Preserving Tibetan Folk Music

Ngawang Choephel

A filmmaker's research for the dying art of Tibetan folk music

Like folk music around the world, traditional Tibetan songs deal with almost every aspect of life: from work, family and social occasions to love and nature. More than dozen of these songs are showcased in a new documentary now showing in New York City.

Ngawang Choephel [an-guh-WANG choh-FELL] was only 2-years old when he and his mother fled Chinese-ruled Tibet in 1968. Growing up in a refugee camp in India, he heard traditional Tibetan songs from the older refugees.

Tibetan folk music originated directly from ordinary Tibetan people's mind. It's a very pure form of oral tradition, of our Tibetan people's history, knowledge and beliefs.

After graduating from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamasala in 1993, Choephel received a Fulbright scholarship to study musicology and filmmaking at Vermont's Middlebury College. The school's music library contained records of traditional songs from all over the world, but only one recording of Tibetan music, less than 3 minutes long. So Choephel decided to collect Tibetan folk songs himself. He traveled to Tibet in 1995, and spent two months driving through the rural areas filming people singing before he was arrested by Chinese authorities.

They thought that I was doing a kind of spy work, which I did not [do].

Choephel was sentenced to 18 years in prison. But an international campaign - started by his mother, and joined by celebrities like Paul McCartney and several U.S. Senators - led to his release in 2002 after only six and half years.

Prison, he says, is not a place one wants to go, but it is where one has the time to think and learn. He learned folksongs from other prisoners, wrote lyrics in a notebook he made out of cigarette wrappers and even composed new songs.
I composed the melody in prison and one of my prison mates, he's actually my hero, he wrote the lyrics. It is about his determination. He says that's no matter how bad enemies are to you, I'll never bow down my head. I'll never stop fight.

This, Center of heaven / This, center of the earth /
This, heart of the world…

When Choephel returned to the US after his release, he decided to expand his project. His mission now was not only to collect traditional Tibetan music, but to produce a documentary film about it.

There are about 17 songs. The story of this film is about the beauty of the Tibetan music, the diversity of Tibetan music and the beauty of the Tibetan culture in general. The film also is about my story and what happened to me. I filmed some of the footage in 1995 because before I was arrested I sent 9 tapes to a friend of mine to India. Also we sent people back to Tibet in 2004 to capture more songs and interviews.

More importantly, Choephel says, Tibet in Song draws attention to what's happened in Tibet over the last 50 years.

Except in some rural areas, there aren't many songs left. In the film we show how China saw this kind of music and the Tibetan culture as a threat. Tibet was never exposed to this recorded music until China invaded Tibet in the late 1940s. So the first thing they did was they set up these loud speakers, they blasted Chinese propaganda music to brainwash Tibetan people. They took Tibetan folk melody and put Chinese communist lyrics. They trained Tibetan singers to sing these songs.

An interview with an old man / If this opera dissolves, it will be a catastrophe / I have tried to save it from extinction / The kids these days like Chinese music and have no idea of the past.

Tibet in Song is also a call for action to the world and also to the Tibetan people to get involved, to save the Tibetan music before it's gone forever.

Tibet in Song won the special Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Choephel says he's also pleased with the feedback he's gotten from critics and audiences, especially Tibetans.

Actually last night I was on the train from Manhattan to Queens and 2 Tibetan girls came to me. They said, 'we just saw your film. We grew up in Nepal. We didn't know much about Tibetan culture and your film made us understand the value of our culture. It's very powerful.' One of them cried. That was very emotional.

Filmmaker Ngawang Choephel says it was quite a journey for him, but he's happy he was ultimately able to find what he was looking for: Tibetan folksongs and his Tibetan identity.