Last night, the Tibetan Center in Kingston, New York was honored by the presence of Techung and his band, playing a collection of traditional Tibetan music, as well as songs of love, songs of protest, and songs about longing to return home to Tibet. One might get an approximate sense of the spirit of the occasion by imagining themes that were defiantly vibrant in the protest songs and folk music of the American 1960s, now sung by revolutionaries in traditional Tibetan clothing and playing instruments much stranger than electric guitars.
Techung, the front man of the band, plays dramnyen, piwang, guitar, lingbu, and nga, and sings. He is joined by Keb Mo on vocals and guitar; Michel Tyabji taking drums and percussion; and Kito Rodriguez on bass and guitar. The band tastefully blends traditional sounds with some popular elements, making an excellent partnership between the traditional but obscure dramnyen (a form of traditional stringed instrument), and an electric bass.
Techung, a member of the Tibetan diaspora who goes by his childhood nickname, is at the forefront of Tibetan music today. He was formally trained in Dharamshala, India at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), studying and performing from the age of 9 till the age of 26. He now resides in the USA but tours regularly, keeping alive the traditional folk and classical music of Tibet through recording and performance. Techung has opened for teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Japan, Costa Rica, and the USA. As a consequence of his activities, he and his producer have been banned from China, as well as his music.
To truly appreciate the power of this music, beyond learning the English translation of the lyrics, it helps to have an understanding of the political context for these musicians.
Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama, along with thousands of other Tibetans made the dangerous trek over the Himalayas and settled in exile in India. Tibetans still living in the occupied lands today, experience terrible inequality and oppression at the hands of the Chinese authorities. Because of a culture of non-violence that Tibetans adhere to out of respect for their spiritual leader, domestic opposition often takes the form of self-immolation. The song “Lama Khen” (“My Lama”) was written in tribute to those who have performed this self-sacrifice. The lyrics of the song are taken from the actual final writings of those monks and nuns who have taken this step, asking for the blessing of Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama.
Last night’s performance of Tibetan music opened with Techung soloing on the lingbu, a light and airy flute similar to a Japanese shakuhachi, which evoked pastoral visions of Tibetan landscape, creating a powerful need to actually go there. The song “Lam La Che” (“On The Road”) is the poetry of a Chinese Tibetan poet named Woeser, currently under house arrest in Beijing, who reached out to Techung after the Tibet Freedom Concert in 2008, asking that her poem be set to music. She writes of holding a beautiful flower and longing to present it to the Gyalwa Rinpoche quickly, before it withers. On Techung’s album “Lam La Che” there is a moving reading of Woeser’s poem by the author herself.
The song “Benevolent India” is written in thanks to the country that offered a haven to the Tibetans living in exile. Other songs included “Have Fun,” – an exhortation to let one’s hair down a little bit and take a break from continuous meditation. “Lok Dro” calls on Tibetans in exile to return to Tibet – spiritually, if they cannot manage it physically. The concert concluded with a song encouraging the audience to “never give up, never lose courage” in the pursuit of freedom, non-violence, decency, and progress.
For those whose missed his performance at the Tibetan Center last evening, and for those whose curiosity might be piqued, Techung will be performing Tibetan music at Carnegie Hall in New York City with Phillip Glass and others for Tibet House’s Annual Benefit Concert on March 11, in celebration of the Year of the Wood Horse. One can learn more about Techung and his music on his website, Techung.com, or at Limitlesssky.net.
Review by Laura Prendergast