Friday, September 17, 2010

A Comment to “Two songs about Tibetan unity” on High Peaks Pure Earth

I appreciate High Peaks Pure Earth because it brings significant developments in Tibet and China to our attention. Recently, it discussed songs about Tibetan unity: “Mentally return” and “Song of unity” to which I would like to add some comment.

When I heard the song “Mentally return” for the first time about two years ago, the few fragments I believed I understood were enough to knock me off my feet. What an immortal declaration of love to our homeland, the gracious land of snows! A hunt for the music and the lyrics began which only ended in the Barkhor last summer, when I finally managed to buy a VCD of the 2007 Rebkong open-air concert which featured “Mentally return”.

In case the VCD is still on sale, people should make sure they buy plenty of copies. The disk quality is so poor that after watching it a second time, it would just stop every other second and not move for the longest time.

Did you also marvel at the large audience? I do hope people showed up out of free will and attendance wasn’t orchestrated. I rejoiced inside over so many “rugged-faced” folks of all ages participating peacefully in what was not only a visibly big entertainment event, but also a gigantic exercise in reaffirming collective identity. Moreover, the whole concert was moderated exclusively in Tibetan. That was encouraging when we recall that even cultural events often have bilingual moderation at best.

After the 2008 unrests, I wonder how long it will take before such large gatherings will be allowed again. We hear the organizers of the pompous, bi- or tri-annual Kangba Yishu Jie (“Khampa Arts Festival”) were looking all over the place for a “safe” location to stage this year’s event, but low profile. As a last resort, they settled for the rebaptised “Shangri-la” Tibetan Prefecture of Dechen in Yunnan. I have always wondered whether the Tibetans really find it entertaining to look at people in plump jewellery and machos in stone-age felt outfits parading through the streets with archaic daggers hanging from their belts. Or is this a top-down ordered marketing event aimed primarily at tourists? Let’s see how it goes. The festival is still going on as I am writing.

But to come back to “Mentally return”, I see it standing in the tradition of inward-looking, identity-strengthening songs that are also lyrically discerning like Tso Ngonpo by Dadon or more recent songs by Kunga. If we think about it, even songs from the old Tibetan era are the symbolic, poetic type. For instance the 6th Dalai Lama’s TrungTrung Karmo or Makyé Amé. They are equally about something which is important to the composer's heart, but which can’t be openly expressed because it would cause trouble.

These days, some artists pick old songs and modify them, but still stick to the symbolic, indirect style: There is a popular Amdo remix of the Dalai Lama’s Trungtrung Karmo. It’s sung in the form of a dialogue between a person and a migratory bird. Obviously, the only reason for the dialogue is the underlying circumstance that the person is separated from its kin by a third party and can’t interact freely. Still the remake is not a sad song at all, but a cheerful one. In this language of symbolism and vagueness this could – or could not – mean: Even though you suppress us, we will not allow you to spoil our mood. Check it out:

I heard Sherten’s “Song of unity” for the first time on High Peaks Pure Earth. It’s a soft and pretty song. The words on the other hand, are unmistakably direct. Certainly it is brave to be so direct, but is it also wise, I wonder. That road is confrontation and could lead directly to trouble and prison. Is our cause served by that? I am not sure.

The words are bold, yet the meaning is not clear. What is meant when the Tibetans of three historical provinces are asked to “unite”? Work to become one administrative unit but still under China? Work to become separate from China? “Unite” meaning do what?

Moreover, the phrase “unite” (dogtsa jigdril) is an over-used panacea applied to all our political problems. Often it is also interpreted to mean “Don’t talk back, just do as you're told”. I felt uneasy when I heard Sherten call “unite, unite” throughout the song.

I know it’s a traditional music style. But I find excessive goat-like singing with “baa baa” over every vowel at the end of a line un-cool. Just makes the sound very folksy and “Country-music”. That’s just my individual taste though, ignore it. Sherten is undisputedly a rising star and currently dominates the charts also in our corner of the highlands, with every place playing his music. Everybody here, boy and girl alike, loves his music without ifs and buts.

Still I fully agree with High Peak Pure Earth’s assessment that “Mentally return” is the more powerful of the two songs. The only thing is the English rendering of the title. It sounds odd. I would have translated it more freely as “Many happy returns” or something to that effect.

Do you have good sites to recommend? I sometimes go to "Tibet Music Net" and “China Tibetans Music & Entertainment Portal” which friends recommended. You'll find the latest songs from the music scene in Tibet there. Not that I understand much, I just randomly click around for a taste.

It looks like music has become a flexible channel to emphasise collective identity. That’s good news. What I find even more impressive is that many composers and performers don't compromise and pay equal attention to artistically good songs.

In 2007, another album with subtle “Tibetan power” songs was published in Lhasa. The title is Lhämè kyi tsesog – “the stainless life” and features 16 songs performed by less-well and better known artists including Zimi 9pa, Kunga, Yadong, Jamyang Kyi, and also Sherten.

Check out track no. 5 Sem ü kyi dunpa which I would freely translate as "Prayer from the bottom of my heart". It's performed by singer Norsang in the picture below. Lyrics are by Tenzin Chodak and the tune by Lhakpa. The singing style is reminiscent of Sherten but the accent is closer to high Tibetan, so a translation may not be necessary:

I'm still struggling to get the audio on the blog. Once it's there, listen close: You'll love the ending line where he says rang rig rang-gi kyongla sho. In these rough times, may we find the strength to save ourselves.

