About Me

My photo
Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Soong Dhang Laymo

In Tibet, speaking the words "Dalai Lama" is a severely punishable offense. Patrick French's work, Tibet, Tibet gives life to true popular accounts of families' sacred possessions and utterances, pictures of His Holiness and prayers for his safety and long life, being kept and spoken in utmost secrecy from fear of government harassment. This being the case, a culture of code words has grown up in the Tibetan homeland, and poems and songs with seemingly innocuous texts brim with covert nationalistic pride and secret devotion to their religion and its arbiter, His Holiness.

Soong Dhang Laymo is one of these songs. From what I've come to learn, it was actually written some time before the occupation of Tibet, and has taken on a new life and meaning in the last 60 years, with a special resurgence occurring in the last year or so. The song is about the "Yishi Norbu," the precious jewel of the Norbulingka. The meaning is something along the lines of, "if His Holiness isn't the precious jewel, then who or what is? It's not the grand buildings, the artwork, gardens, and statues, that make Tibet's sacred city sacred. It is the Lama that graces them, and for whom they were all made." For the Tibetans in exile, it serves both as a song of longing for their ancestral home and freedom as well as a song of comfort for the great blessing they have in the current Dalai Lama, who lives among them in exile. In the person of the Dalai Lama, there is a spiritual and cultural center powerfully active even in the absence of an accessible physical center.

And, in a few weeks (if all goes well), I get to play the traditional version of this song, for vocal and dranyen, at the Dalai Lama's Palace in Bylakuppe for his birthday. The next day I will be playing it for the SOS TCV school, where I have been trading drum lessons for dranyen lessons for the last week and a half.

This has been quite the experience. There are two talented and passionate music teachers at the TCV (Tibetan Children's Village) school. One is about my age, maybe a few years older, and the other is in his late thirties/early forties. They are both graduates of TIPA, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, and as such are schooled in all aspects of Tibetan musical culture - dance, instruments, and singing. My friend and host, Namgyal, introduced me to them through one of the cooks, and it's been a blast ever since. Sitting in this little stone room hour after hour for days on end, learning all about Tibetan music and teaching Western drum set, is a dream come true. Sometimes I run down a mental list of what is happening right now: I'm living in the jungle in South India, in a village of Tibetans, playing protest and devotional music on an ancient instrument, getting ready to perform for the birthday of a living god, and I'm with my sweetheart the whole time. This little blue and green ball we live on is quite the place.

When I get some pictures of the Palace and the TCV, I'll upload them to this post. In the meantime, listen to this cat:

Namgyal hipped me to this dude. He's kind of a gypsy Sufi renegade. Dig.

And check out this photographer's portfolio of the TCV:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Ears Wide Open

Dig on India, man. On the same street you've got a Hindu temple, a buzzing bus station, mango hawkers, cell phone dealers, sari stitchers, Levi wearers thumbing through branded T-shirts, a thousand flies and all their cousins, the constant trickle of the open sewers, beggars clinking coins and rustling paper, the clack of coconut shells piling higher, and ringtones telling you you could be my chamak challo or J. Bieb's baby baby baby oh. Monks in maroon and saffron huddle laughing around laptops and Cokes while matrons in chupas mutter chants and thumb through  worn sets of prayer beads, watching the ladies in burkas barter for fruit. Walk a little further and glance over the side of the bridge, and the rhythmic thwack of mothers beating their clothes against boulders in the brown water meets the lowing of cattle that just walked in front of a hip rickshaw driver blaring the newest from Bollywood. Only the dogs are silent, quietly watching for a dropped biscuit from a toddler or a scrap from the butcher.

In this soundscape lives the Tibetan diaspora in Bylakuppe. Kushal Nagar, the closest big town, is a center of tourist activity for Indians going on a summer holiday to the higher, cooler ghats and hill stations of southwest India. The town caters to the fifteen thousand or more Tibetans, with signs advertising "Tibetian dress specialists" proudly capping the tailor stalls. Fifty rupees by rickshaw away lay the camps themselves, a sprawling verdant community of rolling hills and cement houses.  The sounds of tractors and motorcycles take over, accompanied by industry and, in the distance, the clapping of monks in debate. Unabashedly Buddhist, speakers chant mantras from rooftops and His Holiness teaches the finer points of compassion from a speaker near the catfish pond as devotees earn merit by feeding the aquatic residents glucose cookies, rolls, and day old bread. The children and I look upon this activity as one of sharing, as a good half of the cookies crunch happily in our mouths as the other half are slurped up by the "fishes with moustaches."  In the quiet parts of the day, the silence is made more conspicuous as motorcycle drivers turn off their engines to coast down the easy slopes in beautiful unhurried bliss. Six a.m. the next morning, the buzzing of my little three-sectioned friends reaches a crescendo, the siren-song of the birds climaxes, and chants from rooftop sound systems begin anew as I roll over to hear my wife's soft, slow, sleeping breathing. 

At least, that's how I hear it.