Txiv Xaiv: Songs of Advice to the Spirit

 The Txiv Xaiv creates a happy story for the dead’s spirit so that when they leave, only the good events that had happened will be remembered, and happy memories will be kept.

Growing up in a traditional Hmong family, I have attended several funerals with my parents. My father, Chao Vang, is a Txiv Xaiv, which means he helps sing songs during a funeral. Chao Vang is a traditional singer and he also calls himself a teacher. He teaches many other Hmong people that want to learn how to sing these special funeral songs, the meaning of the several different songs, and master the appropriateness of a song that should be sung at an individual’s funeral. I grew up listening to my dad sing these songs over and over, recording it and giving it to other people to learn them, and hearing him and other singers sing the same type of music at funerals, but never really understand the meaning behind funeral songs. To gain a more deeper understanding about the funeral songs being use in my culture, I decided to ask my father to explain the meaning behind the songs he sings and the value of these traditional funeral songs in the Hmong community. The interview was spoken in Hmong, but translated to English.

The history of where the Hmong people originated from is still unclear but from Chinese history, Hmong people originated from Northern China. Five thousand years ago, Hmong lived in harmony along with the Chinese. However, the first Emperor of China decided to strip away the Hmong people’s homeland and tried to extinct any trace of the Hmong people, their traditions and culture. Petrified, Hmong emigrated down south of China and to other southeast Asian countries to continue their traditions and culture. Traditions and cultures are still practiced and are orally passed from generations. It was the Secret War that had taken place in southeast Asia that led the Hmong people to seek refuge in Thailand. However, now scattered throughout the world, the Hmong are now writing down their history, traditions, and culture into books.

One of the culture the Hmong people still practice before the burial in the morning is the singing of Txiv Xaiv to the dead and love ones left behind. The singer must be chosen by the dead’s family, which he then gives blessings to the dead and those that are still living, through the funeral songs. The singer pass messages to the dead’s love ones so they can move on and continue to be live happily. This singer is known as the Txiv Xaiv, the man who conveys words of wisdom from the dead to the dead’s love ones. Paul Stroller states that magical words “are believed to carry very special powers” in Africa and other places in the world (p.562). Just like the Hmong culture, they believe words that are spoken through the Txiv Xaiv can impact the mood of one’s spirit. Both the songs and the singer is called Txiv Xaiv. Since there is not a direct translation of the word Txiv Xaiv, the singer Chao Vang, compares the Txiv Xaiv to a pastor. A pastor gives advice and guidance to the people, which is similar to the duties of a Txiv Xaiv. The advice is given to improve the people’s lives so they can move on and live peacefully, instead of being sorrowful towards the loss of their loved one.

The Txiv Xaiv is usually a male. Females can also practice it and are highly encouraged to learn. However, due to traditions, according to Lay Vang who is a former graduate student instructor of the University of California, Davis, a female singing to the dead facing towards the coffin, is considered inappropriate. Nonetheless, they are allowed to sing the other songs when facing the living. The position the Txiv Xaiv is facing indicates the audience the Txiv Xaiv is singing to. Back turned towards the living and facing the coffin is singing to the dead, and back facing the dead is to advise the living.

There is a difference between culture and tradition. The practice of singing Txiv Xaiv is a part of the Hmong culture. It is a tradition that have been practiced from the ancestors and will be follow more in the later generations to come. This has been a highly valued tradition to the Hmong that has passed on from earlier years, which makes their funerals unique and different. This custom applies to all Hmong families that still believe in Shamanism. Traditions are information or beliefs that are passed down. Traditional practices has been exercised for many years and it has now become the norm in the community. The example of Hmong tradition is the males can sing Txiv Xaiv to the dead but a female should not, because it is considered inappropriate. Traditions can be changed overtime, which can affect the culture.

Txiv Xaiv is a term that is used for both the singer and the song name. Depending on the context of sentence that the word “Txiv Xaiv” is used, a person will know if one is talking about the song or the singer. Most of the time, when referring to the song, “hu Txiv Xaiv,” is the term to use. “Hu Txiv Xaiv” means “to sing Txiv Xaiv.” If one is referring to the singer, it is said in the phrase “tug Txiv Xaiv” which means “the Txiv Xaiv.” Although Txiv Xaiv is the term that is used for funeral songs, each song has its own title. The title will state specifically who the audience the song is intended to before the Txiv Xaiv starts singing. In the recording I did of Chao Vang, he starts off by talking. In this small part of the song, he gives a summary of the song so that those who do not understand the Txiv Xaiv language would know the advice the Txiv Xaiv is transmitting. That is when he states the song title and what the the song means.

Txiv Xaiv are songs full of meanings that pertains to guide the love ones to live a good life ahead of them. There are 3 to 4 stages that consists many songs that must be sung at a funeral by the Txiv Xaiv. Each song lasts 15 minutes or longer with special meanings in each individual song to certain people that is related to the dead. In the first stage, the Txiv Xaiv sings is to the person that is dead. As he stands up on the platform with the microphone, he faces towards the coffin and sings the story of the dead’s life. The Txiv Xaiv takes his/her soul on a journey from the beginning when he/she is given life into the world, growing old and dying. “They never tell the real reason of their death and say that it is because of the many diseases that exists in this world.” (Translated to English from Hmong) The reason they do this is because they want the spirit to leave the world happily. They were only destined to live to a certain amount of time and it is time for them to leave to the after-world.

The second stage is about family. The Txiv Xaiv wants to remind the dead’s spirit only about the good things that happen within his family. Even if there were any problems that occurred within the family, none of it is spoken of. No matter how much the parents has disciplined or done anything wrong to the person that has died, they were still the one that gave life to him/her, and he/she cannot forget about that kindness from the parents. They were able to grow up and live life, even if it was just for a short while. It is the song of how much effort the person who had died parents had done to raise up the person that died and his/her siblings. The love the parents gave to each of the siblings are the same, so no one should hold any grudges against each other. Siblings show love in diverse ways, such as by arguing or with emotional support. The disputes that existed between siblings are spoken of as loving each other. In “Fado Resounding,” Lilia Ellen Gray states, “in the ears of one person, one musical moment might simultaneously point to multiple memories or feelings, senses of place or of history” (p. 6). The Txiv Xaiv creates a happy story for the dead’s spirit so that when they leave, only the good events that had happened will be remembered, and happy memories will be kept.

The third stage is optional and songs are only sung if the person who is dead has any children. If they are still young or just do not have a child, this third song will be skipped and the service continues onto the next song. For this third song, the Txiv Xaiv will then turn around and face the audience. The Txiv Xaiv teaches the children to love one another because that is what the dead only wish to see once he/she is gone. He tells the children, whether old or young, to not complain and just work hard to help one another and to live with a purpose. Chao Vang said that Hmong emphasizes family no matter who they are. Family is important and the bond that has been created in a family is stronger than anything. The children must learn to love each other because no one will love them like their parents. They are to earn money by themselves now and share with their siblings since they will no longer have a parent that will do it for them anymore. The Txiv Xaiv now speaks for the dead. As if like the children’s parent, he tells them things that they would tell their children if they were still alive.

The last song ends in sorrow. The Txiv Xaiv concludes the last song with a message that the dead would want his/her love ones to hear. There will only be joy with luck and fortune coming to those that are present at the funeral. Love, wealth, prosper, and prosperity are given to the dead’s love ones, families, and friends for attending such a special day. The overall meaning of these songs are life teaching lessons for all the dead’s love ones. They should take and follow the advice as they continue with their own lives. At the end of all the songs, which usually end around late midnight, money and soda are passed around to anyone that is present to take home. It is said that if one drinks the soda that are passed out at this time, the will receive good fortune. The money, either one dollar bills or two dollar bills, are saved up so luck will come to the person that received the money.

