Music and Youth in Bylakuppe, India:
An Ethnomusicologic Cultural Geography
Field Study Proposal
A. Statement of Intent
Cultural geographies are concerned with people in places, and with the places in people. The refugee community in Bylakuppe, India has not yet been explored from a cultural geography of music standpoint. My purpose is to explore place, the sense of place, and emplacement as experienced and created by youth in Bylakuppe through coming in close contact with local modern musical expression, as well as by studying the rich Tibetan musical tradition and its connection with youth (or, rather, the connection of youths with it).
As a Humanities major with an ethnomusicology emphasis, the way music influences and is influenced by culture is of deep significance to me. I had this particular emphasis created specifically to satisfy a longing for intercultural musical immersion. I have designed the coursework to cater to both academic depth and personal fulfillment. This field study is the core of the coursework. The hypothesis I will test is a basic one, “musical expression assists Tibetan youth in Bylakuppe in defining what it means to be a Tibetan-youth-in-exile.” This will, following Kong (1995), include examination of the musical texts (lyrics, sounds, rhythms), intertexts (clothing, album art, decoration), and contexts (political, familial, religious, social). Using this broad method will assist in beginning to understand the cultural geography of youth (place, sense of place, and emplacement) in Bylakuppe, and will yield more specific topics for further research.
B. Background and Significance & Literature Review
The term “ethnomusicology” may be broken down in several ways. One way to divide it is as “an ethnography of music,” seeking to understand people according to music they make. Another way to divide it is as “a musicology of ethnicity,” shifting the focus to understanding music according to the people who make it. In 1956, Alan Lomax suggested a rudimentary systematic approach to the study of folk song that incorporated elements from both angles. The world was split into broad musical regions and the general characteristics of timbre, rhythm, purpose, and mood were loosely grouped – understanding music according to the people who make it. He wrote, “Since there seems to be evidence that … unconscious but culturally transmitted … patterns are direct evidence of deepening emotional conditions, the study of folk music may then turn out to be a precise mode of analysis of the prevailing emotional temper of entire cultures. Thus ethnomusicology may bring us close to deep-lying aesthetic forces which have been dynamic in all human history” (Lomax 50) – understanding people according to the music they make. This vision for ethnomusicology has permeated the field in the years since, though the general trend has been from the broad to the specific, seeking not so much to understand the entirely vast categories of “Eurasian,” “Pygmoid,” or “Amerindian” musics, as Lomax did, but rather more localized categories such as Cornish, Igbo, or Hopi musics – and further, the Cornish, Igbo, or Hopi musics made in specific Cornish, Igbo, or Hopi cultural centers.
“Cultural geography,” also known more generally as “human geography,” seeks to understand people in places and places in people. It is a broad field, taking in many types of human creation as well as considering the natural environment and the interactions and reactions of its inhabitants with and to it. The last fifteen to twenty years have seen the rise of a focus on music as an important factor in human geographies. The journal Progress in Human Geography, in its 2006 progress report on “Regions and place: music, identity and place,” by Ray Hudson, referenced twelve major works before the year 2000 (the oldest work was from 1978, and was noted for its singularity in the academic milieu, conceptual limitation, and focus on description), and referenced twenty-six major works from the 2000s – in a period of six years, about twice as many important works in musical human geography were produced than in the twenty-five years preceding, not counting the many studies that did not make it into the progress report. The expansion and ubiquity of the internet has given further relevance to musical cultural geographies, as musics categorized into such genres as “The Canterbury Sound,” “Bhangramuffin,” “British-Asian Pop,” and so on have become available worldwide for instant access (Bennet 2002, Jazeel 2005, Su 2009). The world as “global village” lends itself to the creation of musical genres based around increasingly specific locales as musicians and listeners seek to understand, differentiate, and imbibe the incredible variety of musics and cultures they find on the Internet, the radio, the concert stage, the home, and the street corner.
Cultural geographies often focus on one or more specific aspects that inform the identities of people in the communities that are being studied. Twelve out of the thirty-eight references mentioned in Progress in Human Geography’s 2006 report explicitly mention identity or the production of place in their titles, and reading the texts of the others reveals that using music to understand place and identity is a central theme regardless of the title of the work.
From this basic understanding of ethnomusicology and musical human geography we have the framework for constructing a study of the music and people in a place, as well as a corpus of research that lends relevance and importance to new studies in unexplored places. Ethnomusicology lends its expertise in musical methods, provides theoretical background for music as a core human expression, and gives precedence for the practice of learning a people’s music as a method of field research. Cultural geography gives techniques for understanding the broader context and places music as significant within the wide variety of human creations that locate us within a place and within ourselves. Having established the paradigms that inform the academic focus of the research, specific questions about where to conduct the research, whom to conduct the research with, and what kind(s) of music to research must be answered. This project will take place in a rural Tibetan refugee community in Southern India, where I will focus on youth and their interaction and identification with popular and traditional musics. Over the next few pages, these questions will be answered: Why Tibetan exiles? Why in a refugee community? Why in a rural area? Why youth? Why popular music? Why traditional music?
Why Tibetan Exiles?
"I want to see Tibet as an independent country and all the Tibetans can welcome His Holiness inside the Potala [Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa] with a great joy. Most of the time that is what I dream about."
"I've been trying for a long time to get a picture of the old home but I think it is unrecognizable now. As an exile I suppose in a way I have never felt I have a home anywhere" (Thomas 2009).
For more than five decades the Tibetan community has been split and scattered, a diaspora in the truest sense. Many Tibetans still live in Tibet, under the rule of a regime that is, at best, contemptuous of the traditional Tibetan religion and way of life. The rest live in outposts, camps, as individuals, or in small communities all throughout the world. The most visible and famous Tibetan, the Dalai Lama, encourages his people to maintain their religion and traditional art forms – before a monastery was built in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Dalai Lama instituted the TIPA, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. As the quote above indicates, “home” is a far away and probably nonexistent place. By learning the old art forms and incorporating them into a modern setting, the Tibetans are able to place themselves in the world and maintain their “Tibetan-ness.” This drive to preserve tradition while still moving forward in modernity places the musical practices of Tibetans at what might be called a crossroads, where tradition is strong, new ideas are exciting, and there is the real and institution-encouraged possibility of blending the two.
Why in this Refugee Community?
One of the main reasons to study Tibetans in an exile community is simply that Tibet herself is just too hard to get into! The Chinese government distrusts foreigners, especially Westerners, who may be going to Tibet in order to paint the Chinese in a bad light. The university community generally discourages its students from going to any place that is so contested and possibly dangerous as Tibet. So, no one would let me go, and, once I got there, there is a good chance that no one would let me in or allow me to stay.
Bylakuppe is a fascinating place in that it is the largest Tibetan community in the Indian diaspora, outranking even Dharamsala in occupancy (and, since Dharamsala is mainly a docking or pilgrimage point for refugees, much of its population is in some state of transiency). To stay in Bylakuppe requires a Protected Area Permit on top of the usual visa – the Indian government is very protective of one of its most sensitive communities, and refuses to allow any to go there who might disrupt the way of life. Therefore we have an almost entirely Tibetan population, situated in Southern India near Bengaluru, Mysore, Goa, and Trivandrum. All around, these powerful Indian cultures likely have a large degree of influence, and Internet brings in the West. Tradition is also likely strong, as Bylakuppe houses five monasteries representing each of the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism (the Gelugpa get two). I say “likely” because no major studies have been published from research done in Bylakuppe, which is a compelling reason to explore the community there.
Refugee communities, especially ones this old, are also interesting in that there is a mix of second and third generation refugees, who have only seen pictures of the homeland, aging and aged first generation refugees, who may have been children or teenagers when they fled, and brand new first generation refugees, still dusty from the road. Researching how musical production and interest in traditional and modern musics relates to the feeling of Tibetan-ness will most definitely be informed by the eclectic mix of people present in this singular Tibetan community. As was said, some might be straight from Tibet, and some may have parents who have never even seen the Himalayas. How do young people in these different stages of exile tend to view their shared culture and artistic heritage? That is an interesting question.
Why in a Rural Area?
Conducting a study in a rural area is, similar to the first reasons noted for studying in a refugee community, wonderfully practical. Communities with less people that are more isolated provide the perfect ground for researchers getting their feet wet, and continue to provide interest for those more experienced. If the researcher can build genuine relationships of trust, the social network is more accessible and close-knit. Rural studies also provide unique challenges. The lack of a large population means that some of the people I was hoping to study with might not be there – there is probably a Tibetan percussion master living somewhere in New York, but there might not be one in Bylakuppe. Also, any mistakes or cultural faux-pas on the part of the researcher are likely to have greater impact, and it may well be that the contact that is crucial to the research might make him- or herself unavailable due to trust issues.
From a musical standpoint, rural areas have much to offer. Rural music represents the lives, grievances, and celebrations of peoples in very particular localities. Folk or other cultural revival is sometimes more about inventing a past than preserving it, and is constantly evolving as a hybrid of ancient forms and current influences. These musics can only be understood by taking account of conditions of production, form of the song, readings, society and impacts – texts, intertexts, and contexts. For people in rural locales, music can play an important role in transcending the limitations of a people’s place in the world, of constructing trajectories across space. Music helps people 'become' something beyond their assigned dominant identities - to join 'others' via music. In Bylakuppe, it may well be the Tibetans still living in Tibet that are those ‘others’ being joined. Yarwood and Charlton made most of the above points in their Journal of Rural Studies article “’Country Life’? Rurality, folk music, and ‘Show of Hands’,” and concluded with the idea that a “realistic portrayal” of folk life is not as important as providing a “complex, shifting, and hybrid view of reality.” Going to a rural place to try to understand it from a musical standpoint without attempting to impose any idea of what “should be” or what is “authentic” is a vital contribution to the fields of both ethnomusicology and human geography.
Youth, more than any other demographic group, are involved in translating tradition in the face of globalization, and youth in places like Bylakuppe are they who must most fully come to terms with the presence of the West (Saldanha 2002). The younger generation is more likely to be conversant with the technologies that bring new musics and popular cultures into rural communities, and are under much pressure to both preserve their culture and navigate the future. The Karmapa, one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism, is one of these youth. “From time to time I do enjoy listening to hip-hop because it has a very modern sound to it and even though I'm a Tibetan teacher representing these ancient teachings, I'm also a global citizen in the 21st century. Hip-hop perhaps is one way of me being a 21st-century person” (Lall 2009).
Why Popular Music?
Lily Kong, one of the foremost cultural geographers studying music, cites two main reasons for studying popular music. The first is pervasiveness - every culture has popular music woven into its popular culture. If one is seeking to test the “prevailing emotional temper of entire cultures,” popular music is highly relevant. "Whatever you feel from the music is what it feels like to be there" (Kong 1995, quoting David Thomas as cited in Jarvis, 1985:121). The second reason is that popular music is a medium through which people convey environmental experiences - creating social systems - and is also the outcome of environmental experience - recreating social systems. Popular music, then, produces, navigates, and comments upon culture. It is one of the richest sources for understanding a particular people in a particular place. Even, perhaps especially, if the popular music that is being consumed is produced somewhere outside the study location, the way people in that location interpret and incorporate the music can only be done in a way that reflects the local temper (Saldanha 2002), and familiarity of the researcher with the source music in a different context (for example, having heard the rap music the Karmapa listens to) provides a rich source for comparison and contrast.
Why Traditional Music?
Traditional music and culture, as has been noted, is of great importance to the Tibetans in the diaspora. Maintaining Tibetan-ness depends to a great degree on maintaining Tibetan art forms, if the efforts of the Dalai Lama are any indication of the diaspora’s attitude. If I am to understand where the Tibetans are coming from, as a researcher, an ethnomusicologist, and a person, it is imperative that I gain some familiarity with the various traditional musics produced in Bylakuppe. This is essential for practical as well as deeper emotional and spiritual reasons. If I am to hear Tibetan influence in the local productions of rock, hip-hop, or other musics, I need to know what to listen for. If I am to be conversant with the reasons Tibetans in Bylakuppe make music and how music preserves and creates culture, I will be greatly benefited by gaining more of an insider’s view and struggling to learn the instruments and forms just as the Tibetans have. Also, connection with traditional teachers will provide knowledgeable and invested contacts within the musical community.
To conclude, a report of a few anecdotes will suffice to bring the reality of the situation into clearer focus. The first is from Vanessa Walker, a newspaper writer who published Mantras & Misdemeanors: An Accidental Love Story. She spent about a year in Dharamsala, and during that time was able to attend several weddings. As the night goes on at one of these weddings, the MC invites any who wish to come to the stage and sing songs, and several young men from Amdo (a region in Tibet) storm the stage and vigorously sing traditional shepherd songs. After the traditional repertoire is exhausted, a karaoke version of "Hotel California" is performed, and the rest of the night is spent bumpin' to techno. Tibetans lead all of this, quite without regard for any Westerners who might be in attendance. It is simply what that group likes (2007).
The next anecdote formed the basis for an ethnomusicological monograph. Keila Diehl also went to Dharamsala (though her original plans were to study folk music outside the center of the government in exile, seeing a need as I do for studies to be done with Tibetans outside the mobbed tourist center that Dharamsala has become) and spent about a year with the people. She went intending to study music, and quite by accident became the keyboardist for the Tibetan rock and blues group “The Yak Band.” The band practiced in a concrete room high above Dharamsala proper, surrounded by the Himalayas and shepherds with their flocks. While overlooking the sights that had been inspiring yogis and lamas for millennia, she cranked up the amp and pounded out “Smoke on the Water.” Her book, Echoes from Dharamsala, chronicles her experiences and reflects on the ethnomusicological situation in both scholarly and contemporary discourse (2002).
There are many Tibetans outside Dharamsala, and many of them are youth who are traversing the globe without taking off their headphones. It has been shown that the refugee community of Bylakuppe is an ideal place to undertake a study of place and identity amongst these youth.
D. Ethics and Approval
E. Preliminary Plans for Post-field Application
F. Qualifications and Limitations
G. Faculty Mentors and Coursework
J. Works Cited
i. Appendix A: Primary Faculty Mentor Form
ii. Appendix B: Course Contracts
iii. Appendix C: Methodological Tools (if applicable)
iv. Appendix D: Address and Title of Online Portfolio
v. Appendix E: IRB/IACUC Approval Letter and Application
vi. Appendix F: Method Practices