The shaman and his savior

Documentary Arts preserves the lost music of the Hmong

"I found Boua's knowledge repertoire of this very esoteric style of music to be extraordinary," Govenar says. "I was so impressed with his ability to not only preserve and perform in the Hmong language, but with the kind of conscientiousness with which he preserved the tradition. I also found it extraordinary in thinking about his life, where his main occupation in the mountains of Laos was a mercenary, and yet in the midst of all this, he was able to carry on these ancient traditions. I found that to be uncanny."

During his trip to Dallas in 1991, Govenar took Mua into a Richardson recording studio and began putting to tape the music that would become Documentary Arts' 15th release; among those songs were various traditional pieces that commemorate New Year's celebrations ("Qeej Kawm Ntawv," or "School Song"), weddings ("Zaaj Tshoob--Ceeb Toom Nam Txiv," or "Announcement to the Parents of the Groom"), and funerals. Between Mua's brusque vocals and the sparse use of the unfamiliar free-reed mouth organ (the gaeng), an instrument found only in Hmong music, the music is difficult to absorb at first or 15th listen for the unaccustomed ear.

"Musically, I found it to be unusual and intriguing at the same time," Govenar says. "There's something about the music that has a certain strangeness to Western ears, but that's partly what makes it appealing. It's a sound one hasn't heard before, and for me that's always a driving force in releasing this kind of music. It amazes me there are so many sounds in the world and so much music that has somehow evaded our attention."

In December of last year, Govenar also accompanied Mua to a performance at the Asian Family Center in Portland, where Mua "has stood in proud defiance against the pressures of assimilation," as DeWeese writes in the liner notes, and continued to pass down the Hmong traditions. In fact, Mua's son Lee, an engineer, has begun performing the music and dances and is assisting with the translations of this still primarily unwritten language. (This considerable roadblock held up release of Mua's CD for the past four years.)

"I produced this performance in Portland in part to avert the kind of situation that happened with Alex Moore here, where he had received this national recognition but died in poverty on a city bus," Govenar says, evoking the ghost one more time. "Boua has a hard time in Portland, where the Asian refugees are discriminated against; he had gotten in fights with his neighbor because he was different and strange. Boua had almost died because of the difficulty in getting proper medical care.

"But that's just the reality of how living masters can be revered and ignored at the same time. So often people who preserve these esoteric styles are more known outside of their immediate reality than within their own community. It's just a sad, unfortunate fact."

From rumor to truth
Like they say in Hollywood, don't believe the trades. Here, finally, is the real and complete story on the upcoming--or not--Stevie Ray Vaughan biopic.

As reported here, Miramax Pictures has optioned the rights to the 1993 Joe Nick Patoski- and Bill Crawford-penned biography, Caught in the Crossfire, for $15,000, which will bump up to $150,000 if the studio decides within the next 18 months to make the movie. But director Robert Rodriguez, who helmed Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, now says he isn't sure if he will make the movie after completing The Mark of Zorro, which he will start shooting this summer with Desperado's Antonio Banderas starring. The Vaughan film is, at this point, simply a possibility.

"I was editing From Dusk Till Dawn, and the guys from Miramax said they had optioned the rights to the book," Rodriguez says from an L.A. recording studio. "I jumped at it: 'I'll do it.' I just didn't want anyone else to do it. But even though Miramax has been saying I'm doing it--they're even issuing press releases saying as much--I'm not sure if we'll make it yet. I haven't even finished reading the book."

Rodriguez, who's finishing production on the Tito and Tarantula album he'll release this spring on his Los Hooligans Records imprint through Epic Records, does say he has brought in Jimmie Vaughan to produce the movie. He asked Jimmie to participate simply because the director wants someone from the family--"who knew Stevie and who knows the music," he explains--to offer guidance and counseling. The two met when Jimmie contributed a song to the From Dusk Till Dawn soundtrack, which also features two Stevie Ray selections.

"I told Jimmie I've got a position at Miramax where the movie won't go forward unless we're comfortable," Rodriguez says. "Jimmie will have all the power as producer. If there's something in the film he's not happy with or he feels is inaccurate, it comes out. We could even make a decision at the last minute not to do the movie. If we do [make the film], there will be some care with it."

For now, though, Rodriguez has to shoot Zorro, an idea conceived by Steven Spielberg, and then he might end up making a "family movie" not too unlike his "Los Hooligans" comic strip, which he created at the University of Texas at Austin, or his terrific short film, Bedhead. Jimmie also is working on his second solo album for Epic, which will tie him up for a good part of the year.

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