Before the Txiv Xaiv ceremony, the dead’s families come and sit on the ground in front of the Txiv Xaiv. When talking about families, it pertains to the dead’s immediate family, and the close cousins of the family. Kinship means a lot in the Hmong community so cousins are all considered brothers and sisters. The luck that is wished upon the children all goes to the cousins and relatives as well, because they are all a big family. During this time, each child will hold 3 unlit incenses in their hands. When the Txiv Xaiv gives the hand motion, the children will bow their head three times, which shows respect and an understanding of the advice the Txiv Xaiv is giving.

All Txiv Xaiv has a certain way they sing and a movement of their body to flow with the songs. Since there is no music in the background and is just the voice, the Txiv Xaiv slowly rocks from side to side. Without instrumental music, the Txiv Xaiv creates a rhythm with the way he sings. Each Txiv Xaiv has their individual way of making the rhythm. In Chao Vang’s recording that I did, he creates rhythm with the way he stretches some of the words. He uses his voice and at certain parts, he goes lower with his tone and stretches the word. He does this repetitively creating rhythm with just his voice and no instrumental music. He holds a microphone in his hand and a water bottle in the other. Since this part of the funeral last 4 or more hours, the Txiv Xaiv needs to clear his throat by drinking some water, especially when they are going to be stretching their voice to produce a rhythmic flow.

Many times, people look for the signal of the Txiv Xaiv and not listen because the language of the Txiv Xaiv songs can be confusing. The language that the songs are sung in is Hmong, but there needs to be an understanding of the phrases that are being used in order to fully understand the meaning behind each song. Similar to Fado music, knowing the main language that is used does not mean the person will understand the meaning the song is conveying. It is a combination of “an understanding of both music and language” (p. 7). Usually the older people that attends funerals and those that are Txiv Xaiv will understand the songs, but children and teens most likely do not understand the meaning or the importance of these songs. That is why the Txiv Xaiv must signal a motion to the audience to know what to do. Txiv Xaiv is a hard language to understand that requires full attention in order to fully understand the meaning.

Funerals are held at big chaparrals. Distant cousins and relatives or people from the community comes together to mourn for the loss of a person. Since there are so many people, the place is always loud. It is not supposed to be sad, but a happy moment that brings people together. Most of the time, mainly during the day, when it is loud, listener could barely hear the Txiv Xaiv singing. Hirschkind stated that one must use “attentive listening instead of casual listening.” Unless one is attentively listening will he/she hear the songs, whereas at night when the place is much calmer, the Txiv Xaiv can be heard. The songs are meant for the spirit of both the living and the dead to hear so they will go one and live a happy life with only good luck being given.

Txiv Xaiv is important to the Hmong people, whether it is the singer or the songs. Funerals is one of the few places that brings families and friends within the Hmong community together, and it holds a special meaning to each and every spirit there. The Txiv Xaiv gives meaningful advice to both the dead and living spirit through songs. This has been a culture that has been stuck with the Hmong people for many generations, revealing the values of family and happiness. Orally recited songs may have no instrumental music but they contain value in the lyrics which can be heard and sung through the Txiv Xaiv. The Txiv Xaiv has a lot of power and is trusted to be the one to make sure the dead moves on happy to the afterlife, and the love ones that are still living to keep striving with nothing holding them back, because goodness will only continue to happen if one keeps moving forward. The funeral songs sung by the Txiv Xaiv can bring consolation to families and leave only happy memories to the one that will be entering the afterlife. In the As the Txiv Xaiv wraps up the last song, love ones, both audiences, the dead and living, are happy, and everyone continues to live with a stronger bond, since funerals do bring families from all around the world together.

Works Cited

Gray, Lila Ellen. “Fado Resounding: Affective Politics and Urban Life.” 2013. Print.
Hirschkind, Charles. “The Ethics of Listening: Cassette-Sermon Audition in Contemporary
Egypt.” August 2001. Print.
Stoller, Paul. “Sound in Songhay Cultural Experience.” August 1984. Print.
Vang, Chao. Interviewed by Pa Houa Vang. 6 June 2017
Vang Chao. Recording. 14 May 2017
Vang, Lay. ASA 198F Lecture. Spring Quarter 2016


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