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The struggle in Melody: Songs of Loyalty
Phayul[Sunday, December 02, 2012 21:32]
By Tsewang Rigzin

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his closing remarks at the recently concluded Second Special International Tibet Support Groups Meeting, stated that the “younger generation of Tibetans in Tibet these days have much stronger determination as compared to earlier generations.” I have no doubt that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is absolutely correct given the fact that 76 out of 85 (89.4 %) cases of self-immolations till date have been carried out by the new and younger generation Tibetans, who are below 40 years of age.

What makes younger generation of Tibetan more determined, courageous and patriotic? The obvious answer is because of Chinese atrocities and short sighted policies such as enforcing cultural homogeneity to blur ethnic Tibetan Identity, demographically flooding Tibet with Han Chinese through the ‘Go west’ campaign, rewriting history to justify their claim over Tibet and maintaining political repression through arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, torture and killings. But there is another less obvious yet very important cause which I believe contributes in making this new generation of Tibetans more determined, courageous and patriotic. This cause, I believe are the ‘Songs of Loyalty-(La-Gyei-Lu-Yang),’ that are being sung by many brave and patriotic artists in Tibet. I strongly believe these songs have played noteworthy role in bringing about a sense of inclusive nationalism and pride in being Tibetan amongst many Tibetans in Tibet and in Exile.

Music has played important role in many different social and political movements and history bears witness to this. Many songs with meaningful lyrics have been a catalyst of change in many countries. For instance, the ‘Singing Revolution’ in the late 1980’s, in which people demonstrated through spontaneous singing of patriotic songs and hymns that were strictly forbidden, eventually lead to the restoration of independence in the Baltic States from erstwhile USSR. In the case of China, Cui Jian's 1986 song ‘Nothing to My Name’ which was referred to as ‘the most influential song in history of China’ was popular with protesters in Tiananmen Square. Cui Jian performed the song live at the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and many protesters sang ‘Nothing to My Name’ in unison to give voice to their rebellion against the government, and their desire for democracy and personal freedom and thus it became an unofficial anthem for Chinese youth and activists during the protest. Such examples are many. These songs play an important role in social movements as it evokes a sense of displeasure with existing social and political system and inspires the listener to raise one’s voice. As Fred Stanton rightly puts it, “political songs have purpose that goes beyond entertainment – they are songs specifically useful for building a political struggle, not just to uplift the soul as any good song should do. People want to hear them at rallies, picket lines, etc., to use them to fan flames and educate and recruit to a movement.”

In the history of Tibet’s political struggle, particularly from late 1980’s, music has been effectively used as a vehicle to spread social and political messages, explicitly or implicitly, and has played a significant role in evoking a strong sense of inclusive nationalism, loyalty and pride in being Tibetan, and thus inspiring many the younger generation of Tibetans like me. There are ample of cases to justify this claim. It is said that Tibetan protesters, who were arrested and thrown into military trucks during the peaceful protest that erupted in Lhasa on 27th of September and 1st October, 1987, were defiantly singing patriotic song (s) in unison with high spirit while being taken away to prison.

The written statement left behind by Martyr Jamphel Yeshi before he immolated himself for the cause of Tibet this year in March in New Delhi, reflects the fact that he drew inspiration from the lyrics of patriotic songs sung in Tibet.

The point number two of his five-point final statement in Tibetan is same with that of a lyrics of a song called “Call for Loyalty, La-Gyai-Rey-Boe”, which was composed and sung by Khatak Phuntsok Topgyal from Tibet. The third point of his statement also seems inspired by another song by the same singer called “Without Freedom- Rang-Wang-Mey-Na”.

In another case, monk Chime Palden, who immolated himself along with Tenpa Dhargyal on 30th March 2012, was earlier arrested and detained in Lhasa for about a month in 2010 over the possession of a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan national flag and a popular nationalistic song called “Sound of Unity – Thundrel-Kyi-Rangdra”, sung by another famous singer in Tibet, Shertan. I was told by one Tibetan who came from Tibet recently that they often go for a sort-of-prayer-picnic on mountain tops but many times end up with crying altogether after singing such songs.

Although many of such songs use metaphors and ambiguities, suggesting political meanings to avoid potential consequences, however many singers risk their lives by using lyrics that are more explicit and vocal in their expressions of political statement. Consequently, many have faced ruthless actions.

On 3rd November 2008, T.A.R. Propaganda Bureau chief, Cui Yuying stated: “It is necessary to struggle against infiltration by the Dalai Clique in the ideological sphere by eliminating and cracking down on nationality cultural products with the nature of politically separatist reactionary views which mislead the public.”

There is a long list of Tibetan singers and lyricists who have been arrested and jailed for singing what the Chinese call ‘reactionary and counter-revolutionary’ songs. The most recent is the case of Chogsel, a Tibetan singer from Kham Nagshoe, who was arrested on 18th August 2012 on charges of “threatening social stability” and “inciting the separation within nationalities” through his songs. He has been banned from singing. Just a few days before that another well-known Tibetan singer Achok Phuljhung was arrested by Chinese authorities on 3rd August 2012 for his newly released album, “We who are burdened, Khur-Gi-Non-Pai-Nya-Tso.” The album contains many strong lyrics with explicit political meanings in praise of the Dalai Lama, Sikyong Lobsang Sangey and Tibetan self-immolators. Some of the songs from his album are, “Good Teacher- Lama Sangpo”, “Dream - Milam”, “We have support- Nya-Tsor-Gyap-Kyor-Yoe” and “Heros- Pa-Goe-Tso” A portion of the lyrics from his song "Heros- Pa-Goe-Tso” reads,

