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Interview with Techung
Phayul[Monday, March 07, 2005 11:30]
Techung a.k.a. Tashi Dhondup is one of the few Tibetan traditional singers based in San Francisco, US. At 43, he is as committed to Tibetan music as he was when he was a student at Tibetan Institute of performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamsala, India. Calling himself "Tibetan folk and freedom singer", Techung has seen the various developments of Tibetan music and dance forms in exile. He was just an eager young student when TIPA was a fledging school of Tibetan music and dance before it became the pivotal institute contributing immensely to the preservation of Tibetan culture in exile. On a visit to India to perform at the second Tibetan Music Festival held last month in Bylakkuppe in South India, Phayul Reporter Tenzin Gaphel met him for an interview in Dharamsala.

Excerpts from Q & A with Techung:

Q: Were you always interested in music when you were a kid?
A: Well, I don't think I understood much about music when I was a kid. It wasn't really like I had this ambition to become a musician in the first place. But I was pretty good at playing instruments and performing arts like theatre and drama.

Q: You were at TIPA for 17 long years. What prompted you to leave for the west?
A: I would say I was always interested in seeing places in order to explore more in music. I once saw a Korean cultural performance in Delhi which really impressed me and sparked that first desire to explore more about other culture. I always had this desire to learn more than what I was learning at TIPA. Afterall, it had been 17 years! It was time I moved out and discover new things. Dharamsala at that time was becoming bit claustrophobic for me. And there are number of factors that in a way compelled me to leave TIPA. The controversy that erupted during Jamyang Norbu's tenure as the director of TIPA discouraged me. Now, he was one guy whom I think is really committed to the preservation of Tibetan music and dance forms. He brought many constructive changes in the institute which some didn't like.

Q: When you first arrived in America, did you feel you had made a wrong decision in leaving TIPA?
A: No, I didn't feel like that. I left because 17 years of doing the same thing everyday had me reaching the saturation point, so to speak. In fact, my first year in America was an incredible experience. I was with "Caravan of Dreams", a theatre group in Texas. There were intensive practices and performances. We did around four or five plays a year. And I was discovering new things and new culture. I was working for a live theatre company. We would get some money during the daytime but it was pretty hard managing my life with that amount. So it was pretty hard in terms of managing expenses.

Q: Under what circumstances the Chaksampa group was formed? You were one of the founding members, right?
A: Yes. When I was with the Texas theatre group, I always had this sense of obligation to promote Tibetan culture and it stayed strong. Then I had a conversation on phone with my friend Sonam Tashi who shared my idea and that's how Chaksampa was formed in 1979 with a female singer from TIPA and we did a nine-city tour in the US, Europe and Canada. I spent 12-13 years with Chaksampa and it was a wonderful experience.

Q: Is your music more on romantic or political themes?
A: I enjoy doing both but I would say my music is more political. It's about freedom and nation. In my first album, there were few catchy and upbeat romantic songs which I deliberately included with the young Tibetans in mind. I was never thinking of any commercial aspects when I released my first album. I thought only 10-15 people will listen. I like Tibetan poetry but I think it need to be simplified, make it more straightforward so that people can understand the lyrics better and enjoy it. Some Tibetan songs like the ones written by the Sixth Dalai Lama are very beautiful and one can really enjoy it. But the younger generation find it hard to understand and they can't enjoy it. Ultimately they turn to Indian, Cinese and western music.

Q:Why did you opt for traditional music and not western music like many other Tibetan artistes?
A: I used to play guitar but it didn't interest me like Drangyen (traditional Tibetan six-stringed instrument). Drangyen is something that's close to my heart. When I was a learner, not much emphasis was given on guitar. Moreover there wasn't any professional guitar player around to teach. The interest for guitar playing was not as high as it is now. These days there are bands playing guitar and youngsters love it. For me, playing Drangyen is a challenge. Even in our community, people don't expect mush from people who play Drangyen. For them, it's just - dang! dang! dang! But I try to make it interesting by experimenting with new notes. I also feel that you should have respect for this instrument.

Q: What does music mean to you?
A: Music is a therapy for me. It has therapeutic effect on me. The vibration that I feel while singing and playing instruments help relax my senses. And I cry sometimes! It's more of a medium to express myself. Apart from that it means identity, culture and so many things.

Q: How do you take care of the financial aspect when you make an album?
A: We were lucky in the beginning because we had a friend who has a studio. We would do the recordings in that studio and finish everything in 3 days! But we also had to shell out our own money and it's hard to recover the expenses. These days, I have become much smarter in terms of financial matters.

Q: What do you have to say about the young and upcoming artistes in exile?
A: I think all of us are are contributing to music and I am glad about that. But I would like to say that although approach can be different, we shouldn't forget what is 'Tibetan."Music today is so westernised and the tunes are mostly influenced by Indian, Nepali and so on. The thing is at least as a Tibetan artiste, we need to phrase the Tibetan words properly. Because if you are an Indian or American, I don't care how you phrase it. I feel music sense is more evident today among the young artiste than before. Musicians need to listen to older Tibetan musicians although I admit it's hard to find CDs and audios of old musicians. Music is not just about entertaining people but the spirit in a musician that makes him shine out. It comes out of sincerity and respect for the art.
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  Readers' Comments »
You are the Hero (tdbawa)
Best (Unknow)
Keep it up (Dawa)
ever green (tenzin silnon)
A living legend! (Kalsang)
Admiration for his effort dedicating in the perservation of tibetan music (Kunga)
Interesting (Mingmae)
tashi delek (lhamo youdon)
Techung and Dranyan- a great combination! (Tsering)
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