Tibet old-style, defying the conquerors’ script.

In this country, “folk music” can mean sweetly tuneful, crunchy wholesome, wan and insipid. In Tibet, as Ngawang Choephel shows in this eye-opening, heartbreaking, deeply engrossing (and tuneful) documentary, folk music is subversive, a perilous act of cultural defiance against Chinese colonial oppression.

Choephel, a Tibetan-born musicologist, came here to study and resolved to return to record his homeland’s richly diverse music, and to see how it was holding up under occupation. The result is an engaging travelogue, a swirl of colorful costumes and dances, rare vignettes of daily life, tunes both festive and plaintive, and spectacular vistas on the Roof of the World, all captured with native intimacy and understanding. Over it all, however, hangs a sense of bitter loss and sour foreboding.

Music permeates Tibetan life as tea does water: “That’s how you have a happy life,” says one singer of old songs. And how you remember, and pass down, who you are. No one knows this better than the Chinese communists, who overran Tibet in 1950 and have waged cultural genocide against it since their first (but not last) brutal crackdown, in 1959. “Religion, aristocracy, and folk music,” we’re told, are the “three evils” Mao’s minions set out to extinguish—first with an explicit ban, now an unspoken one. Plus calculated bowdlerization: glitzy ersatz Tibetan music hymning the praises of Father Mao and Mother China. Choephel intercuts some grotesque, hilarious old footage—imagine a Vegas version of “Pretty Polly.” Even pop music and karaoke are potent weapons; Tibetan teenagers say they love this Chinese music: “Very romantic, all about love.”

Ngawang Choephel (left) in the field: liberation musicology.

Two months into his musical odyssey, as he approached his family’s village, Choephel was stopped at a roadblock. The authorities seized half his tapes—he’d already smuggled out the rest, but imagine what was lost—and sentenced him to 10 years for espionage. In prison, he collected more songs. His mother campaigned to free him; Annie Lennox, Paul McCartney, and David Bowie signed on, and Choephel was released after six-and-a-half years. As he makes clear, his ordeal pales beside those of thousands who have no celebrities agitating for them.

Three young women, prematurely worn and saddened, recount how they were “sentenced to five years for 15 minutes of demonstrating.” They were tortured and told they’d be beaten to death unless they sang the Chinese national anthem.They refused, but survived. Others refused and died. Take my life, but not my song and land.

Tibet in Song plays Dec 3-9 at the Varsity Theatre.

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