News / USA

Filmmaker Preserves Dying Tibetan Folk Music

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

The filmmaker, Ngawang Choephel (right) and a friend, prepare a traditional song for 'Tibet in Song.'
The filmmaker, Ngawang Choephel (right) and a friend, prepare a traditional song for 'Tibet in Song.'

Multimedia

Audio
Faiza Elmasry

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.

'Tibet in Song' won the special Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
'Tibet in Song' won the special Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

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.

More than a dozen traditional folk songs are showcased in 'Tibet in Song.'
More than a dozen traditional folk songs are showcased in 'Tibet in Song.'

"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.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

1855 Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans

Document lists entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs