Songs of Defiance: The Turbulence of Tibet's Last Half-Century Has Had Important Implications for Its Rich Musical Culture. Leading an Oxford University and Royal Geographical Society Expedition, Tom Hamilton Set out to Record and Document the Traditional Folk Music of One Remote Himalayan Community

Article excerpt

Every musician knows the feeling of being told to keep quiet. But while for most of us it's something that happens occasionally--when practicing gets too loud or goes on too late, last summer I met a man who was told to keep his music quiet for more than 13 years.

His name was Penjo-la, and the place was Porong, a principality enclosing a scattered collection of Himalayan villages in southwestern Tibet. Our four-person team had come to record his music, setting up a mobile recording studio in the main room of his house. Laptops, microphone stands and several dozen metres of blue cable sat incongruously among the ancient furniture.

Penjo-la began to sing. His voice told of the village where he grew up, the goat-herds he has ridden with and of mythical battles between snow lions and dragons. Perched on yak-wool rugs in front of a yak-dung stove, we quietly sipped yak-butter tea and listened as he sang, overwhelmed by an immense feeling of privilege just to be hearing these haunting songs.

Endless space

Our journey from Lhasa took five days by four-wheel drive, most of which was spent skidding along the Friendship Highway--a glorified mud bath that winds along the course of the Brahmaputra River before heading south towards the Himalayan border with Nepal. Remarkably, it still constitutes the only significant passage between the Tibetan plateau and the Indian subcontinent, and we were glad when we left it behind us, venturing off-road into a restricted area in Dingri county--uncharted musical territory.

The Porong landscape ranges over altitudes of up to 5,000 metres and is an awesome combination of the flat, endless space of the Tibetan plateau and the magnificent interruption of the highest mountains on the planet. Throughout our fieldwork, the intimidating bulk of Mount Shishapangma shadowed us. At 8,014 metres, it's the highest mountain located entirely within Tibet.

Each of the villages we worked in is nestled into a hillside, and from these vantage points it's possible to chart the progress of herds of sheep, yak or wild ass moving across the plains below, the occasional horseback shepherd in tow. It's an area of spartan beauty, and apart from the mountains and tiny settlements, there really is little else here.

Despite its remote location, away from the Lhasa valley, Porong has felt the effects of Tibet's recent history as strongly as any other part of the Tibetan provinces. From the mid-1960s and throughout the '70s, Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution had a devastating effect on many aspects of traditional Tibetan culture. Perhaps the most obvious example being the destruction of all but 12 of more than 6,000 Buddhist monasteries in the country.

Enforcement of this organised decimation was left to the numerous Red Guards stationed in villages and towns across Tibet, many of whom were young Tibetans. The Porong region was no exception, and between 1967 and around 1980, Red Guards lived permanently in Porong's Xiang--the central village and administrative centre.

During this period, Porong's inhabitants were subject to a range of restrictions on their cultural practices. Some concerned the expression of folklore, and for more than a decade, the villages fell silent as their people were prevented from performing traditional Tibetan arts.

Bans on music and dance caused significant disruption to the cultural life of small Tibetan communities such as those in Porong. This is easily understood if you consider the social context of music-making in Tibetan culture. Songs are themselves communal activities in Tibet, and specific musical themes exist for just about any social occasion you care to think of. From building roofs and tamping clay floors to milking yaks and riding horses, from courtship and drinking to the celebration of historical events, everyday life is inextricably bound together by the music that pervades it.

For example, although many of the drinking songs that we recorded are sung solo, they are normally performed as part of an evening's group entertainment. …