The shaman and his savior

Documentary Arts preserves the lost music of the Hmong

Seven years later, Alan Govenar still speaks of the specter of Alex Moore, how it still haunts everything Govenar does. Such is the price the historians and folklorists have to pay, watching as the men and women they pluck from obscurity inevitably drop back into the anonymity from which they came.

Moore was a great Deep Ellum bluesman of the 1930s who never achieved the notoriety of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie Ledbetter ("Leadbelly"), and Robert Johnson; half a decade later, he was living in a rundown South Dallas apartment, a dime away from indigence.

Govenar met Moore in 1985 while working on his essential book, Meeting the Blues, an oral history that told the story of the Texas blues through those who witnessed the music's birth and nurtured it to adulthood. Moore was one of those musicians, a keeper of the country-moved-to-the-city blues flame even when his own began to diminish by the mid-1980s because of age and bad health.

Govenar, who is now putting the finishing touches on a musical and cultural history of Deep Ellum he will self-publish in the summer with co-author Jay Brakefield, resurrected Moore for a brief moment of glory when he nominated the guitarist and singer for the Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts--which Moore eventually received. Moore then went on to speak and perform around the Dallas Independent School District, letting young kids meet and hear the blues for the first time. Moore had lost some of his touch, his technique suffered greatly from the rust of old age, but he never lost his passion for the music.

Then, in 1989, Moore was found dead on a city bus--just another indigent slouched in his seat to be carted off by authorities to whom the name Alex Moore meant nothing. Medical reports indicated Moore's heart had failed him--and so, Alan Govenar believed, had he.

"It's a haunting influence," Govenar says of Moore's anonymous death on the bus. Govenar once thought he had rescued a would-be legend, but soon realized he had only prolonged the inevitable.

Alan Govenar's mission has always been a clearly defined one: to preserve and protect the folk music of the United States, even if its practitioners are not from this country. A closet in his office in a red-brick firehouse on Columbia Avenue, which has long housed Govenar's Documentary Arts organization, overflows with audio and video cassettes filled with the music of black cowboys and Vietnamese merchants, bluegrass old-timers and anonymous blues legends.

Since it was founded 11 years ago, Documentary Arts has been responsible for 15 releases, including those from the likes of Austin hepcat Lavada Durst, bluesman John Dee Holeman, local Vietnamese folk musicians (Songs of Departure was deemed one of the outstanding recordings of 1991 by the Library of Congress), spiritual singer Osceola Mays, and the revered Deep Ellum Blues collection. Such are the amassments of a man obsessed with preserving the past and bringing it into the future, Alex Moore included.

Govenar, who has also penned a couple of books on Texas blues and presented the 52-part radio series for public radio called "Masters of Traditional Folk Music" a decade ago, is intent on not letting Moore's fate befall other musicians who become part of Govenar's ongoing Documentary Arts projects.

Govenar's most recent release comes from a man from Portland, Oregon, named Boua Xou Mua--an 81-year-old Laotian shaman, clan chief, and former CIA-supported mercenary soldier who came to the U.S. in 1978 and who, like Moore, practices his ancient craft in seclusion, often as an outsider among his own people.

Titled The Music of the Hmong People of Laos, the CD is being co-released with the revered California-based folk preservation label Arhoolie. It's filled with a music that dates back literally thousands of years, to a time when the Hmong people ("a hill-tribes people," according to the liner notes) inhabited the mountains of Southeast Asia undisturbed; in fact, the Hmong (pronounced "mong")had no written language until 40 years ago. The CD contains, at the very least, the sort of music likely to sell in the hundreds and not the hundreds of thousands--filled with melodies so foreign and forgotten they first sound indecipherable and ancient and even a bit off-putting to Western ears.

Like the other releases from Documentary Arts--which is in so many ways the equivalent to the legendary Folkways label begun in 1947 by Moses Asch to preserve music from around the world--The Music of the Hmong People exists now as a document, a small piece of insurance that will safeguard against the disappearance of the dying art form.

Govenar first brought Mua, a recipient of the National Heritage Award in 1984, to Dallas five years ago as part of the Dallas Folk Festival, which was held at the Meyerson Symphony Center. The performance, which also included four other National Heritage Fellows, was held in honor of Moore. As Jan DeWeese writes in the liner notes for the disc, Mua also performed at a program for Asian refugees at the local Multicultural Community Center, where Mua was reunited with a long-lost relative he had not seen since 1976.

"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.

As for the rumors that Brad Pitt will play the Oak Cliff-born Stevie Ray, Rodriguez merely laughs: "I've met Brad once, and we've never talked about it. I don't even know if he's interested or if his agent is interested. It's so far off there's no point in committing to anyone. I mean, George Clooney popped up out of nowhere for Dusk, so there's an advantage to waiting till the last minute."

Street Beat welcomes e-mail tips and comments at DalObserv@aol.com.

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