News and Views on Tibet

An American Khampa Singer in the making

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By Tenzin Choephel
Phayul Correspondent

Kathmandu, April 12 – Amalia Rubin aka Yangchen Dolkar is a familiar name in the Tibetan music fraternity, well at least outside Tibet, this young American lady would very much love to sing a duet Tibetan song with famous singer Kunga from Kham, Tibet and if anyone has doubts over her singing in Tibetan then they better listen to her Tibetan singing talent in her first album ‘Mountains and Deserts’; her second Tibetan album should be releasing within couple of months and she is also said to have been nominated for a Tibetan music award. We caught up with her in Kathmandu for a candid interview when she was here for recording her second album that she would probably title ‘Leaving Home’. Following is the excerpts from the interview.

Phayul: What brings you here in Kathmandu?
Amalia: I am here in Kathmandu recording my cd, in USA I recorded one cd album in which all the songs are old; in the new album half of the songs are old and half are new; there is very good studio in Kathmandu and most of my friends are singers and they help me.

Phayul: How did you first get into music?
Amalia: My father sings all the time and he will play virtually any instrument that you hand him, I have always heard music in my house since I was born, my father strongly encouraged me to get into music, my grand father and grand mother also, especially they pushed me to take voice lessons and study music, its been a ever present thing in my life, it’s a family thing, mostly my dad.

Phayul: How did you get into Tibetan music?
Amalia: Well….. I was introduced to Tibetan culture at a very young age, around 6 because my neighbors run the local Tibetan Buddhist temple and so there was always Rinpoches and Lamas in the house but I really didn’t get introduced to Tibetan music until I was about 14 which was when I got involved in the human rights situation in Tibet and I started meeting young Tibetans my age and they started taking me to events like Losar, Trungkar Duchen and I thought Dranyen (Tibetan lute) is really really cool, I love how this music sounds and about two years ago I just borrowed a friend’s Dranyen and started playing I didn’t have a teacher, I learnt it almost entirely from watching music videos and I just kept playing it, it was easy and so it started sounding pretty good and my friends convinced me to perform in shows and things like that… so that’s pretty much how it started it was mostly an accident.

Phayul: How long did it take for you to learn dranyen?
Amalia: I have been playing dranyen for two years and mandolin which is more common in Amdo for about five months but both of them are very simple instruments not like where you have to worry about chords and stuffs, so the actual time between picking up a dranyen and being able to a very simple song was only about twenty minutes, half an hour but it was about four months before I performed publicly played for the first time, now it has been about two years so it was about a year and a half before I put out my first cd and now I am a lot happier with it but I am still working, it’s a process.

Phayul: Can you play one of your favorite songs for us?

She picks her dranyen and adjusts the tune… ‘nga shed ja de trung trung karmo tongi yin (I will sing ja de trung trung karmo), now she plays her dranyen and sings ja de trung trung karmo, shoktse nga la yerda… her singing has a strong Khampa tone, where did she pick up that; now she picks up her mandolin and starts singing pangen metok… and wow she could sing like a Amdo girl.

Phayul: What types of Tibetan song and music do you like?
Amalia: I like old songs of Kham and Amdo Region very much; I don’t like toeshed and nangma that much, among the new singer, my favorite is Kunga and Yangchen Lhamo (from Tibet).

Phayul: Why do you like Kunga’s song in particular?
Amalia: His songs and voice are very pleasant, he is a student of Yadong but his songs are best, the meaning of his songs are really beautiful, its not just love songs or just about music which so many singers, the word don’t really have important meaning, his songs I think really make you reflect on the meaning of being Tibetan and they are poetry, absolutely beautiful, so not only are tunes good, not only his voice is amazing but the meaning of the word is amazing and beautiful…. And he is really cute. When I learned Tibetan, I watched lot of music videos with lyrics on screen and I learned Tibetan like that.

Phayul: You think it is good to have music videos with subtitles running below?
Amalia: I think it is very helpful also because there is dialects in Tibetan, like one of my friends from Lhasa can’t understand Kunga’s song because of the heavy accent, so you can enjoy the music, but when you have the words you can understand it, if you are like me, you can learn the song from it and you can learn new Tibetan vocabulary, you can improve the speed of you reading, I think it is really good.

Phayul: Can you sing one of your favorite Kunga’s songs?
Amalia: She sings ‘lho zamling Nyima ri la gal, nub dawa dawa karpo trin gi drib, gung kartso chartrin ki du lhung, o o khed punsum majel ye re kyo’ that’s probably his most famous song.

