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<-Back to WTN Archives 'Masalla' Music Threatens Cultural Purity
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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

4. 'Masalla' Music Threatens Cultural Purity

Sonny Inbaraj

DHARAMSALA,India, Aug 6 (IPS) - For 27-year-old Jamyang, it was a clash of
cultures - Tibetan 'thangka' (cloth) paintings versus Bollywood and Western
rock and roll. In the end, the latter won the day when he chucked his
'thangka' paintbrushes for an electric guitar and formed a rock band that
belted out Tibetan freedom songs and popular Hindi love tunes.

''I was trained in the art of thangka painting, but I couldn't see myself
dressed in traditional clothes and drawing Tibetan deities the whole day
from a fixed posture when there is so much happening around me,'' says
Jamyang, who like most Tibetan refugees prefers to be known only by his
first name.

The ex-'thangka' painter then went on to form the JJi Exile Brothers Band
with his own younger brothers Jigme and Ingsel.

''The concept of 'rangzen' is strong in me and I wanted to reach out to
young Tibetans; to tell them not to forget about Tibet,'' Jamyang tells IPS,
explaining why he founded JJi.

'Rangzen' - a Tibetan neologism variously translated as self- determination,
independence or freedom - is the slogan shouted in front of Chinese
embassies all over the world by Tibetans protesting their country's
occupation, the anchoring lyric for innumerable songs and poems written in
exile, and a ticket to prison in Tibet.

In 1950, Chinese troops invaded Kham in eastern Tibet - advancing rapidly to
the capital Lhasa, following a military plan laid down by Deng Xiaoping. The
Tibetan forces engaged in several skirmishes, but were soon encircled.

More than 1.2 million Tibetans died in the Chinese invasion and according to
international human rights monitors, the use of detention, arrest,
imprisonment, and torture of large numbers of Tibetans continues to be an
integral part of China's efforts to suppress opposition to Chinese rule in

Dharamsala, in the northern Himachel Pradesh state, plays host to over
10,000 Tibetan refugees -- with more new arrivals each month. Tens of
thousands are also in settlements in the southern state of Karnataka.

Using the universal language of rock that appeals to youth all over the
world, JJi's music ideologically aligns with many of the Tibetan refugee
community's concerns, such as justice, freedom of expression and world

''We are free in India, but we are aware of what is happening in Tibet
through news and television,'' says Jamyang, who was born in this Indian
hill-station overlooking the Himalayas.

But Jamyang and his brothers are part of the new generation of Tibetan
refugees who feel very much at home in India and also have a penchant for
Indian candy, the songs and stars of Hindi films, hip-hop baggy jeans and
hennaed hair.

''Of course we have to play Bollywood songs at our concerts, if not no one
would turn up,'' retorts Jamyang. ''This is India, man!''

''We entice our audience using Hindi love songs, and then interject Tibetan
rangzen numbers. So everyone's happy,'' explains the bandleader.

Indeed Indian and Western practices, values and aesthetics have become
deeply ingrained even into private, everyday aspects of the lives of most
Tibetan refugees that certain quarters feel traditional Tibetan culture will
'disappear' in exile long before it does in their homeland.

''I really don't understand this 'masalla' (Hindi term for mixed) music of
our youth. Soon we'll be asking ourselves what is original Tibetan music,''
laments Tenzin Dolma, a goldsmith who's also a singer of 'gay shay' - songs
from the seventh century era of King Songten Gampo, the monarch who opened
Tibet to Buddhism.

But for hip-hop rapster Lobsang Thubten, who was also born in India, Tibet
is almost a mythical place.

''My parents escaped from Tibet in the early 1970s. But for me it still
remains far away,'' he tells IPS.

''Look at us. Is this life? I love my family and Tibet, but the world's
zipping by. It sucks, man!'' laments Lobsang after rapping to his version of
the Eagles' 'Hotel California' - a performance he puts on every Monday night
at the popular Khana Nirvana cafe, here.

For Lobsang life is being part of India's fast-lane economy that offers
plush jobs, five-digit wages and a glitzy lifestyle - certainly far away
from the overcrowded, three-street, parochial Dharamsala.

''I surf the Net everyday, looking at Indian job sites. My dream is to work
in one of the call-centres in New Delhi. That's the reason I'm brushing up
on my (North) American English. Being able to rap helps,'' he says rather
proudly in his black Harlem drawl.

However, Tenzin Norgay, a researcher with the Tibetan Centre for Human
Rights, cautions against dismissing these Indian-born Tibetan refugees.

''Don't be fooled by this hip-hop culture as many of these youths are
actually quite serious people,'' he tells IPS. ''Some of the new generation
want to make the best of their lives in India but they also have not
forgotten Tibet and will not hesitate to go and live there if it becomes

While it might be impossible to prevent the insidious influence of
Bollywood, rock and roll, and hip-hop on young Tibetans, it is in the new
arrivals that hope lies in maintaining a strong commitment to the
preservation of Tibetan culture - since they have personally experienced the
consequences of living under Chinese occupation.

''If musicians in the exile community do not promote traditional genres, who
will?'' asks Boomswang, a traditional mandolin player who arrived in India
four years ago after a 28-day trek across the Himalayas - with Chinese
troops in hot pursuit of him.

''While Indian musicians feel comfortable borrowing new ideas from here and
there and to experiment, we Tibetans cannot afford to do the same. Tibet is
not yet free and if our culture goes; it goes away forever,'' he points out.

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Dalai Lama applauds Swiss for Tibet support
  2. 5th North America Tibetan Youth Congress Conference Toronto, Canada
  3. Probe Committee Submits Report
  4. 'Masalla' Music Threatens Cultural Purity
  5. Being There
  6. Understanding the symbolism of Thuenpa Puen Zhi
  7. Road accident kills one Taiwanese tourist in Tibet

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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