Mountain Phoenix


Tendor said...

fabulous article, great writing, nuanced thoughts. thank you mountain phoenix. i especially loved your musings on how you might have changed the title, etc. while you obviously loved the song. i on the other hand love the amdo 'yayayaya' sound at the end of the line... how different personal tastes can be!

High Peaks Pure Earth said...

Thank you Mountain Phoenix for this fantastic response to our music videos! We really enjoyed reading your thoughts and will definitely look into the other songs you have mentioned as well.

As for the title "Mentally Return", we took the words "sems" to mean "mind" and "log 'phebs" to return. It struck us that the song was very much about inner feelings and emotions, hence this "mental return" that really wouldn't be possible in the physical realm - the kind that we explained in the introduction.

As you captured so beautifully in your blogpost, the singers are very much expressing their feelings of unity and love of their homeland which is something they feel in their hearts and minds, so that's why this title seemed most appropriate in terms of encapsulating the meaning behind the lyrics. That was just the thinking behind this particular translation but of course it's always open to interpretation and we gladly accept corrections or alternatives for all our translation work.

Very best wishes and do keep writing.

Anonymous said...

I am a devoted fan of your blog! thanks for writing!! I've downloaded Norsang's song and look forward to improving my Tibetan further via song :)

World Roof said...

I went ahead and posted The Stainless Life videos on yuotube.

There are several very good songs there, and they deserve to be heard.

I can't read or typeset tibetan though, so if someone comments with names of singers and musicians I'll gladly add that info.

Anonymous said...

I think the reason sherten uses doktsa chigdril over and over again is in my view a response to the factional infighting which took place in late 2009 in tibetan parliament Dharamsala and nothing to do with us uniting under china. Far from it.

postvänster said...

I bought this cd in Chengdu after going into a record store in the Tibetan district saying Amdo, VCD NO! This was one of the few cds they had, and it's been one of my favourite cds ever since. So funny in the store, they pointed at Sherten and nodded approving, Amdo! ;-)

If you could translate all the names that would be awesome, I've looked up Sherten, Yadon,

Cuckoo said...

Hi I just read this post and really enjoyed it. I love your nuanced writing and want to keep reading through the rest of your posts. Hopefully I will absorb some of your wisdom and discernment (I need it).

You mentioned the Khampa Arts Festivals, which I’ve seen a lot of photos from and wanted to comment something here. Yeah it’s utterly pompous, nobody could deny that, but most fashion shows around the world involve taking decoration to unrealistic, almost fantasy extremes. What I like about the fashion shows in Tibetan festivals is that the people in them come representing many Tibetan towns and regions – the individuality of Palyul, Dardo, Derge, Sershul, Sertar and so on and very visually represented at the Khampa Arts Festival.

I totally understand that some people really do not like the sight of people dressed up so ostentatiously. Still, a lot of people in eastern Tibet do like this kind of fashion. I think about how like how piercings and tattoos are hated by many westerners but then others are crazy about them. Personally I enjoy the spectacle (the Khampa Arts Festival costumes), but I totally respect and understand why anyone would either dislike or hate them. It’s a tradition that some locals want to continue, also the government knows it’s good for tourism, so I expect it to continue.

I’m sure you noticed that the footage in the background of the Trungtrung Karmo video you posted in this post is from the 4th Khampa festival’s fashion show. I found pictures from it here, they made me ‘whoa’. I suspect you might really dislike them, but I post them for information purposes. ,

Keep up the exceptional writing, I’m sure you know that on most blogs only about 1 in 100 loyal readers actually leave a comment, so there's a big crowd of people out there getting food for thought from what you write here.

Mountain Phoenix said...

Dear Cuckoo
The comparison with Western fashion shows and some of their unwearable creations you point out is really good! Looking at it from that angle, I get the idea of the Tibetan clothes presented at events like the Khampa Arts Festival. Not that I have become fond of them now, taste is still subjective, but I get the idea better. I especially appreciate your last remark about people getting food for thought from my blog. If it's doing that, it would be absolutely wonderful.
Mountain Phoenix

Cuckoo said...

Actually, I've been thinking some more and decided that my western fashion show analogy doesn't quite do the people and their situation justice. In some areas of Tibet, especially in the east, for many people collecting jewelry is part of the way of life and something some people aspire to do, a bit like how people in industrialised countries might want to build up a stock or property portfolio during their lives, that will be left behind to their descendants once they are gone. I guess when you live in a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle and want to store your wealth, you need something valuable and portable. It's simple really, for such people jewelry is extremely important. In parts of Kham and Amdo it seems it's a very old tradition that opening or closing ceremonies of festivals can feature shows of men, women and children under mountains of eye-poppingly valuable ornaments, apparently belonging to their families. Seems to be still popular in conservative and traditional areas, like at the end of this Losar celebration in Golok The exact opposite of what you see at western fashion shows, these ceremonial costume styles go back centuries or longer, and are the heritage of specific regions and townships

Jewels and ornaments don't bring shelter or education or build prosperity for a nation, but neither do other forms of art. Whether visitors or residents, people in Rome, Paris or London cherish experiencing the art galleries and the orchestras. Jewelry and ceremonial costumes are one of the artistic flourishings of Tibetan culture