Hmong rapper Tou SaiKo Lee is staging his own celebration of hip-hop in the form of Boom Bap Village.
How's this for an example of the Internet shrinking the globe -- and maybe even boosting the survival of one people's culture?
According to local Hmong rap star Tou SaiKo Lee, there are Hmong breakdancers in Minnesota whose YouTube videos are making them famous in other Hmong population hubs in Australia and France. Things have become so wonderfully convoluted that Lee, 32, is even working on a Hmong-language album so he can tour France and other countries and still have his rhymes understood.
"The war tore apart our culture and separated our people all over the world, but the Internet is sort of bringing us all back together," Lee said.
Hip-hop is playing a key role in connecting Hmong youth worldwide, Lee believes. That's the main reason he is putting on Boom Bap Village, a Hmong celebration of hip-hop happening Friday at Hamline University in St. Paul, with a film component Saturday at Concordia University. It's timed to the 30th Hmong International Sports Tournament and Freedom Festival -- one of the Hmong community's biggest events of the year -- at nearby Como Park.
Lee remembers going to the sports tournament in years past and seeing kids breakdancing "on the tennis courts or wherever they could find." Often, they would be told to stop or go somewhere else, he said. That's how he got the idea to organize a separate event in 2009.
Although Lee and another rapper from California will perform, Boom Bap Village actually centers around breakdancing. A dance competition will take place Friday from 5 to 10 p.m. at Hamline's Student Center Ballroom. A movie about Hmong breakers in California and Oklahoma, "Among Boys," will also be screened at Hamline's student center Friday at 2 p.m. and again Saturday at 6 p.m. in Concordia University's Buetow Auditorium.
For reasons that cannot easily be explained, breaking is booming among Hmong Americans and other Southeast Asian youths. Probably about half of the competitors in the b-boy/b-girl breaking tent at last month's Soundset festival were Asian Americans.
"It's an art form they can pick up that doesn't require a lot of money, and that crosses language barriers," Lee theorized. Another explanation: The rhythm and movement of breaking is somewhat similar to dance patterns followed by players of the gaeng, a flute-like Hmong instrument.
Lee himself embodies a bridge between the old-world and modern Hmong culture. He spent the first two months of his life in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand. His family then emigrated to Syracuse, N.Y., before relocating to St. Paul's east side, where Tou devoured hip-hop culture as a student at Johnson High School. He's known from the group Delicious Venom and the ICE open-mic nights.
In 2008, Lee returned to Thailand and got glimpses of hip-hop's vast reach in Hmong villages there. He chronicled his encounters in a short film, "Travel in Spirals," that will screen Saturday at Concordia. That movie is a precursor to Lee's participation in local filmmaker Justin Schell's documentary "We Rock Long Distance." After following multicultural rappers M.anifest and Maria Isa on trips to Ghana and Puerto Rico, respectively, Schell will travel with Lee back to Thailand in December.
To Lee, "We Rock Long Distance" is proof of hip-hop's connective powers.
"Just being a part of the Twin Cities hip-hop community -- where Maria Isa, M.anifest, Brother Ali, Toki Wright, you name it, are all part of one scene -- that's an inspiration for Boom Bap Village, and in everything I do."'Crosstown' magic
It's a good thing Dan Israel finished his latest album, "Crosstown Traveler," before summer road construction began, or else we might have gotten something much more Rage Against the Machine-like. Based on the St. Louis Park songwriting vet's daily commute to his day job in St. Paul -- and, more broadly, the crossroads of being a 40-year-old dad and musician -- "Traveler" sounds compellingly level-headed and contemplative as Israel finds optimism in the daily grind.
"Just get in the car and drive it / Throw the pain off somewhere," he sings in "Never to Be Found," one of the many offering his usual Hiatt/Costello/Dylan vibe. Among the standouts is the Randy Newman-styled piano anthem "I'll Get Along," which I'd pitch for the next heart-tugging Pixar movie.
Israel's release party is Saturday at the Aster Cafe with Slim Dunlap and Terry Walsh opening (9 p.m., $8).Random mix
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