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World Music Features

Are The Gyuto Monks' Days Numbered?

By Douglas Heselgrave
Published October 16, 2008

Marking the re-release of Tibetan Chants For World Peace, Thupten Donyo worries that recording music is not enough to save the tradition.

The re-release of Tibetan Chants For World Peace could not have come at a more opportune time. With the recent highly publicized protests in Beijing which preceded the summer Olympics and the Dalai Lama’s sold out speaking tour of North America, interest in Tibet is at an all-time high. This seminal recording of four Tibetan Buddhist prayers produced by Mickey Hart was first issued in 2001 when it created quite a stir amongst academics and ethno-musicologists who marveled (or were annoyed) at Hart’s ability to capture the ambience and spaciousness of a monastery in the confines of a recording studio.  

 

Thupten Donyo, the founder of the Gyuto Vajayana Center in San Jose, California, is clearly happy with all of the attention the record has attracted, but he is the first to point out that the destruction of Tibetan culture by the occupying Chinese is taking place at a much faster pace than such recordings can compensate for. “Perhaps it’s too late already and Tibetan culture will only exist in museums and in the back of our memory. In some ways Tibet is not Tibet anymore. Everyone who is there wants to escape to India and once they’re there, they want to come to the West. When I think 100 years in the future, I wonder if these chants will be preserved in such a way that people are still performing them.” 

 

As a monk who received his education at the Gyuto Tantric Monastery in Dharamsala, India – one of the oldest and most sophisticated religious and educational institutions in the Tibetan Diaspora, before moving to the West in 1990 – Donyo is the first to admit that the challenges facing those who seek to preserve a traditional Tibetan way of life may be insurmountable.

 

“Given all of the situations we have been forced to endure, the fact that there is anything at all remaining of Tibet is nothing short of a miracle. You have to understand that we don’t have a country so there is no place for us to gather and meaningfully preserve our music. So, recordings like this one are very important to us. They take a lot of effort and it’s fortunate that we had someone like Mickey Hart to help us out. These CDs and DVDs that are being made of monks chanting will remain as documents that we can learn from.”


Crucial Tibetan Albums

 

Tibet has a rich musical tradition that extends well beyond the monastery walls. It’s easy to hear the influence of the sacred chants in the following three discs, but listeners who find the monks’ offerings unappealing or impenetrable might find something here that is more to their taste:

 

 

Quiet Mind: The Musical Journey Of A Tibetan Nomad - Nawang Khechog 1997

 

Nawang Khechog is the closest thing there is to a musical celebrity in the Tibetan exile community. A former monk, Khecog works tirelessly as both an actor and a musician. His most widely seen role was as the cadre who betrayed the Dalai Lama in the film version of Seven Years in Tibet, but he is most widely known as a flautist and composer. Working in the Tibetan folk tradition, his mostly instrumental CDs are soothing enough to appeal to the new age crowd, while at the same time demonstrating enough compositional integrity and musical virtuosity to satisfy the more serious music fan. It’s hard to choose a representative album, but Quiet Mind with its soaring melodies is a great place to start.

 

 

Ama - Yungchen Lamo 2006

 

Yungchen Lhamo was the first Tibetan artist to receive wide distribution in the west. Thanks to Peter Gabriel’s Realworld label, this Tibetan born India educated songstress has released a series of excellent albums for almost a decade now. Though some of her earlier records sound a little overburdened by the aesthetics of Realworld’s dense house production style, Ama is a wonderfully sympathetic album that showcases Lhamo’s piercing vocals and dynamic range.  Based on traditional folk songs, each of the cuts on this album is a gem, and is a good starting point for appreciating the beauty and complexity of Tibetan song.

 

 

Selwa - Choying Drolma and Steve Tibbets 2004