A Diamond in the Dust
By Bhuchung D. Sonam
Acho Namgyal: Shey Kyi Jinpa
A documentary film by Sonam Tashi and Eric Henningsen
Duration – 80 minutes
Sonam Tashi — popularly called Acho Danny — was a young man when he first went out in search of the late Maja Tsewang Gyurme, one of the 20th century’s foremost scholars of Tibetan music and a performer of equal calibre. Maja was surprised that a young Tibetan wanted to find out about a blind musician from an earlier era. He graciously invited Acho (meaning brother in Tibetan) to sit, offered tea and then they talked. This was the beginning of a journey that took Acho Danny 15 years of research, and many hours of interviews about nangma with some of the finest Tibetan scholars such as Sampho Jigme Rinpoche, Ngawang Lotun Nornang, Sholkhang Sonam Dargyal and contemporary scholar Tashi Tsering to be able to tell the story of the blind Tibetan musician.
Acho Namgyal, (no relation to Acho Danny) was born in 1894 in Dakpo, the birthplace of the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama. One day his parents, who were poor subsistence farmers, left him under a shade of a tree while they laboured on their farm. Moments later, a hungry crow as big as a vulture swooped down on the sleeping child. Hearing terrible shrieks of pain the parents threw down their spades and rushed to the baby only to find that the infant’s eyes had been plucked from their sockets. Acho Namgyal’s world was darkened at that moment.
However, blindness heightened Acho’s sense of hearing as it did with Ray Charles, the great American soul musician, who lost his sight at the age of five from glaucoma. Ray could hear the sound of a butterfly hovering over a flowerpot from behind the thick windows of his sitting room.
As a blind boy, Acho was no use to his parents working on the farm. So from his early years, Acho started playing dranyen (the Tibetan lute) on the street near his home both to pass time and also earn whatever little the passing villagers and travellers gave. It was on the streets of Dakpo, amidst barking dogs and dust, that young Acho’s fingers became nimble strumming his dranyen. His dark and lonely hours were spent listening to villagers sing in the fields or while digging canals; these folk songs he absorbed, digested and then reproduced immaculately.
One day, a visiting aristocrat from Lhasa saw a blind kid playing dranyen on a narrow street. The kind-hearted nobleman alighted from his horse and asked the boy whether he wanted to go to Lhasa with him. He’d recognized a genius in the blind, unwashed boy. This was the first defining moment in Acho’s life.
Once in Lhasa, the nobleman used his connections to find a good music teacher and any other opportunities to develop Acho’s musical gift. As his talent bloomed, Acho came across many other artistes — most notably Tibetan Muslims’ or Gya Khache, many of whom became key performers with Acho’s nangma group. Two particularly popular artistes in the group were a pair of female vocalists, known to the public only by their nicknames — Cat and Crow.
Another defining moment in Acho’s development as a music genius came at a Shoton Festival in Lhasa during one spring when Chungpa Lhamo, a top Tibetan opera group of that era, performed in the garden of the Norbu Lingka palace (summer palace of the Dalai Lamas).
Sightless Acho sat among the audience as Chungpa Lhamo, led by eminent teacher Phurbu Dhondup, (chensal or the “favourite” of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama) performed the opera Brothers Dhonyo and Dhondup. Acho’s wife narrated the settings and described the costumes, facial expressions of the artistes, their physical movements and the reactions of the onlookers. Meanwhile, Acho heard every footstep, every aria and each tune of the musical instruments. Instantly new songs were forming in Acho’s mind.
Like America’s Ray Charles, a pioneer in soul music by fusing rhythm & blues, gospel, and blues styles, so too was Tibet’s Acho, who blended Jhangshey or Toeshey — as performed by Chungpa group — with the existing nangma to create and popularise a genre of nangma toeshey that is particular to Lhasa region.
Acho’s compositions included Acho Sotop (Brother Sotop), Dradul Nyenkong (Defeating Enemies to Benefit Dear Ones), Tala Shipa (Auspicious) and Dawai Shunu (Youthful Moon). These form some of the core performances of nangma today and are Acho’s lasting contributions.
When Acho Danny and Eric Henningsen’s documentary Acho Namgyal: the gift of music, had its world premier in Dharamsala, headquarters of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, Danny had visibly grown heavier and a wisp of grey hair sprouted from underneath his trademark cowboy hat. Danny’s years of research, his story telling and Henningsen’s cinematography created an authentic 80-minute documentary. It is not only a fitting tribute to Acho Namgyal’s musical talent, but also a testament that dedication and hard work bear fruit in the end. Furthermore, the documentary shows that it takes one artiste (Acho Danny himself is a foremost contemporary Tibetan dranyen player, performer and nangma aficionado) to truly understand the depth and subtle nuances of the music created by another.
Danny and Henningsen were assisted by some of the top performing artistes from Dharamsala-based Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts during the course of making this documentary. Their combined efforts have resulted in a unique gift to music lovers all over the world and to Tibetans in particular.
In March 1959, after His Holiness the Dalai Lama came into exile, the tradition of performing gar — a court dance performed exclusively in the presence of successive Dalai Lamas — was banned by the occupying Chinese authorities. Soon other genres such as operas, folk songs and nangma were attacked, both for their performing style and lack of ideological content. Popular folk songs were ‘reformed’ and sung with overtly ideological lyrics in praise of socialism and communist rule in Tibet. Music in Tibet today is devoid of traditional contents and style and has became a tool used by Beijing to legitimise its occupation of the plateau.
In exile, Tibetan culture flourishes including the music. However, there is the ever-present danger of external factors influencing the way we live and how we enjoy music. Under such circumstances, Acho Namgyal comes as timely and restorative rain that will sprout a renewed interest in nangma and grow a new generation of Tibetan musicians.
Nangma as a genre of music became popular and widespread during the reign of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, when his able regent, Sangye Gyatso, along with his cabinet ministers, frequently enjoyed and patronised nangma songs and artistes.
During the time of the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Acho Namgyal rejuvenated nangma with fresh fusions and new compositions. He made nangma a household name in Lhasa giving rise to the saying: “Oh, that song! Even my dogs know it from top to bottom.” Today, when His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is in exile and Tibetan culture and music faces threats from all sides, Danny and Henningsen has brought us this fantastic documentary which will outlive us all.