Tibetan music became popular in the West thanks to recordings by David Lewiston in India during the 1970s. From then on, Western ideas of Tibetan music have continued to focus mostly on monastic chants. As fascinating and deserving of our attention as this music is, our obsession with sacred aspects of the culture has actually concealed a lot of Tibetan musical diversity. In particular, the rich and varied folk tradition of Tibet is still virtually unknown in the west.
In the pre-modern era practically every part of Tibetan daily life was accompanied by music: whether working in a field, herding on the grassland, building a house or making a pilgrimage. Being part of vernacular culture, rather than the ‘high’ culture of monasteries, these folk traditions showed a large amount of regional variation. Across the entire plateau, from one valley to the next, it was possible to hear highly localized songs.
Now, however, much of this music has disappeared. Development and modernization have had a large impact on Tibetan traditions. Mass media has eroded much of the variation that once existed. There now exists a thriving, but commercialized, Tibetan entertainment industry, which produces hundreds of albums every year, played in the cars, buses, restaurants and homes of people across the plateau.
As well as the mass media revolution, many other changes are affecting the music. One highly significant development has been the mechanization of the workplace. Previously, almost all work was accompanied by song—plowing, weeding, herding, making felt, building—but now people’s voices can no longer be heard over the drone of machines. The current generation does not learn these old songs—their parents hardly even know them. When the grandparents of today pass away, they will take with them an enormous and highly significant chunk of Tibet’s cultural heritage.
Fortunately, there are several organizations working to preserve this music. They collect Tibetan folk songs, digitize them, and are making them available online for all to hear.
The Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library (www.thdl.org) is one group working towards this aim. They have archived about 250 songs in audio format, and many other videos. Most of their collection focuses on areas within the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and hence misses some of the diversity of the music, which traditionally consisted of the three regions of U-Tsang (the TAR), Kham and Amdo. However, the TAR does have several unique genres which are well represented in this collection. The archive is searchable by region and by genre.
Much of the material on THDL comes from the 2005 Oxford University expedition to the region of Porong in the TAR. The expedition has its own website, at www.Tibetmusic.org. The site links through to several short YouTube videos. However, this collection is less than comprehensive.
At Youtube, one may also find a short film from the Tibetan Endangered Music Project. This organization trains young Tibetan people to collect and preserve vanishing songs. Four from project members are also available at Youtube about a wide range of topics: traditional love, circle dancing, partying, and a song for a mother sheep who will not allow her lamb to suckle. Unlike the other two collections mentioned, these recordings come from ‘Outer Tibet’ – the regions of Kham and Amdo. Members of the project are currently working to make all of about 400 recordings available online in Tibetan at http://www.www.Tibettl.com.
These three projects have archived an impressive amount of music. Altogether, almost 1000 songs have been recorded, though only a fraction of that is available online. Significantly, though, this represents the beginning of what needs to be done. To understand why it is necessary to preserve this music, all you need to do is visit one of these sites and listen to the voices that, in less than a decade, will no longer be heard. CE
Gerald Roche is an ethnographer and author. He currently teaches English at Qinghai Education College.