Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Music speaks for free Tibet: Kelsang Chukie Tethong

February 1, 2011

Publication Date 01/28/2011
Source Taiwan Today
By June Tsai

Kelsang Chukie Tethong, dubbed Tibet’s most powerful voice, has a story
to tell through her singing—the story of Tibetan culture and its place
in the world today.

The singer performed her narrative at a sold-out concert in Taipei Jan.
9. She sang folk tunes, nostalgic numbers and love songs with lyrics
taken from poems by the celebrated Sixth Dalai Lama (1683-1706), and
chanted Buddhist teachings and prayers.

Her peaceful voice and unassuming gestures belied her urgent message
about cultural erosion due to the Tibetan diaspora and the impact of
modernity on the younger generation.

The audience of religious people, artists, students, exiled Tibetans
and, most of all, ordinary folks, was very receptive.

People around the world love her voice. She has performed in Europe,
Hong Kong, the U.S. and Taiwan, always in traditional Tibetan costume.
She has sung several times in the presence of the Dalai Lama, the
Tibetan spiritual leader, including at the 60th anniversary of his
enthronement ceremony in 2000 and the conclusion of his 50th Anniversary
of Assuming Temporal authority in 2001.

To Tibetans, her singing is the sound of home. For foreigners who love
it, it is balm.

“When I got Kelsang Chukie’s first CD released in Taiwan, I expected it
to be just another collection of Buddhist chanting,” dancer Chen
Chieh-ting said. “But when the first track began to play, I started

That song includes the six-word mantra of Tibetan Buddhism, “om ma nye
bhe mae hum.” The tranquilizing power of Kelsang Chukie’s voice
captivated Chen, and he became an ardent follower. On her recent tour of
Taiwan he accompanied her singing with Dunhuang dance, a Buddhist dance

The Tibetan singer, however, credits the power of her singing to the
Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. “I have never thought I am the one
who is singing well,” the soft-spoken singer said. “I also appreciate
the positive strength coming from the audience, directed toward Tibetan

Tibet is the main reason the 54-year-old woman has kept on singing when
making a living from it is out of the question.

Although she started learning to sing at an early age, she only came to
realize her duty as a Tibetan singer much later.

Kelsang Chukie was born in Nepal, and grew up in Dharamsala, India,
where the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 after a failed uprising against
Chinese rule and established the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Her mother passed away on the border of Nepal and India when the family
was moving to Dharamsala around 1964. “My mother had a great voice. I
remember she sang all the time, to us kids or when she worked,” Kelsang
Chukie recalled, noting several family members on her mother’s side were
also musicians.

Children reaching Dharamsala were accommodated in the Tibetan Children’s
Village. With their father’s blessing, Kelsang Chukie and her sister
Namgyal Lhamo were soon selected for training at the Tibet Institute of
Performing Arts.

TIPA was established in the same year as the government-in-exile, and
aims to preserve traditional Tibetan performance arts. Kelsang Chukie
spent 11 years there learning music and dance.

Unfortunately, she had to leave TIPA in 1973 after her father’s death
left her with the responsibility to support her younger siblings.

Over the next 10 years, Kelsang Chukie worked in restaurants in Nepal
and then Holland. In 1983, she met her husband and settled again in
Dharamsala, where they run a guesthouse.

“During those years I never thought I would sing again,” she said. “Then
a respected Tibetan musician urged me to think seriously about singing.
He said my voice touched him very much.”

The musician was Maja Tsewang Gyurme, who held several official
positions in the Tibetan government before 1959 as well as in the
government-in-exile. He appreciated her voice so much that he provided
instrumental accompaniment himself for her recordings.

Their collaboration ended when he died of a heart attack in the late
1980s. “I’ll never find a better partner in music,” she said.

Her mentor’s death prompted her to resume performing. “I revived my love
for music,” she said. To sing Tibetan songs as remembrance and as a duty
is the answer to the question she asked herself: “What’s the purpose of

Kelsang Chukie staged her first performance in the Netherlands in 1996.
“I was very worried that people might get bored not understanding what
was sung,” she said. At the end of the concert, however, she received a
standing ovation from the audience of more than 500.

“I felt the support for Tibet, and I realized singing is the best medium
for me to represent Tibet,” she said.

In the following years, Kelsang Chukie set about collecting traditional
tunes from different regions of Tibet and among the exiled community, a
practice she continues today. She learned traditional songs from
Tibetans on street corners, as well as from elder lamas and scholars.

Kelsang Chukie discovered “Rang Yul Sampa,” a song about homesickness,
in Dharamsala. “Although I long for my ancestral home, my karma has
driven me into exile, but there will be a time when the sun will shine
from behind the eastern clouds.”

At the Taipei concert, she performed the song with U.S.-based Tibetan
singer Thubten Gyatso. Thinking of the fate of her people, driven out of
their homeland by Chinese occupation, Kelsang Chukie could not finish
singing the piece, and eventually let the dra-nyen, the stringed
instrument she learned to play as a child, bring it to an end.

Kelsang Chukie has performed in Taiwan several times, mostly for
Buddhist gathering. Since 2003, she has also released five albums with
Taipei-based music publisher Primal Beat Creations Corp., which
specializes in Buddhist-inspired recordings, videos and books.

The Taipei concert, organized by the nongovernmental Taiwan Friends of
Tibet, was the first Kelsang Chukie has performed for a mainly
non-Buddhist audience.

To help listeners overcome the obstacles of religion and language, she
invited a Taiwanese musician to explain each song before she sang it.
Still, her singing itself was the most powerful communicator.

“I want my singing to do the talking. If people feel moved by the music,
they will be willing to learn more about Tibet and its real situation,”
she said.

“As the Dalai Lama said, every Tibetan has a role in the preservation of
Tibetan culture. For me, it is with singing,” Kelsang Chukie said,
laughing. “My karma is to make music.” (THN)

Write to June Tsai at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank