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

Missouri Town Braces for Possible Racial Unrest

Situation in Ferguson hinges on whether white police officer will be indicted for August shooting death of unarmed black teen More

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of 1930s Deadly Famine

President Poroshenko compares Soviet-era ‘genocide’ to current tactics of pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine's east More

S. Philippines Convictions Elusive 5 Years After Election-related Killings

Officials vowed to deliver justice as the nation marked the anniversary of the country's worst political massacre that left 58 dead, more than half media 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.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid