Musicians in Tibet cannot cross a line. Some do and then the option for them is to either leave the country or serve time in prison.
Since 2012, as many as 11-15 Tibetan musicians have been arrested by the Chinese authorities. In most cases, the reason for arrest is not spelt out. For instance, in May 2014, popular Tibetan singer Gabay was arrested while he was performing at a packed concert inTibet. The song that can be taken as a possible reason for arrest was one that calls on young Tibetans to preserve their language and culture.
A repressive regime tries to keep revolutionary lyrics in check. For instance, music coming into Tibet is thoroughly checked for ‘objectionable’ content. However, community references often slip through. Singers use traditional metaphors to get the meaning across, as has renowned musician Lobsang Palden Tawo. His song Namkung Ghi Nyida (the Sun and the Moon) is an example of this. The singer uses the metaphors of the Sun and the Moon to describe the time when Dalai Lama parts company with his compatriots and the Panchen Lama, now in prison.
In their quest to create these spaces for meaningful interaction via metaphor, artists from within and outside Tibet have even collaborated long distance to compose music. Using net-based communication channels, Tibetan blogger Woeser and Tibetan exile musician Techung from the US collaborated on a song; ‘Lam La Che’ (On the Road) which was released internationally in 2013. The song, written many years ago by Woeser, expresses deep reverence for the Dalai Lama.
The Internet age has pricked the bubble of isolation. Today, interactions between the diaspora and the people inside Tibet are taking place in an unprecedented manner. This is despite China’s strict controls — Baidu as a search engine not Google, video-sharing sites Youku and Tudou, not YouTube — most content on the Internet can still be shared through blogs and online forums.
Of late, the messages have become clearer and more contemporary. Rap is emerging as a new tool for expression among young Tibetans. Karma Emchi- Shapaley 30, a rapper based in Switzerland, has a large fan base. Inside Tibet, Dekyi Tsering of Kham province is quite popular. While Tsering’s lyrics deal with unity, justice and their rich heritage,Karma sings about his own experience as a refugee and his connect with the homeland.
Popular music in sovereign nations is inseparably linked with the globalised commercial marketplace. Tibetan popular music strikes a different note. Here, the intensity of experience, emphasis on the collective and the urges of popular culture speak of the desire for an ideal world, a yearning for freedom.
Cutting self-styled albums in exile offers a kind of catharsis, even if the audience is sparse
New Aruna Nagar, the Tibetan Colony in Majnu ka Tila, Delhi, has a small stall selling VCDs of Tibetan pop musicians. The pop stars on the covers of these VCDs are self-styled; they invest their own money to make albums which have a limited set of buyers. “It is quite a trend among Tibetans in India nowadays,” says Tenzin Nyibum, founder of Wild Tibet Pictures, a company that makes music videos for independent artistes. “I’m not in it for the money. Wild Tibet helps singers realise their dream of cutting music albums. We shoot videos for these singers on a shoestring budget.”
His office is a few lanes away from the music stall. A staircase leads to a basement where he sits on his Mac computer, diligently editing the content he has shot either in Ladakh, Himachal or Delhi itself. The themes of the albums are similar, ranging from aspects of Tibetan culture, tributes to spiritual leaders to love songs. The music video is also marked with a recurring format which alternates between stock footage depicting the beauty of the Tibetan landscape and shots of the singer in picturesque settings in India.
Almost all of the music is recorded in music studios in Nepal. Seldom do the musicians play instruments on their own track. Some of it is prerecorded while in-house musicians at the studio do the rest without taking much time. “I tell the studio people the kind of music I want for my track, they do the rest,” says Sangay, a singer residing at the colony in Majnu ka Tila. Sangay, who runs a cigarette shop right next to the music stall, has seven albums to his name — all recorded at a studio in Nepal and shot by Wild Tibet Pictures.
“The trend of recording music recording in Nepal was started by Tsering Gyurmay, considered by many as the king of Tibetan pop in exile,” says Dhonyoe. “Gyurmay, who learnt music in the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, came out with his album Tsewai Lama around the same time as the 1995-96 Kalachakra ceremony.” It was a huge success and ever since, studios in Nepal have gained popularity among aspiring Tibetan pop musicians.
Between music studios in Nepal, basement offices in Delhi and picturesque locations exists a music industry that caters to itself. Its recurring themes aim to capture the essence of culture vis-à-vis the self and the community.