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Music: Wistful thinking: Tibetan music carries a message regardless of genre

By Mary Burruss
ART TIMES Online October 2013

Techung photo by Koichi SudoExiled Tibetan musician, Techung playing the Piwang.
Photo by Koichi Sudo

I am sitting cross-legged on the ground in a large tent with interior walls decorated in a garish floral pattern similar to the wallpaper one might find in a ladies bathroom at a country club in Charleston, South Carolina. The low table in front of me is laden with platters of yak meat, lamb, dresil, fresh made tsampa and a cup of warm yak butter tea. The constant wind that sweeps across the Tibetan plateau plays with the tent flaps keeping my tribe, several native Tibetans and a small group of American tourists, chilled though the sun is shining brightly outside warming the long grass and dainty summer wild flowers. The niece of our host, a pretty, pink- cheeked woman in her early 20’s, steps to the center of the tent to entertain us with a song.  It is normal for family members to sing at gatherings such as this I am told by the young woman’s aunt who is sitting next to me. The notes dance through the air like a Mozart aria with a Bollywood twist. Thus transpires my first exposure to live Tibetan music igniting a curiosity in the genre.

There are, in a way, two basic categories of Tibetan music:  traditional and pop music, which Tibetans would normally listen to, and “Mindful” music for meditation that is marketed to westerners.  Naturally, Tibetans will listen to the Gytuto Monks Tantric Choir occasionally but despite what westerners might want to believe, that kind of music just isn’t what the average Tibetan normally keeps on their iTunes account. (I say “iTunes account” because the overwhelming favorite personal technology products in Tibet are the iPhone and iPad as Apple is the only tech company that automatically includes a Tibetan language option. Among my favorite pictures from my trip is a Tibetan Buddhist monk at Kumbum Monastery holding up an iPad to take a picture of our group of Americans.) In fact, despite visits to a couple of monasteries and a nunnery, the only Tibetan chanting I heard while in Tibet was piped in during a Shambala Bowls and Tibetan Heated Stone massage at the St. Regis’ Iridum Spa in Lhasa and then only one or two mixed in with other ethereal relaxation type music.

The tradition of chanting is tied in with Tibetan Buddhism as a method for clearing and calming the mind. It involves unique harmonization and a mantra like “Om”. Its origins, like Buddhism in general, are from India, Hinduism and yoga. Chanting for religious purposes is an important influence on traditional Tibetan music because it encouraged narrative expression through song, which became the way nomadic tribes got their news from one another.  Traditional songs tell stories, express political views and contain life messages. In terms of the contemporary Tibetan, Tibetan Studies expert, Dan Haig (who was also in Tibet over the summer) says, “Tibetans, in my experience, listen to their traditional stuff, of course, but a very distinctive form of modern pop has emerged, along with a more recent bubbling up of rap among the youth.” 

In terms of Tibetan traditional music, there are several well-known musicians such as singer, Yungchen Lhamo, flutist and Grammy nominee, Nawang Kechog and  Tashi Dhondup Sharzur. Sharzur or “Techung” as he is called when performing solo, is one of the most famous and  prolific traditional Tibetan musicians in exile. He was trained in Lhamo (Tibetan opera), music and dance at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamsala, India, which was opened by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. In 1989 Techung relocated to San Francisco where he co-founded Chaksampa Tibetan Dance and Opera Company. After building a reputation as a top notch performer, he worked for the Milarepa Foundation an organization started byAdam Yauch of the Beastie Boys and activist Erin Potts, helping to organize a series of Tibetan Freedom concerts from 1995 - 1997. The first band Techung organized in the United States, Chaksam-pa, were the opening act for those concerts.

Techung has cut several albums of traditional songs and original songs in the traditional genre. He won Best Asian Album at the Just Plain Folks Music Festival in 2006 for his album, Techung: A Compilation of Tibetan Folk and Freedom Songs  and played at Carnegie Hall with Philip Glass and his band Lhasa Spirits. He has also been the opening musical act before several of The Dalai Lama’s public speaking engagements across the globe along with scoring several films.

Despite Techung’s impressive resume, he is most well liked for his renditions of Chang Shae, which are traditional Tibetan drinking songs that one may have once heard in the taverns of Lhasa. The dramnyen, a traditional Tibetan seven string guitar-like instrument, is the dominant sound in these songs. Techung also plays the piwang, another traditional Tibetan instrument that is a sort of two string “upright violin” played with the bow stuck between the strings. Both of these instruments are fairly small and easy to transport which is key for a nomadic culture. More recently Techung has been experimenting with contemporary western music using electric bass guitar and drums, generating modern Tibetan music with his own personal flair. 

Of course any conversation about traditional Tibetan music must include the Tibetan Opera. Founded in the 14th century, Ache Lhamo and is an important part of performance training and cultural preservation at TIPA and performed at most Tibetan special occasions. Unlike western opera in which all of the dialogue is sung, lhamo combines spoken word, chants, song and dance — more like western musical theatre than western opera. Because lhamo grew out of a traveling troupe tradition that shared news, history and religious stories, the plots are always about Buddhist teachings or other historical figures and often have a moralistic flavor. Costumes are elaborate and often include huge decorated masks, traditional long sleeves that cover the hands and fine, colorful embroidered fabrics. Performances are long in terms of western taste, ranging from four hours to three days. A typical opera will last about seven hours. Instruments are minimal with symbols and a drum while the singing is acrobatic and haunting.

Modern Tibetan music carries on the tradition of bearing a message often focusing on liberating Tibet from the Chinese who have governed the country since the 1950‘s and returning the land to Tibetan rule. Exiled Tibetans and their offspring express this message in all forms of music but have been greatly influenced by Hindi flick soundtracks. Not that many Tibetans actually listen to pop music themselves, but it has crowded out a lot of airtime that used to be devoted to traditional Tibetan music. Inside Tibet, Chinese pop has forced its way in to music mediums, but whether exiled or inside Tibet, there are many pop, rock and rap stars among Tibetans.

The problem with singing about Tibetan patriotism within the People’s Republic of China is the strong possibility of getting arrested. According to the Tibet Post International the most recent singer to be arrested is 37 year old (his actual age is unknown), Kalsang Yarphel, who was taken to a detention center in Chengdu on 15 July 2013 from a concert in Lhasa. “It takes guts but musicians are definitely on the leading edge,” states Haig.

In Dharamsala, India where many Tibetan refuges still live, waiting to return to their homeland, the message is made loud and clear by the JJI Exile Brothers, the bad boys of Tibetan music. Their sound is varied sometimes screaming of Jimmy Hendrix style guitar and other times channeling Chinese elevator music. They have even cut a record with American blues artist, Keb Mo. In the States, my personal favorite Tibetan music artist is New York based, Shapaley, a young rapper who interweaves icons of Tibetan culture like traditional foods into his songs to celebrate and share his heritage. He is young, energetic and unlike most other Tibetan musicians adds an element of fun to his music that makes it easier for westerners to enjoy.

In terms of influence on western artists, Tibetan music is relatively unknown but Doe Paoro, a Brooklyn based singer and songwriter, is changing that. Paoro, who trained in lhamo, uses the complex, haunting vocals in her music to generate a unique brand of dubstep, pop and blues. “I was  in India studying yoga and went hiking in the Himalayas  with a friend.  We got lost on the trail and out of nowhere I heard this singing and I followed it,” she explains. She followed the intriguing sound to TIPA and signed up for voice lessons. Reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan, Paoro, can hit the low notes with warm earthiness and color the high notes with winds of the Tibetan plateau.

Back in the tent, the young woman finishes her heartfelt rendition of the traditional Tibetan song to a loud round of applause. As the singer in the American group, I am called on to share a song from our culture as a diplomatic gesture.  I sheepishly step to the center of the tent, knowing fully that whatever I choose to sing from my limited repertoire of western jazz, pop and show tunes will pale in comparison to the complexity of my predecessor’s tune.

(Link to one of Techung’s traditional style songs:

Shapaley's song, Tsampa, is typical of his work and can be found on YouTube at :

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