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October 18, 2010

Filmmaker Preserves Dying Tibetan Folk Music

by Faiza Elmasry

Tibetan refugee reclaims his past by revisiting traditional music of his homeland

Ngawang Choephel endured more than six years in a Chinese prison in his quest to prevent Tibetan folk songs from being lost forever.

More than dozen of these traditional songs are showcased in the filmmaker's documentary, "Tibet in Song," now showing in New York City.

Music tradition

Choephel was only two years old when he and his mother fled Chinese-ruled Tibet in 1968. Growing up in a refugee camp in India, he heard Tibetan songs from the older refugees.

Like folk music around the world, traditional Tibetan lyrics deal with almost every aspect of life: from work, family and social occasions to love and nature.

"Tibetan folk music originated directly from ordinary Tibetan people's mind," Choephel says. "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 three minutes long.

So Choephel decided to collect Tibetan folk songs himself.

Preserving cultural history

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 some kind of spy work, which I did not," he says.

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 more than six years behind bars.

Prison, he says, is not a place one wants to go, but it is where one has the time to think. He learned folk songs 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," he says. "It is about his determination. He says that, 'No matter how bad enemies are to you, I'll never bow down my head. I'll never stop the fight.'"

'Tibet in Song'

When Choephel returned to the U.S. 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," he says. "The story of this film is about the beauty of 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 had happened to me. I filmed some of the footage in 1995 because before I was arrested I sent nine tapes to a friend of mine to India. And 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," he says. "In the film we show how China saw this kind of music and the Tibetan culture as a threat. Tibet was never exposed to recorded music until China invaded Tibet in the late 1940s. So the first thing they did was they set up these loud speakers and they blasted Chinese propaganda music to brainwash Tibetan people. They took Tibetan folk melody and put Chinese communist lyrics. And they trained Tibetan singers to sing these songs."

Call to action

He hopes the film also inspires people. "'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 then two Tibetan girls came to me," he says. "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."

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 folk songs and his Tibetan identity.