Dungchen-playing nuns Tibet has its own traditional secular and religious music. Traditional Tibetan instruments used in religious music include bamboo flutes, human thighbone flutes, conch shells, cymbals, hand drums, bells, oboe-like flageolets, conch shell trumpets, and drums made of two skull halves placed back to back, four-meter-long tonqin horns, dama drums, like those used in rituals at Potala Palace in Lhasa, biwan (a two-stringed fiddle made of ox horn popular in Kham areas) and the Zhannian six-string zither.
Some ceremonies and festivals feature Tibetan horns, encrusted with silver, gold, coral and turquoise ornaments. Some monks play long Swiss-style horns, known as dungchen, that can reach a length of 20 feet and collapse like telescopes for easy carrying. The notes produced by the horns are long, slow, low and deep and have compared to the sound of mooing cows. They are sometimes accompanied by drums that make a dull, resonant almost ringing sound.
Traveling minstrels still make a living playing on the streets of Tibetan cities and traveling from town to town. These minstrels often works in groups of two or three, singing songs and ballads about kings and heros to the accompaniment of a Tibetan four-string guitar. Other secular instruments include the dranyan (a six string lute), piwang (two-string fiddle) and gyumang (a Chinese-style zither). Some music features trilling flute solos.
The Song and Dance Company of the Autonomous Region of Tibet, the Shanan Prefecture Arts Ensemble, the Lhasa Song and Dance Company and the Tibet Philharmonic Orchestra are Chinese-government-sponsored Tibetan musical groups. Playing a mix of Tibetan music and popular Western classical pieces, they perform at Lhasa’s theaters campuses and community centers. Every year they perform in the New Year Concert broadcast on Tibet TV. Some of the works they perform are musical pieces created by Tibetan musicians for Tibetan instruments in both Western and Tibetan forms.
Penpa, the leader of Tibet Philharmonic Orchestra and Tibet’s only sanctioned conductor, told the China Daily, “To some degree the financial conditions are quite good, the government funds every concert. Honestly speaking, so far there is no market demand for western classical music in Tibet. We seldom give commercial performances, Most concerts are just to promote classical music or introduce Tibetan music to the youth.”
Tibetans enjoy singing. Karaokes are popular; workers often sing when they work; and festivals are full of singing and dancing.
In the early 2000s, Tibetan songs became very popular among mainland Chinese.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: Tibetan Online tibet.org/Culture/Music ; Music Tibetan musictibet.com ; Mystical Arts of Tibet ; Tibetan Dance womenofchina.cn ; New York Times article on Tibetan Dance nytimes.com ; Tibetan Dance China Vista Tibetan Festivals Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Horse Racing Festival Dance You Tube ; Wikipedia article on Losar Wikipedia ;
Tibetan sleeve dance
Tibetan Cultural Sites: Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibet Online on Culture tibet.org/Culture ; dharma-haven.org ; Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Mystical Arts of Tibet mysticalartsoftibet.org ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org ; Links in this Website: LITERATURE, FILM AND THE MEDIA IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; MUSIC, DANCE AND THEATER IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; SPORTS, RECREATION AND PETS IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN ART Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages
Tibetan Overtone Singing
Some Tibetan singers can sing three notes at the same time. Others can sing with two different voices that sound like a male and a female singing at the same time. Most employ a method of overtone singing.
Overtone singers are men who appear to produce two notes simultaneously. One sound is like the metallic warbling of a juice harp, the other sound is like a moaning growl. Also known as Khoomi singing or throat singing the sounds are made by carefully controlling the larynx, mouth and abdominal muscles. Some of the songs are meant to imitate the noises made by sheep and goats.
Overtone singing is performed almost exclusively by men. The style is believed to have originated in western Mongolia. Many overtone singers continue to come from there. Explaining how the style began, one singer told National Geographic, "In the western part of our country there are many mountains and streams. The herder is there. He wants to imitate nature—how the wind blows, how the water gurgles." Overtone singing is also performed by the Tuvans of the Altai region and Buryiats of Siberia in Russia. The best singers are said to come from Tuva.
The simultaneous sounds are made by manipulating harmonics, Normally harmonics are the sound given to a note that help us differentiate between a violin and trumpet playing the same note. In overtone singing, the harmonics are louder than the drone from which they are derived. Melodies are produced by altering the harmonics of a given note. Some think the style may have been developed by Tibetan Buddhist monks who produce similar sounds when they chant sutras.
Mechanic of Overtone Singing
A singer can produce two distinct sounds—melodies from the harmonics or overtones that he is singing— by moving the larynx, tongue and jaw. The “first voice”—a low, throaty voice, usually a drone—forms the melodic text of the song. It is accompanied by a “second voice”—harmonics of the drone—produced by contorting the lips, tongue, soft palate and throat muscles.
The double sound can be maintained for intervals of about 30 seconds. Much of the sound is produced by vibrating false vocal chords in the throat. In normal singing the false vocal chords area are open. In overtone singing they are nearly closed and their vibration produces the sound.
