A member of the Natasinh Dancers / Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe of Iowa portrays Hanuman the Monkey, the major character in a Buddhist dance performance.
In the mid 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam War, thousands of people from Laos began to resettle in the United States. Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west. The country includes many different ethnic groups resulting from migrations across southern Asia. Many of these groups have achieved a degree of unity to form an ethnic identity of "Lao" while individual groups still keep their own customs, giving many Lao individuals multiple ethnic identities. People who identify themselves as ethnic Lao living in the United States have mainly settled in California but have formed communities in many other states as well. The Hmong people, a distinct tribal group from northern Laos, Vietnam, and southern China, have mainly settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin with smaller communities in other states.
The musical culture of ethnic Lao in America includes pop music, classical Southeast Asian music, and dance and traditional folk music. Examples of traditional Lao classical and folk music and dance can be viewed in a video of the Natasinh Dancers / Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe of Iowa performing at the Library of Congress in 2006. The Natasinh style of dance refers to the traditional forms, techniques, and character of performing arts taught at the Ecole National de Musique et Danse Laötien (National School of Lao Music and Dance), founded in the capital Vientiane, Laos in 1956 to preserve the music and dance traditions of Laos. The goals of the Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe of Iowa are to teach and entertain at Buddhist celebrations and community events, and to pass their skills on to young dancers and musicians in the Des Moines Lao community. Vocal music, instrumental music, and dance are demonstrated in this video. Two dances used in Buddhist ceremonies are performed. A dance and song performed by women in costumes of different ethnic groups is intended to symbolize the many ethnic groups that formed the single nation of Laos.
Attempts to continue the legacy of traditional Lao music in the United States have faced difficulties because of the strong desire of American-born Lao to assimilate. Natasinh dance groups are working to keep traditional music, song and dance alive in the face of cultural changes. Dance groups have been founded in several states to teach and perform traditional music, songs, and dances.
Lao music includes about a dozen regionally-specific forms of singing that are associated with Buddhist rituals, rural life and ritualized courtship, called kharp in the north of Laos and lam in the south. Buntong Insixiengmai of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and his nephew Khamvong Insixiengmai of Fresno, California, are two important ethnic Lao American artists specializing in lam music and song of southern Laos. Their singing is accompanied by the khene (a bamboo free-reed mouth organ). Khamvong has made a name for himself beyond the Laotian American community. In 1991 Khamvong Insixiengmai was selected as a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow.
In addition to the khene, traditional Lao music may include a plucked lute called a pin, small cymbals called sing, drums and a wooden instrument that produces rattling and scraping sounds called a nai ngawp ngaep.
The Hmong, from northern Laos, traditionally use sung poetry and embroidered story cloths to pass on their history and traditions to the young. Traditional songs also include love songs and songs that praise nature. New songs are created by singers in the traditional style as well.
Both the Lao and Hmong immigrants and their descendants are rapidly adapting to American life. In music and song this is apparent in changing styles of music. Young Hmong Americans are often less interested in singing traditional songs than in fusing Hmong music with popular American musical styles. An example is the popular singer and songwriter Jade Lee, who sings in Hmong and English. Hmong festivals and community events often include performances in both new styles of music and traditional ones.
The most widespread form of vocal music among ethnic Lao American people today is the pop song. Accompanied by rock music instruments, including electric guitars, keyboard and drum kit, this style of music is practiced primarily by Lao born in the United States. Much of the repertoire is devoted to arrangements of American pop tunes with Lao lyrics. However, Lao American groups also play pop-infused versions of indigenous regional music. It is also common to find traditional lam songs accompanied by rock instruments.
These rock bands often provide music for community celebrations of Lao and American holidays, where both traditional and contemporary music may be performed. The repertoire of the rock bands often includes traditional Lao circle dance songs (lamvong), modernized regional lam styles and American line dance music.
So among both the ethnic Lao and the Hmong, community events frequently include developing styles of Americanized music and also presentations that introduce traditional songs to younger generations with the idea that the new and the old styles can exist together.
- "Lao, Thai and Cham Music" by Terry E. Miller in Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 1007
- See more articles about Ethnic Song in America