“Oh, Martyrs, whose motivations are pure and noble,
For the freedom of people of Snow-Land (Gangchen Pa)
You burned your precious body to the fire
Ae-Ma, I shall forever sing for your praise and Memoriam”


Another case of such arrest is that of Tibetan singer Lolo, who was arrested on 19th April 2012. His arrest came months after he released an album titled "" target="_blank">Raise the flag of Tibet, sons of the snow." A portion of the title song of the album reads,

“To secure the independence of Tibet
To resist the Red Chinese leader
Through the truth of Middle path
Children of the snow land, raise the Tibetan flag"


Not only have the Chinese authorities arrested singers and lyricists but they in many cases, they have also arrested common masses for storing such songs and videos on their mobile phones and other devices, especially post the 2008 uprisings in Tibet. According to the Radio Free Asia, in April and March 2012, around a dozen Tibetans were detained in Markham for storing a song in praise of the Dalai Lama in their mobile phones. There are also many cases of punishments and fines imposed by local Chinese authorities on shop keepers and restaurant owners for singing such song in their commercial establishments.

For me, it is very difficult to select a few songs from the many that have motivated me. Nonetheless, I am going to discuss with you some songs that I have drawn inspiration from. The common theme around these songs are; Tibetan’s faith in His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the sadness of his absence and hopes for his return to Tibet, the sufferings of Tibetans in Tibet, pride in being Tibetan, preservation of cultural heritage, and determination to resist the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Songs in praise of and sadness in the absence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama top the list. There are hundreds of songs with this theme. One that immediately comes to my mind is “Divine bird of Peace- Shedei-Lhaja-Karpo” sung by famous Amdo singer Shertan. In this song of praise for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Shertan uses ‘white divine bird’ as a metaphor for the Dalai Lama. Another strong metaphorical song which expresses the sadness of absence of the Dalai Lama and aspiration for his return to Tibet is “A Phone call – Khapar-Thong-dhang” sung by famous female singer Lhakyi. I was told that this song was once played in every corner of Barkhor Street until it was officially banned. A portion of the lyrics from this song reads,

A phone call, a phone call,
A phone call from top of Snow Mountain,
It said that Snow-lion is returning,
Let’s rejoice, the people of Snow land,
For Tibetans of home and abroad will reunite soon.


One strong song that I believe strongly reflects the sadness and suffering of Tibetans is “Torture without trace – Ma-kha-Mey-Pei-Char-Dhung” sung by Tashi Dondup who was arrested on 3rd December 2009 and later released on 7th February 2011 after serving 14 months of his 15 month sentence. His album became very famous. Five thousand CDs were sold out immediately within a few days of its release, before Chinese authorities banned the album. A portion of the lyric from this song reads,

“First, a sad tune for my brother hasn't returned from afar
Second, the pain because there is no harmony for people
Third, the occupation and denial of freedom for Tibetans
These are all torture without trace.”


Other songs from the same album are equally vocal and strong in its explicit political messages, including, “No regret – Gyoe-Pa-Mey” and “1958-2008”.

Another song by yet another brave singer which strongly reflects a Tibetan’s determination to safeguard one’s cultural heritage and deep aspiration to see the Dalai Lama is “I will not die – Nya-Mei-Chei.” A portion of the lyrics reads,

“I won’t die even my life span ends,
Until the opportunity is not materialised for seeing
The Lama of peace and non violence who
Went abroad for the sake of sentient beings

I won’t regret even if am killed
To extend the hands to restore
The sacred texts, culture and the wealth
Which had been burned with hatred.”


The message of protecting one’s own cultural tradition is another important theme of these songs. The newly released, “Have you given it a thought, people of snow land? – Samlo-Ae-Thang- Gangchen-Pa” is one such song. Gepe, the singer of this song from Amdo, is believed to have "disappeared without a trace" after releasing this album recently. Portion of the lyrics from this song reads,

“Oh Gangchenpa, the people of snow mountains,
Did you ever give a thought?
That the script and language of Tibet
And Tibetan ways of life are
Like souls of Tibetan people.
Are you studying them, young Tibetans?


In another song by the same singer, “I can’t be defeated – Pham-Mey-Sei” evokes a tremendous sense of pride in being Tibetan. A portion of the lyrics reads,

“Born in Tibet by virtue of good karma and prayer,
Raised by grateful parents as their own eyes,
I, the son of snow, with youthful physique,
Will parade turquoise mane of a white snow lion,

I, the disciple of Avalokateshvara, will never be defeated
For I am the golden banner of victory,
By considering the law of Karma I took the Middle Way
And with love and compassion in my mind I keep my words”


The message of this song very much imbues a sense of pride in being Tibetan and boosts the morale of listeners in this onerous struggle of justice against the might of China. The list of such songs is long and I, for one have been very much motivated and inspired and more importantly it evokes my sense of inclusive nationalism and responsibility that I owe to my people and nation and in our struggle for freedom. I strongly believe these songs have played an important role in making many Tibetan youths like me, more determined, courageous and patriotic.

Someone once truly said, "When you are happy, you enjoy the music. But when you are sad you understand the lyrics."

Sometime back, I was travelling in a taxi with some of my relatives who had come from Tibet on a pilgrimage to India and I asked them to sing a song. One of them told me, “Now, I hardly remember any songs as it has been many years, since 2008, that we stopped singing!”

This response still echoes in my heart. Tibetans in Tibet haven’t enjoyed music for long, yet they have well understood the lyrics.

-----------------------

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my fried Tsering Samdup, a PhD Candidate at Central University of Tibetan Studies, Sarnath for helping me with translating some of the Tibetan lyrics to English.

The writer is a developmental professional based in Delhi. He can be reached at tsewangrigzin59@gmail.com. Article submitted by the author.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.

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