In China, a Race to Save Tibetan Songs

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Mar 26 13:37:20 UTC 2007

>>From the issue dated March 30, 2007 NOTES FROM ACADEME

In China, a Race to Save Tibetan Songs

Red Cliff Village, Qinghai

Cairang Ji sits on a bed in the main room of a farmhouse here holding her
two grandchildren on her lap as she quietly speaks the verses of an old
folk song. Two other grandmothers dutifully repeat the words, heads bent
close to one another as if in prayer, each cupping her left hand over an
ear so she can hear her own voice more clearly. The women are learning by
rote an ancient Tibetan song that is sung at the hair-changing ceremony,
an increasingly rare rite that celebrates a girl becoming a woman. No one
knows how long this has been a tradition here, or how it started, but they
do know the song is in danger of fading from memory.

Cairang Ji, 61, is the only person in the village of 240 people who still
knows how to sing the 30-minute song. Today she's trying to pass the words
on to her two neighbors, fellow farmers who live in this barren mountain
area three hours from the Qinghai provincial capital of Xining. Dawa
Drolma, a 20-year-old Tibetan woman, sits quietly at the front of the
brick kang a traditional farmer's bed that is heated by wood burning
underneath extending a large microphone toward the women. The bulky
headphones dangling over her ears are broken, so she has to use her free
hand to keep them from falling off.

The young woman is a member of a small group of Tibetan students at
Qinghai Normal University, in China's far northwest, who are attempting to
preserve the rapidly disappearing Tibetan folk-song tradition. "The goal
is to digitalize the songs we record and return them to our communities,"
she says. "We want to record as many songs as possible." The program got
started in 2005 when a student in the university's English program for
Tibetans approached Gerald Roche, an Australian anthropology professor
teaching in China as a volunteer, and asked him if there was some way to
save Tibetan folk music, which was gradually disappearing from Tibetan
villages throughout western China.

Mr. Roche has a master's degree in ethnomusicology but says he knew
nothing about Tibetan music, and so he gathered several students together
for a brainstorming session. They looked at the different types of songs
and the factors that put them at risk. After two months of training in how
to use the equipment and how to collect information about the songs, the
first batch of about six volunteers returned home during last year's
winter break armed with donated digital recorders some traveling by bus
for days to reach their nomadic communities. The students returned to
Xining with close to 200 songs, or more than 10 hours of recorded music.
The songs included herding and harvesting songs, drinking tunes, love
ballads, lullabies, even songs meant to soothe yaks into giving more milk.

Tibetan music was first threatened during the Cultural Revolution
(1966-76) as the government sought to wipe out all "feudal" practices. The
order of the day was to "make art serve politics." Tibetan music was
particularly suspect because of its religious themes and strong concept of
homeland. For close to a decade, no one dared to sing any of those songs
out loud, and many were forgotten. The biggest threat to traditional
Tibetan folk music, however, has been China's modernization. "After we got
electricity 10 years ago," says Dawa Drolma of her remote village in Gansu
province, "people began buying tape recorders, radios, and TV's, and then
they began losing interest in traditional things."

Anne-Laure Cromphout, a doctoral student at the Free University of
Brussels, who is doing research in Qinghai for her dissertation on the
relation between traditional and modern Tibetan music, points to the
influence of modern pop music from Hong Kong, elsewhere in China, and
Taiwan. "People hear this music all the time on the radio, on VCD's, and
cassette tapes," she says. "It comes in and basically takes over." Dawa
Drolma agrees. As a result, she says, when young people hear traditional
music, "they feel it's very foreign." Mechanization has also had a huge
impact. For example, "butter-churning songs are disappearing because there
are now electric machines to do this," says Ms. Cromphout, "and so no need
to have a song to provide rhythm while milking."

Recent years have seen many Tibetans, including nomads, giving up their
land for homes in small towns and cities. "The village people don't get
together anymore," says Galsang Tsebdan, another Qinghai Normal student
volunteer, "and they have no idea what traditional music is." Collecting
what music has survived has not been easy. When Dawa Drolma tries to get
the three women in Red Cliff Village to sing, they all demur, saying their
voices are not good enough. With a bit of gentle prodding, Pumao Ji is
persuaded to take the mike. The Tibetan farmer, who is wearing a pink
kerchief and heavy silver earrings, and a traditional maroon jacket with
sleeves adorned with gold and green thread, belts out songs with a
surprisingly strong voice for the next 30 minutes.

After she finishes a song, she puts on the headphones and for the first
time in her 61 years hears what her own voice sounds like. Her face lights
up. "I like it," she says, smiling broadly, but then adds with some
embarrassment: "I'm not as good as when I was young." Ms. Cromphout says
that while she hopes traditional songs won't disappear, her research shows
that modern Tibetan songs are using a lot of traditional themes. "If
traditional music dies out, it will be replaced by something that is
related to it, and very much influenced by it," she says. The program has
certainly had an impact on the students themselves. Like other volunteers,
Dawa Drolma had no knowledge of the music until she joined the program.
But she says the cultural richness of the songs made her a fan.

The students want to produce a digital archive of the music that can be
put online in Tibetan and eventually in English, and hope to produce CD's
that can be distributed. Some samples of the music are already available
on YouTube. The students also hope that the music can eventually be taught
in village primary schools. The biggest challenge is financing, says Mr.
Roche. The recording equipment is secondhand, which affects the sound
quality. The equipment does not fare well in the cold Tibetan Plateau.
During this year's winter break, six of the 17 students, who fanned out
across Tibet, and Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces, could not record
music because their machines broke down.

Mr. Roche has applied for money from various agencies to buy better
equipment, and he'd like to find proper space for an office so the
students would have a place to work and train right now the program is run
out of Mr. Roche's small living room. But he has had no luck so far.
"Cultural preservation is not very high on the list of funding priorities
in an area where basic human needs still need so much improvement," he
says. Still, Mr. Roche says the quality of the work is getting better as
the students learn from experience in the field and from one another. It's
still an open question whether they will be able to preserve the music
against the onslaught of modernity.

Back in Red Cliff Village, Pumao Ji and Pumao, the other villager who has
come to learn the hair-changing song, say they're determined that it will
survive them. "We'll teach this to the younger generation," says Pumao.
"If we don't, the songs will disappear, and I'll feel sad." Section: Notes From Academe Volume 53, Issue 30, Page


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