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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:


  1. So how much of what you do is cultural absorption vs. cultural exchange? :D

    ...I can't think of a way to write this question that asks what I want to ask that doesn't sound accusatory or coldly analytical, so I put a smiley face at the end, haha

  2. Bahahaha... I like your use of emoticons.

    The real answer is, honestly and absolutely, that I don't care. :D The ethnomusicologists I vibe with tend to get fascinated with/enraptured by a culture's music and go as native as possible, at least musically. Really, though, I think the absorption/exchange dichotomy is artificial - I am who I am, and my background comes with me regardless of any attempts at suppression (which I don't make). Exchange happens effortlessly, as should everything that is good. Read the Tao Te Ching for more on that... :)

    I counted up my hours to check on the concept, though (because your question piqued my interest and curiosity), and I came up with 20 hours teaching and 25 hours learning/practicing since I started last week. That gives some concrete values to the question. In a typical lesson, I try to be as empty of a vessel as possible, but when just hanging out with my teachers and friends I freely share music and musical concepts. It's a fun and exciting thing.

    There's a partial answer for you - I sincerely appreciate the question.

  3. is there a tibetan guitar notes for this? If there is, can u add it on the comment? thnx

    1. Sure! For those of you not familiar with the notation, it simply takes the scale degree (do re mi, etc.) and converts it into a number (do - 1, re - 2 and so on). There is a way of indicating rhythm, but this song has an unchanging eight note pattern with the signature Tibetan lilt.

      55 23/ 55 55/ 55 55/
      55 61/ 53 33/ 55 65/
      53 33/ 35 23/ 22 21/
      66 66/ 66 66/

      11 11/ 16 55/ 61 23/
      55 55/ 65 33/ 12 35/
      32 21/ 22 55/ 32 21/
      11 11/ 11 11 ://

    2. Oops... Eighth note, not eight note. Btw, This is me, I just didn't want to deal with the mobile login crap.