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

Ebola Brings Sickness, Fear, Anger

Cornell University Professor Stacey Langwick considers cultural, social aspects of outbreak More

British Fighters On Frontline of ISIS Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign Jihadists More

Violent Quarantine Clashes Hamper Liberia's Struggle to Contain Ebola

Anger, misinformation and mistrust of government hampering efforts to contain the deadly virus 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.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid