Tenzin Choegyal performs in a small room full of backpackers from around the globe at the Club House in McLeodganj, Dharamsala (Himachal Pradesh). The audience is mesmerised by the sonorous notes accompanied by the dramyin (a Tibetan stringed instrument). In the informal conversation that follows, someone shouts in an unmistakeable British accent, “We should invite you and your friends to our garden party.” Choegyal ignores the comment, looking down at his dramyin instead, which suddenly seems like an object from an oriental antique shop.
Outside, Jimmy (Tenzin Jigme) — a member of the Tibetan rock band JJI Exile Brothers — talks about Tibetan music and about the tendency of the West to museumise it. “The expectation is that a Tibetan should play something traditional, just like an Indian should play a sitar or something,” says Jimmy. His band has been among the major acts in the Tibetan rock scene since 1998. To the question ‘Where is the popular in Tibetan music?’ he retorts, “It is spread all over the globe, just not upfront.”
Popular culture is the privilege of modern nations. In lands which are occupied by others, it is not allowed to be propagated because it carries with it the possibility of free thought and expression, a threat to foreign rule. Tibet is a case in point. However, sound has the ability to escape through the cracks of imprisoning walls. The story of Tibetan music is proof of this.
When it comes to Tibetan music, there are two narratives. One, which the world listens to and the other which is consumed by the community itself. The one that the world, particularly the West, consumes is a sanitised version, shorn of pain, joy and dissent; in short, the struggle of a people who are still waiting to claim nationhood is not reflected in it. Type the words ‘Tibetan music’ on You-Tube and you will get the idea; a list of mystic Tibetan sounds — ‘healing music’, ‘eight hours of shamanic meditation’, ‘6 hours of ultra-sleep Tibetan music’ — each clip has a thumbnail of either a celestial mountain, Buddha statues or ancient-looking Lamas.
The other narrative is a strikingly democratic space where music is by the Tibetan people for themselves. Perhaps the democratic aspect is because there is no commercial market for it. The music itself flows from various non-commercial inspirations. For the diaspora, it is about preserving while simultaneously engaging with a culture physically far removed. For people in Tibet, it relates to the everyday struggle of defending their identity in a captured homeland. If we are looking at music as an element of popular culture in the Tibetan community, it is perhaps a genre arising from these motivations that defines it.
“It all starts from Rangzen Shonu” (which translates as ‘Freedom Youth’ in English) says Jimmy. “This was the first band to compose Tibetan songs on guitar. For Tibetan rock, Rangzen is the root.” Even the story of one of the first messages through music to reach the homeland from exile starts with a smuggled Rangzen Shonu tape. In 1988, a rock band formed by three young men from Dharamsala came out with a cassette of revolutionary songs. A copy of the cassette was smuggled into Tibet despite the ban imposed by the Chinese government on any cultural material crossing the plateau’s boundaries. It conveyed a clear message to people in Tibet that the struggle for freedom continues among those in exile.
To the Tibetan youth, Rangzen Shonu was radical not only because of the content of its lyrics, but also because of its refreshingly new rhythm. It was blues rock, a sound both traditional and modern. ‘We Tibetan Nomads’, a Rangzen Shonu song, became a cult hit both inside and outside the plateau. Eventually, the band broke up but left behind a legacy for aspiring Tibetan musicians.
In the 1990s, two other rock bands emerged from Dharamsala — Akama and the Yak. Akama was formed by members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA). “The then TIPA administrator did not approve of modern music but the members of Akama were determined,” says Tenzin Dhonyoe, the Dharamsala correspondent for Radio Free Asia. Akama came out with 10 albums which did fairly well during the cassette era, as did the Yak band.
These days, it is the JJI Exile Brothers who carry the legacy of Tibetan rock-in- exile forward. Their songs talk of politics both personal and collective. “A rock band should have a mission,” says Jimmy and the mission of JJI, in their own words, is to “carry the spirit of the freedom struggle from the past, relive it in the present, and preserve it for the future.”