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Filmmaker Preserves Dying Tibetan Folk Music

October 25, 2010

Tibetan refugee reclaims his past by revisiting
traditional music of his homeland
Faiza Elmasry
Voice of America (VoA)
October 19, 2010

Washington, D.C. Oct. 19 -- Ngawang Choephel
endured more than six years in a Chinese prison
in his quest to prevent Tibetan folk songs from being lost forever.

More than dozen of these traditional songs are
showcased in the filmmaker's documentary, "Tibet
in Song," now showing in New York City.

Music tradition

Choephel was only two years old when he and his
mother fled Chinese-ruled Tibet in 1968. Growing
up in a refugee camp in India, he heard Tibetan songs from the older refugees.

Like folk music around the world, traditional
Tibetan lyrics deal with almost every aspect of
life: from work, family and social occasions to love and nature.

"Tibetan folk music originated directly from
ordinary Tibetan people's mind," Choephel says.
"It's a very pure form of oral tradition, of our
Tibetan people's history, knowledge and beliefs."

After graduating from the Tibetan Institute of
Performing Arts in Dharamasala in 1993, Choephel
received a Fulbright scholarship to study
musicology and filmmaking at Vermont's Middlebury
College. The school's music library contained
records of traditional songs from all over the
world, but only one recording of Tibetan music, less than three minutes long.

So Choephel decided to collect Tibetan folk songs himself.

Preserving cultural history

He traveled to Tibet in 1995, and spent two
months driving through the rural areas filming
people singing before he was arrested by Chinese authorities.

"They thought that I was doing some kind of spy
work, which I did not," he says.

Choephel was sentenced to 18 years in prison. But
an international campaign - started by his
mother, and joined by celebrities like Paul
McCartney and several U.S. Senators - led to his
release in 2002 after more than six years behind bars.

Prison, he says, is not a place one wants to go,
but it is where one has the time to think. He
learned folk songs from other prisoners, wrote
lyrics in a notebook he made out of cigarette
wrappers and even composed new songs.

"I composed the melody in prison and one of my
prison mates, he's actually my hero, he wrote the
lyrics," he says. "It is about his determination.
He says that, 'No matter how bad enemies are to
you, I'll never bow down my head. I'll never stop the fight.'"

'Tibet in Song'

When Choephel returned to the U.S. after his
release, he decided to expand his project. His
mission now was not only to collect traditional
Tibetan music, but to produce a documentary film about it.

"There are about 17 songs," he says. "The story
of this film is about the beauty of Tibetan
music, the diversity of Tibetan music and the
beauty of the Tibetan culture in general. The
film also is about my story and what had happened
to me. I filmed some of the footage in 1995
because before I was arrested I sent nine tapes
to a friend of mine to India. And also we sent
people back to Tibet in 2004 to capture more songs and interviews."

More importantly, Choephel says, "Tibet in Song"
draws attention to what's happened in Tibet over the last 50 years.

"Except in some rural areas, there aren't many
songs left," he says. "In the film we show how
China saw this kind of music and the Tibetan
culture as a threat. Tibet was never exposed to
recorded music until China invaded Tibet in the
late 1940s. So the first thing they did was they
set up these loud speakers and they blasted
Chinese propaganda music to brainwash Tibetan
people. They took Tibetan folk melody and put
Chinese communist lyrics. And they trained
Tibetan singers to sing these songs."

Call to action

He hopes the film also inspires people. "'Tibet
in Song' is also a call for action to the world
and also to the Tibetan people to get involved,
to save the Tibetan music before it's gone forever."

"Tibet in Song" won the special Jury Prize for
Documentary at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Choephel says he's also pleased with the feedback
he's gotten from critics and audiences, especially Tibetans.

"Actually last night I was on the train from
Manhattan to Queens and then two Tibetan girls
came to me," he says. "They said, 'We just saw
your film. We grew up in Nepal. We didn't know
much about Tibetan culture and your film made us
understand the value of our culture.' It's very
powerful. One of them cried. That was very emotional."

Choephel says it was quite a journey for him, but
he's happy he was ultimately able to find what he
was looking for: Tibetan folk songs and his Tibetan identity.
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