Phayul: How are the songs in your first album?
Amalia: Yah, it was just traditional songs, eight songs are Tibetan like ‘aku pema’, ‘pangen metok’ etc. and two songs are Jewish because I am Jew, it is my culture and all songs are not my composed.

Phayul: What do you see in common between Tibetans and Jews?
Amalia: Our cultures look similar, like, a lot of what’s important to us like our values are very similar culturally, family values, taking care of your parents for example which is something that isn’t as important in most of the west is very important in our culture, and then we have also faced many issues with living in exile, living under another Government that wanted us dead in our situation, its why most of the Jews are in America, we had to flee from countries where the Government was trying to kill us, so I think we also have pretty good understanding of what its like to be persecuted and that’s something that unfortunately we share with Tibetans.

Phayul: You are here to record your second album, tell us about it?
Amalia: There are ten songs in the second album, one song is Jewish, three are old Tibetan songs, then two from Amdo and one from Tö, then two other songs are also old with new tune and one is written by two friends and I composed the tune, we worked together on it, I cannot write songs because I don’t know poetry, the music is mix of traditional and electronic instruments, I used lot of dranyen, mandolin and piwang to give a real traditional sound and so its half and half.

Phayul: So far you have performed in several places, what was the reaction of Tibetan people?
Amalia: They were really really surprised because no one expects a westerner to get on stage, pick up a dranyen and start singing in Tibetan but they really liked it, I think most of them are happy with it because I am enjoying their song, they like seeing a westerner who knows how to play a dranyen, I think its really fun for the younger Tibetans as well, they have been really surprised and I think lot of them think its pretty cool that a non Tibetan is taking interest in their culture, so I found almost a 100% positive reactions but a lot of people are just shocked, the best compliment that I got is someone who would be standing in the back so they cannot see the stage and they will come back stage and they will be like I heard there was this Inji performing tonight but I didn’t see it and they will be like that’s her over there, they would say no I didn’t hear her singing, no no she sang two song, they would go oh.. that was the best reaction I ever got, people who couldn’t see me and they didn’t think I was a westerner.

Phayul: What do your non Tibetan friends think about you?
Amalia: They think it’s a little bit weird, some of them are very involved in Tibetan culture and politics and Buddhism and they think its really cool but the others you know, they kind of smile, they think the music sounds nice but they don’t really understand, they think its little bit weird.

Phayul: What do you wish to achieve in Tibetan music?
Amalia: I am just having fun, I am really having fun but what I would like to do is, I really want, especially younger Tibetans to enjoy Tibetan music, not just traditional and I hope what I do with new music is show that you can have Tibetan music that is distinctly Tibetan but it doesn’t just have to be traditional, it can still be Tibetan music and be modern and be something younger people like me or my Tibetans friends are going to listen to and I think Tibetan music is such an beautiful art that anything to keep it going, the rest it just to enjoy, so much fun.

Phayul: We heard you getting recognition in Tibetan music fraternity, can you tell us about that?
Amalia: I don’t really know too many details but apparently I got nominated for a Tibetan music award, that’s what people are saying which we hope is true, I think that’s really great and exciting, actually, we know its true, apparently there is a new category for international singers who are singing in Tibetan language, apparently there are more than one of us, even four or five, its surprising and exciting, my parents especially my father who is a singer are very excited, very proud of me, they are going to come to India for the award, my brother as well.

Phayul: I noticed by your singing that you have a very strong Kham and Amdo tone, how did you pick that?
Amalia: Well, combination of things, first of all most of the music I listen to is from Kham and Amdo, and I also sing those songs, that’s been part of it and also most of my Tibetan friends whom I speak Tibetan with are from Kham and Amdo and so picked up the accent and the biggest factor which is how I learned Tibetan so quickly was that I had a boyfriend over the summer from Kham living in the US who spoke no English, we would speak every single day for hour or so and so I picked up his accent.

Phayul: Besides that, you could also sing in Lhasa accent?
Amalia: Yah, absolutely, most of the pop songs that I like are from Kham and Amdo and I like their traditional songs, so most of what I sing has one of those accents.

Phayul: Right now you are still a students, what are your future plans?
Amalia: I am studying Asian Studies at the University of Buffalo, my concentration if Tibetan language and culture, I really haven’t decided yet what I want to do, I am only 20, But I think I would like to either be a professor or work with female victims of torture and trauma.

Phayul: Did you ever visit Tibet?
Amalia: I never visited Tibet but I want to go there.

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