Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Tibetan music sings out amid the mishmash

At the Shine Cafe in central Lhasa, folk singer Tseten Dorjee and other members of the Tibetan opera troupe are taking part in a cultural comeback in this once-remote Himalayan region.

Each evening, dusk paints Lhasa's skies purple-blue, and yak-butter lanterns cast a warm orange glow across the cafe as the five players of the Tibet Opera Association begin coaxing centuries-old Buddhist tunes out of their stringed instruments and flutes. Listeners are transported back to a timeless Tibet, when music and religion permeated this peak-protected region.

About these ads

Opera member Mr. Dorjee then goes solo by strumming his danyan, or banjo, and singing modern, melancholy folk songs in Tibetan or Hindi. The audience is jerked back into contemporary Lhasa.

"The Shine Cafe is a mixture of Tibetan, Indian, and Chinese music because all Tibet is a mishmash of influences from the eastern and western tips of Asia," Dorjee says. "Lhasa itself is a cacophony of different sounds and times, and the Shine is embracing that trend."

The cafe is just a stone's throw away from Barkhor Square and the Jokhang Temple, Tibetan Buddhism's holiest site, where Chinese troops used machine guns 10 years ago to silence unarmed Tibetan protesters. In contrast with that clash of civilizations, today's Shine seems to be an oasis for a gentle confluence of competing cultures. Its nightly metamorphosis is a mirror of the city around it, Dorjee says.

Tibetan music has long been entwined with Tibetan Buddhism, and the region's monks and monasteries were one of the prime targets of Chinese troops, who scaled the Himalayas in 1950.

During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered his Red Guard troops to destroy every trace of Tibet's past to pave the way for a pure communist culture.

As Tibet's temples were razed, its leading clergy and artists were killed or imprisoned, and "The Roof of the World" was transformed into a cultural desert.

"The Cultural Revolution was mad," says Rakra Tethong, a Tibet scholar who now lives in exile in Jona, Switzerland. "The Communists did everything in their power to destroy our culture." But he adds that fragments of Tibetan traditions and arts survived, ironically, because of one assault by Chinese Communists.

About these ads

When China's People's Liberation Army forcibly suppressed a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama, who headed Tibet's Buddhist theocracy, fled to India, and tens of thousands of his followers joined the exodus.

"Tibetan culture only exists today because the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans who fled helped rebuild and preserve remnants of our society," adds Mr. Tethong.

Lobsang Santen, who as a five-year-old followed the Dalai Lama on the long march into exile, agrees. Inside Tibet, Communist rule resulted in the "annihilation of Tibetan opera, folk dances, monastic music, Buddhist writings, and literature," Mr. Santen says. Beijing's goal was not just to destroy the region's theocratic political system, but also Tibet's unique artistic and social characteristics. "The Chinese say that Tibet has always been part of China," Santen says. "So Tibet's separate cultural identity had to be erased to prove that it had never been independent."

The Dalai Lama, who set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala in northern India after escaping from Lhasa, also set about creating a microcosm of Tibetan society to stave off what he called "cultural genocide." Many Tibetans credit the exile community for fostering a cultural revival after Mao's death ended the Cultural Revolution.

Many Tibet scholars say the biggest threat to the region's traditions now comes from an influx of Han Chinese immigrants. "The long-term danger is that Tibetans will become a small minority in Tibet," and will see their culture fade, says Tom Grunfeld, an expert on Tibet at Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Inside Lhasa these days, the cymbals and drums that Tibetan monks use to punctuate their prayers in small temples are routinely drowned out by pop music that blasts from Chinese-run music shops.

Dorjee says the rush of Chinese culture into Tibet is being welcomed by some Lhasans, and adds that the disco clubs popping up around the city are luring ever greater swaths of Tibetan youths. But rather than lash out at the change, Dorjee says it is a sign of the times. "Just about every point on the planet is becoming more global, and Tibetan musicians have to compete with that if they want to survive."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.