Land and freedom: Tibet in Song

by Dennis Hartley, Hullabaloo, December 4, 2010

New York, USA -- Did you know that the Tibetans have a traditional song for milking your yak? And yet another to sing while churning said milk into butter? That might sound like the setup for a bad joke, but it’s not. Far from it-especially if you know this: if the Chinese government got wind that you were warbling the yak-milking song (or any traditional Tibetan music) in public, you could be imprisoned. Or maybe tortured. Or killed. Or-how about all three?

I learned all this and more from a fascinating documentary called Tibet in Song, which is really two films in one. Primarily, it is the film that director Ngawang Choephel initially set out to make back in 1995, when he returned for a visit to his homeland after years of exile in India and the United States (his mother had fled Tibet in 1966 with her then 2-year-old son)

The filmmaker’s intent was to seek out and document the remaining vestiges of traditional Tibetan song and dance, which had become increasingly elusive in the wake of the Cultural Revolution imposed on the country by the Chinese government following the Tibetan Rebellion of 1959. And, as intended, the first third of the film does deliver an interesting sampler of the region’s folk dances and unique indigenous music, which (oddly enough) seems to share a spooky tonality with Native American chants (at least to my armchair ethnomusicologist’s ears).

One thing it most decidedly does not share so much in common with is Chinese music (which most Westerners, frankly, would likely assume that it would). While this latter observation is most certainly not lost on Tibetans, it seems to have been to the Chinese government, which has made concerted efforts, beginning with the Cultural Revolution era and going forward, to replace all traditional Tibetan melodies with Chinese pop songs that sing the praises of the Communist regime.

One Tibetan interviewee (now an exile) recounts the introduction of radio broadcasts in the 1960s that delivered the populace a steady diet of the aforementioned propagandist pop. Most Tibetans, who traditionally were all culturally ingrained to literally “make their own kind of music” and express themselves daily in song and dance, had never even seen a radio before; it was referred to as “the sound box”. The interviewee’s father would warn him, “From that thing, there’s nothing to hear. It’s just for transforming ‘us’ into ‘them’.” When you think about it, those are actually very astute and wise words- because one could apply that exact credo to our own MSM today.

The “second” film within the film is a very personal story, precipitated by a profoundly life-changing event for the director that occurred two months into filming. While driving to visit his father, he was stopped at a checkpoint and grilled by Chinese intelligence agents, who confiscated his camera, videotapes and notes. What happened next? You guessed it-he was accused of “spying” (that good old standby trumped up charge favored by oppressive regimes everywhere) and sentenced to 18 years in prison (without a trial).

Undaunted, Choephel continued his project. Fellow prisoners (many of them political dissidents) were more than happy to share their knowledge of traditional songs, which the director transcribed on cigarette wrappers. When this makeshift archive was discovered and seized by prison officials, Choephel began to commit the songs to memory (life imitating the art of Fahrenheit 451). The studious and mild-mannered Choephel also experienced a classic “prison conversion” which transformed him from objective researcher into political activist. “I had joined the (‘Free Tibet’ movement) struggle,” he tells us in the voiceover. Thankfully, after a tireless one-woman campaign by his devoted mother galvanized a celebrity-studded cause célèbre that in turn caught world media attention, he was released in 2002, after six years of imprisonment (for “health reasons”, according to the Chinese government’s rather transparent attempt at a face-saving spin).

Tibet in Song may begin as an academic culture study, but, not unlike the director’s own personal transformation, it becomes a surprisingly inspirational and unexpectedly moving story. What more could you demand from a film? Singing and dancing? Well, actually…