changed. Unlike the classical Hmong musicians he listened to, The Sounders were unlike anything Kub had ever heard before. They put Hmong music on the ranks of mainstream Thai and American radio airwaves which had never been done before. This inspired Kub to think outside of the box about what he could become and how he could craft his artistry.
He became serious and got together with a group of friends to begin recording. In 2003, their first album and song “Qav Kaws Tes Taw” debuted. Rock and roll in nature, the song paid tribute to iconic figures such as the Sounders to Nuj Nplhaib and Dr. Tom, playing on the notion of a man’s love for a woman that he didn’t think he was good enough to get. This playfulness in Kub’s lyrics paired with his deep and soulful voice that added to the edgy sound of his music became an emblem for the name we all know him by today as Kub Qav Kaws. This however was only the beginning as five years later, “Zab Dab Neeg Hlub Tim Vaj Loog Tsua” would be released to become an even bigger success.
Kub Vaj Loog Tsua
Simply referred to as “Vaj Loog Tsua,” the heights of this new song has given Kub a new name in honor of what it’s done for his musical career and popularity throughout the world. Although the song was written for a specific fan who requested it, it was also written to reflect a collective experience of what loss felt like in the refugee camps. After the success of his song “Nplooj Siab Vib Naib,” Kub became aware of how much more people liked songs that were tied to a place in Hmong memory. He agreed to write the song for his fan, but he wanted it to be more than just about the guy’s love for a girl. He wanted “Vaj Loog Tsua” to showcase feelings that he knew many Hmong people could relate to in parting from the collective places we’ve had to leave behind in our history.
To do this, he approached the song looking for places that people would remember. Inside this he found memories of the fish pond that guys would take their girlfriends to at night along with the only movie theaters in town they would go “saib naa”. Although these details helped to transport people back in time, it’s realness and relatability also spoke to young Hmong-Americans who have never been there before at all.
It is a combination of both Kub’s unique voice and his ability to speak across generations that makes “Vaj Loog Tsua” a sensation. The popularity of his music and the change in his name marks a new era of music that he ushers in for the Hmong community.
Although it’s been a common trend for popular Hmong musicians from America to travel back to Asia to share their music, Kub is breaking the mold by being one of the first musicians from Laos to make it big in America. He has only been in the U.S. for a few years but his popularity has invited him to star in big concerts from California to Wisconsin and Minnesota.
When asked about what the differences are between the Hmong in Laos and the Hmong in America, he believes that the only real things separating us is opportunity.
“If Laos was a country that had as many opportunities as America, the success of the Hmong people would be the same because of our ambition and drive.” As a man of his word, Kub is a prime example of this statement. While the Hmong people may have gone our separate ways, our sense of community and identity has not withered which Kub has seen in his success as an artist.
“The Hmong in America are kind and supportive just like the Hmong in Laos.” Although he comes from a poor country where people have less, he’s never felt ostracized for being Hmong-Lao by the Hmong-American people he’s met. It’s made him proud and happy to say that, “We are still one people.”
A Musician for the People: Family and Friends
From the beginning, Kub’s music has been inspired from the outside in. “The music comes from in here,” he says referring to himself, “but it starts from out there.”
Kub is a people-based artist who recognizes the role his fans and friends have inspired in his success. Every step of the way he has had help from the people around him, whether that has been through music production, CD purchasing, or sheer motivation and song-writing ideas. He attributes his success directly to his supporters, who have notably played a large part in helping him reunite with his mom.
“When it was confirmed that I was going to come to the U.S. I could not wait to see my mom. I never thought I’d see her again and when I did, I didn’t want to cry but the tears fell regardless.” It is through life changing experiences like this, that Kub believes having a supportive fan-base has been the best part of his success. He considers many of these people to be family and friends to him and wants them to know how much he appreciates all of them.
Fame, Music, and the Future
Kub’s journey as one of first Hmong-Lao artists to launch their career in America has not come without its difficulties but he continues to persevere because of the support of the Hmong people. His story signifies a change in the tides of music, that represents a re-connection we are experiencing with the people and places in our memories we may have thought we have forgotten as Hmong-Americans that are not so far away.
“Fame and music is not something that is going to be with me forever,” he says, “So I want to make the best of this time before it is over.”
He was never one to be good at cultural traditions like elders wanted him to be. Instead, he followed what he was good at and it has guided him this far. “I’ve kept at music so that one day my children can say that I did something worthwhile to be written down and left behind for my people.” He encourages Hmong youth to continue doing the same, following their dreams to make a place for us in the world.
While Kub’s music has taken him all throughout the Hmong Diaspora, from Laos to America, what he misses most are his wife and children. He looks forward to being reunited with them soon while continuing to make the most of his career as a changemaker in the Hmong music industry.