One reader asked me to talk about past collaborations I’ve had with other Hmong artists. The first one that came to my mind was the most intimidating collaboration I had ever had.
It was the 2009-2010 Hmong New Year season.
One day online, I had a conversation with Kong Lor from The Kong & Shu Project, and he mentioned that The Sounders had asked TKSP to open for their Fresno concert in December. I was very happy because I was going to Fresno for the Hmong New Year and seeing TKSP and The Sounders in concert was going to be an added bonus.
Then for some reason...I had this idea:
“I’m going to ask The Sounders if I could open for them too!”
Let me get this off my chest first.
I’m shaking my head right now. I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea then. I’d only been in the Hmong music community for a few years and was still getting my feet wet. For all they knew, I could’ve been a huge fan/stranger/wannabe-singer/stalker who simply wanted to check something off her amateur bucket list.
And I don't blame them.
We had never encountered each other or communicated before. So I imagine (& hope) they did some research before making a decision. (No offense taken if you did, guys.)
They said, “Yes.”
Fast forward to the day of the concert. Mid-Afternoon. December 26th, 2009. Fresno, CA.
I walked into the event building and found the stage all set up. No one was there. So I decided to walk around inside the building, hoping to find someone.
As I stepped into the hallway, the entire band in these bright yellow M-150 jackets turned in unison as my heels click-clacked towards them. (This is what happens you’re a singer who loves traveling and their culture. I came directly from the New Year and didn't want to miss a second, so I was still in full Hmong clothes.)
As I walked towards them, there was a brief pause which felt exceptionally long at the time. Remember, we had never met before. The Sounders had never seen me in person. So as happy as I was about being there, I was a nervous wreck.
“Hi, I’m Pagnia.”
I awkwardly stuck out my hand.
I shook each member's hand, and then was told soundcheck would happen shortly. So I gladly turned around and went back to sit down in the empty seats. Thank goodness TKSP showed up shortly after.
It was time for soundcheck and TKSP went first. Once they were done, they headed out immediately (they hadn’t slept since they left North Carolina, so I imagine they took a good ‘ol nap before the show).
Then it was my turn.
I got onstage, truly not knowing what the heck I was doing other than to sing in the mic. Plaub Sab Phab Ntsa came on.
“Yog plaub sab phab ntsa no...paub hais...lus…”
Suddenly, The Sounders, in their bright jackets, meddled their way down the aisles, coming straight toward me. And then they stopped. Right in front of me and the stage.
“Nws yuav qhia...tau ntau yam hauv siab...
Yuav qhia txog leeg twg quaj hu nrhiav koj…”
I couldn’t focus.
These bright bodies were standing in front of me with no reaction, no movement, nothing, nada. One of the band members came up to make sure the stage set up and I were ok.
I tried to stay calm and act like a pro. Yeah, right. But my mind was whirling around with thoughts of failure, unacceptance, incompetence...the list went on and on.
Sound check was done. Ua tsaug, lub ntuj. I got off the stage and left the building.
I was mortified.
When I got back to the hotel, I told my sisters how I felt.
This is a mistake.
I’m not supposed to be on that stage.
I should have never asked them.
They don’t even know who I am.
I sung and they just stared at me.
I am so embarrassed.
This is a big mistake.
I just teared up -- like right now, as I sit here, typing. I can still feel how I felt in that exact moment eight years ago.
How little I felt.
How incompetent I felt.
How “not good enough” I felt.
Thank goodness for my sisters or I wouldn’t have returned to the building that night. I got dressed, did my vocal warm-ups, got into the car, and pulled up my big girl pants.
When I arrived, I was told to go backstage where all the artists were. Can you imagine me in that moment? Trying to hide all my worries from earlier and go interact with these amazing artists who I believed wanted nothing from me?
So I did what I do best when I'm afraid: stay small. Nyob twj ywm, tsis txhob nti.
I stood by the door. (I actually gave myself the job of opening the door for people.) I don’t even remember if I greeted everyone. One hand gripping the other arm across my body. Shoulders slightly hunched forward. My eyes deflecting any eye contact.
Small, Pagnia, small.
Then Bee Thao, the bass player of The Sounders, came up to me. We talked for what seemed like hours.
Then Thai Thao, the lead vocalist of The Sounders, came up to me. We talked for what seemed like hours too.
It remains one of the most memorable nights of my music career.
Within the following year, I would open for The Sounders twice more (and I didn’t ask this time!) and be referred by them to perform in France (one of the most amazing experience in my entire life).
So my dear reader, the most intimidating collaboration I ever had garnered some of the best experiences in my life, but more importantly, it taught me this:
Don’t believe everything you think.
My thoughts had nothing to do with the band, and everything to do with what I believed about myself. And what I believe about myself is not always true.
Don’t believe everything you think. Give yourself more credit.
YOUR TURN! Have you experienced something similar? I’d love to hear from you down in the comments below!
Until next time…