On Tuesday March 22, Haverford’s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC) hosted a screening of “Tibet in Song,” a documentary on the influence of the Chinese occupation on traditional Tibetan music. The filmmaker Ngawang Choephel, who is also a musician, was also present for a Q & A after the screening.
Choephel was born in Tibet, but escaped to a Tibetan refugee camp in India with his mother when he was 2 years old. After graduating from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in India, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to continue studying music and sharing Tibetan music with the West at Middlebury College. His documentary on Tibetan traditional music is also a personal documentary on his first return to Tibet since escaping as a child.
When Choephel arrived in Tibet in 1995 in search of Tibetan music, the first music he encountered was Chinese Communist Propaganda music blasting from street loudspeakers. Choephel found that he had to go to the countryside to find any trace of Tibetan traditional music. He interviewed villagers of all ages. Some of the older villagers recalled the violent times during the Chinese invasion, Cultural Revolution, and the 1988 protests. Footage from those brutal encounters were difficult to watch. Younger villagers expressed their longing for modern pop music found in Chinese pop songs.
Music is more than just entertainment. It is ingrained in daily life, culture, and religion. There is a Tibetan folk song for milking cows, for drinking, for roofing. The Chinese occupation turned the entertainment tradition into a political agenda. The Communists created propaganda operas using Tibetan folk song melodies, but changing the lyrics to pro-China propaganda. The CCP even trained and promoted Tibetan singers like Tseten Dolma to sing pro-China, pro-Communist songs. Communist performance troupes in Tibet would put on such shows, which confused Tibetans because there was no longer meaning in the music. Older Tibetans fear the younger generation will learn to embrace Chinese music and reject Tibetan tradition.
Choephel’s filming was abruptly halted when he was arrested in his birth town by the CCP under accusations that he was a spy. The police confiscated and destroyed the film footage he had on him and sentenced him to 18 years in prison, no trial. While in prison, Choephel endured torture and abuse, but was also able to connect with fellow inmates who were Tibetan leaders. Choephel continued his search for Tibetan folk music by interviewing his inmates and memorizing each song — he even co-composed a song while in jail. Unable to contact the outside world, he later learned that it was his mother in India who launched an international campaign for his early release in 2002.
Once released, Choephel resumed filming his search for Tibetan music, but very carefully. Many of the Tibetans he interviewed were also refugees in India. Choephel asked young Tibetans where the future of Tibetan music will be. Some showed their appreciation for Tibetan pop musicians like Yadong who sung in Mandarin but retained Tibetan values in the song. Tibetan rock bands like Namchak are also gaining popularity. Tibetans remain hopeful for an independent Tibet. Tibetan music is still being passed down from generation to generation by those who know and through schools like the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. “Tibet in Song” was a powerful and moving documentary that showed the resilience and compassion of Tibetan people and music.
During the Q & A, Choephel told us he is currently working on a film project on Tibetan Buddhism. He spoke of the challenges in preserving a culture in another country such as the USA where there are Tibetan populations in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota. He gives the Jewish people as an example of culture that was successfully preserved in another country. Choephel suggested that if you want to go to Tibet, you should go now because in the next 5-10 years he doesn’t think it will be the same.
Fun Fact: This documentary won “Emerging Director” Award at the 2009 Asian American International Film Festival, the film festival where I interned at the summer after my first year at Bryn Mawr.