There are at least five styles of overtone singing. They include whistling, “rattling,” chirping like a cricket, trotting like horse and rushing like a river. Three main sounds are taught to beginners: a middle sound, a low sound like a juice harp and a high sound like a flute. The methods are being studied as ways to teach speaking to people who have lost their vocal chords.
Human thighbone flute The Tibetan female singer Yunchen Lhamo appears on Peter Gabriel's Real World label. The multi- instrumentalist Nawang Khechog has toured the world with the Beastie Boys and was nominated for a Grammy award. Dadon Dawa is another Tibet singer known in the West.
Lhobsang performs Tibetan-language rock songs. During performances fans come on stage and drape white scarves around his neck. He told the Times of London. “I sing about Tibet. I sing about what I love. The only songs I can’t sing are about our sun, the Dalai Lama.
In 1995, a recording called "Sister Drum," featuring Tibetan monks chanting Buddhist scriptures, did well on the World Music charts, selling some 200,000 copies in Taiwan and performing well outside of Asia. Featured on the album is Zhu Zhequin, a strong- and high-voiced female singer from southern China who has been compared with the Icelandic pop star Bjork.
Among the recommended Tibetan and Himalayan music recordings are: Perfect Jewel: Sacred Chants of Tibet (Rykodisc), featuring monks, sometimes accompanied by bells, cymbals and blasts from long trumpets; Rough Guide to Music of the Himalayas, included chanting from monks and nuns, a variety of music from Tibet, Ladakh, Nepal and Bhutan, along with electronic collaborations with Western artists; and Freedom Chants from the Roof of the World, a world music recording released in th 1989 featuring the Gyuto monks from Tibet, who can singe three notes simultaneously. It was recorded when they came to North America.
Rock n' Roll and Tibetan Activism
Rock and hip hop performers Patti Smith, Bjork, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, Michael Stripe of R.E.M. and Rage Against the Machine have appeared at fund raisers for Tibet. At press conferences for benefis concerts for Tibet journalists often direct their questions about Buddhism to the rock stars not the Tibetan monks who accompanied them.
A Free-Tibet concert in June, 1998 in Washington D.C.—with the Beastie Boys, R.E.M., Beck, Herbie Hancock, Luscious Jackson, Myclef Jean, Live, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, U2, Alanis Morissette, Blur, the Food Fighters, Patti Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, and A Tribe Called Quest—drew 130,000 people. The Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng gave a speech and Tibetan monks chanted.
The Beastie Boys and other performers have also performed in Tokyo, Sydney, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Chicago and Taipei. A Free-Tibet concert in San Francisco—with Smashing Pumpkins, Yoko Ono, Beck, Pavement, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Bjork, Sonic Youth, and A Tribe Called Quest—drew 100,000 people and earned $3 million.
The Beastie Boys are leaders in the Free Tibet Movement. They founded the Milarepa Fund, which is devoted to the peaceful resolution of human rights problems in Tibet. Yauch became interested in the Tibetan cause and Buddhism while trekking in Nepal, when he met some Tibetans that escaped their homeland and were on their way to India. He became a Buddhist when he returned home to the United States and later married a Tibetan.
Dance has traditionally been something that monks performed at monasteries. There are two main types of monastic dance: gar and cham. Gar is an esoteric, meditative style of dance usually performed by individuals or small groups privately at a monastery as an act of initiation. It often involves using stylized hand movements and gestures. Cham is style of dance usually performed at festivals or large public ceremony with many dancers performing one or more dances.
Tibetan Ritual Dances
Cham dancer Ritual dances have been performed in Tibet for somet ime. In ancient times when a Tibetan king was crowned a ritual dance was held that was intended to generate supernatural power in the ruler and maintain the cosmic and social order. Dance was also an element of tantric Buddhist rituals. Some of these were like the masked dances performed at festivals and often had theatrical aspects.
Elaborate bon religion rituals often incorporated dance. According to the Encyclopedia of Dance: “Tibetan dance rituals are presented with the objective of attaining a special goal: for example to eradicate negative forces and engender positive circumstances—long life, wealth, or inner transformation. All forms of Tibetan ritual dance are considered to be vehicles of instantaneous enlightenment, since any spectator might spontaneously comprehend the otherwise secret meaning of the ritual. The dances are aural and visual offerings to a deity, enticing him or her to attend the dance and bless all present, as the dancers offer the movements of their bodies, their melodic speech (mantras or songs) and the devotional thought of their minds.”
“Tibetan ritual dance is mandalic in form. The dancers whirl in a pattern that circles the deity, who is at the center of the dance ground, until they become united as the deity-and-his-retinue in their pure land....Ritual dancers move in a clockwise manner, creating a boundary around the sacred space, protecting it from harmful influence, and thereby allowing the ritual of transformation to take place. The mandala space is sanctified by the circling of all the dancers, who empower both themselves and the space they enclose by revolving around the center—in the same direction as they perceive the planets revolving around the sun.”
Tibetan Festival Dances
Lamas in a dance drama Cham is a traditional form of dance performed at festivals with many dancers doing one or more dances. Sometimes chams are held from sun up to sun down, over a seven day period. The dancers wear elaborate costumes and carry out movements that have specific meanings. Most movements are done with the feet. The dances themselves have their origin in the bon religion and often deal with battles with evil spirits. Originally the dances were performed secretly for initiations within a monastery.
Different chams are performed at different ceremonial occasions throughout the year. The subjects range from the life of the saints to the expulsion of negative influences. A cham that wards off evil is a highlight of the New Year festival. Many dances are exorcisms of spirits featuring the exorcism of a human effigy made of dough, wax, yak butter or paper.
The dancers—monks or highly trained laymen—take on the aspects of wrathful and companionate deities, heroes, demons and animals. Believed to be the gods or characters they represent, they twirl around in skirts that open like parachutes and dance to music produced by long horns, drums and cymbals. Their dances are performed to bring blessings upon the people, to instruct them, to protect them and to abolish evil influences.
Dancers at festivals often wear masks made of wood or papier-mache. The papier mache masks have facial designs in black, red and white paint. A gilt crown worn with a mask, indicates a fierce guardian king. Time monks wear a brownish robe with a diamond-shaped collar of blue-and-gold brocade
Different Kinds of Tibetan Festival Dances
One dance at a Bhutanese religious festival features outrageously costumed and masked performers dancing and acting out ancient Himalayan tales about the reincarnation of donkeys and the struggle between good and evil. Describing it, John Scofield wrote in National Geographic, "I found the performance very difficult to follow, and curiously disquieting...Half a dozen masked jesters made fun of every motion, every symbolic act in the drama. No one among actors or audience was safe from their openly disrespectful and often obscene parade...Bhutanese see nothing at all strange in poking fun at organized religion...jesters were saying in effect, ‘After all, even the most serious rituals are the inventions of men, not gods.’" [Source: National Geographic, November 1976]
Demon dances remind "the faithful of the needless oppression of humankind by the forces of evil.” The masked dancers represent divine, human and animal figures and often engage in martial arts techniques.
Monks who do the Lord of the Cemeteries dance wear a skull-shaped mask and pajamas with skeleton bones painted on them. The dance is performed to welcome the God of the Dead Lama and is characterized by slow movements, open body positions and circular whirls.
The skeleton dancers wear coats, trousers, gloves and shoes made from red flannel with a skeleton pattern appliqued in white satin over flannel. Velvet panels imitating tiger skin form the skirt. The paws are padded in white and pinkish red satin and bones from the devils claws. A bull mask made of papier mache is worn with this costume.
In the summer some Tibetans join in traditional Tibetan dances held in outdoor squares.
Tibetan New Year Dances
Dance at Taer Monastery In the traditional New Year cham dance, monks dress as sorcerers in black hats and fancy robes and dance and make offerings to get rid of negative forces like greed, aggression and ignorance. The dance climaxes with an exorcism—the stabbing of a dough effigy of a demon, representing the dispelling of negativity from the last year. Between the dances dramatic skits are performed, often by lay people.
The performances are held in the courtyard of temples and the temple itself serves as a dressing room. Musicians and monks chant and play horns, drums, cymbals and conch shells as the dancers circle the courtyard and perform stamps, steps and hops known as “half-thunderbolt” movements that are expected to be performed smoothly and gracefully. The dancers prepare for the dance by spiritually identifying with the deity they portray. As they dance they must execute the correct movements, recite mantras and focus their thoughts on the deity.
Describing a New Year dance, Ian Baker wrote in National Geographic, "black-hatted monks spun on the soles of their yak-hide boots...As cymbals clashed and horns droned, the masked dancers danced to dispel the accumulated negativity of the past 12 months. Pressed against the walls of the courtyard pilgrims in fur-lined robes and richly-colored brocades witnessed this turbulent drama...As the sun disappeared behind a rock ridge, the ceremony concluded with a burning of a menacing effigy, freeing the days ahead from bondage to the past."
King Gesar drama Traditional Tibetan opera is called "llamo." More secular than other art forms, it often deals with historical events, heros and kings as well as the lives of the Buddha and well-known Bodhisattvas. Invented in the 14th century, it is often performed by traveling troupes in all day performances. A show usually begins with a ritual purification and a summary of the plot by a narrator. The actors wear costumes and display movements that are specific to their characters.
Llamo is closely associated with Than-togpgyal-po, a deified saint and god of drama. To this day performances are dedicated to him and offerings are made to him. The performances themselves serve as a form of entertainment and way of appeasing the spirits of the soil to ensure a good harvest. The actors have traditionally been peasant farmers and shopkeepers but today there are members of semiprofessional troupes.
The themes and subjects of the opera are drawn from Tibetan history and Buddhism. They often have a moral message of good prevailing over evil and feature dancing and acting and have a main story line broken up by short parodies and satires.
The scripts are derived from literary texts. A narrator provides background of the story and defines each main character. The dramatic part of the opera is presented as a tableaux with one or two actors singing with a chorus echoing the last phrase of each line or stanza. When a scene changes the performers perform a dance specific to their character as they move to a new position.
See Dance Above
Tibetans have their own form of opera.
Image Sources: Purdue University, Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, Save Tibet, Kalachakranet.org
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2010