March 23, 2023

Lhamo one of the characters of Tibet In Song, explains the costume details that was sent from her grandmother in Tibet. (Photo by David Huang, Guge Productions)

The Documentary films, Tibet In Song, written, directed and produced by Ngawang Choephel, will have a one-week run at the Landmark Edina Cinema starting October 15, 2010. Tibet In Song examines what happens when one man, a Tibetan native who fled his country of origin for India at the age of two, returns home to capture the music of his people – like lightning in a bottle – before all is lost to the ashes of time and history.

The first feature-length documentary from Choephel as already won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and other awards at film festivals in Calgary and at the International Human Rights Film Festival. Choephel received the Emerging Director Award for Documentary Features at the Asian American International Film Festival.

In the West, surrounded by iPods, instant downloads and an ever-changing onslaught of new music and performers, a simple song is something easily taken for granted. Folk music exists for many Westerners as another musical brand or label – something to distinguish a certain kind of song from thousands of others.

In the East, in Tibet, a large country the size of Western Europe, folk songs serve as the connective tissue between regions, passed down in the oral tradition through an increasingly fragmented country and region, much of which remains under harsh Communist Chinese rule after 50 years of occupation.

Tibet was a sovereign nation for thousands of years, with its own music, heritage, laws and customs. Its folk songs convey and preserve ethnic, religious and philosophical customs that date to primeval times.

Choephel has a lifelong passion for Tibetan music, and has devoted his life to its preservation and dissemination. He discovered his talent at an early age, and received a degree in Tibetan Music from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India. Upon arriving in the West, in 1994, as a Fulbright Fellow at Middlebury College, VT, he studied video production and international music in preparation for the production of Tibet In Song.

He was arrested during filming by Chinese authorities in Tibet in 1995 on charges of espionage. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison, serving nearly seven years before his highly publicized release in 2002.

His resilience in the face of adversity, earned him the Courage of Conscience Award from Peace Abbey, which he received in 2002. Upon his release from prison that same year, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Arts Degree from Middlebury College, as well as ‘Best Act in Exile’ award from Lobsang Wangyal Productions for his musical talent.

Tibet In Song is Ngawang’s story, but it also gives voice to the thousands of Tibetans engaged in the fight for the life of their cultural heritage. For the first time, voices never before captured on film dare to speak out against Chinese policies in the name of artistic freedom. Sometimes all it takes is a song.

Tibetan folk music is not merely the soundtrack to a traditional rural life dating back thousands of years; it is completely intergral to this way of life, representing the heart of Tibetan culture, expressing values of compassion, loving kindness and harmony, designed to accompany the daily activities of Tibetan life: working in fields, cooking, drinking, falling in love, churning butter.

These songs capture the rhythms of an ordinary day through the actions of those performing often rudimentary or routine tasks. A milking song, for instance, can make an otherwise repetitive task seem effortless, even enjoyable – for the person singing the song, and for the animal bearing the milk.

“There is no one who can’t sing a song,” is a familiar Tibetan expression,” states Choephel in the production notes. “What makes these folk songs precious is their unique origin, descending from ordinary Tibetans, unlike Tibetan Buddhism and literature, which came from India.

These songs constitute the quintessential historial roadmap of the lives of the Tibetan people over the past 2,500 years,” he added. “Growing up in exile in South India, I could hear people singing these songs in the fields. The songs had a long-lasting impact on me. They brought me much closer to imagining Tibet. They made me who I am today.”

Choephel was born in 1966 in the village of Dawa in Western Tibet, not far from the sacred Mount Kailash, revered by many as the center of the Buddhist universe. By 1968, the bloody Chinese Cultural Revolution had spread into his village. Red Guards plundered priceless treasures, denigrated citizens and ordered locals to follow their lead.

Local monasteries were ransacked and desecrated. Monks were forced to marry; children watched as their parents were shot or humiliated in the street. At two years of age, Ngawang escaped to India with his mother, journeying across the Himalayas on a yak. Until the age of 20, he lived in a refugee camp near one of Tibet’s largest monasteries in exile.

Ngawang’s childhood was shaped by his innate attraction to the folk music of his ancestors – it would become his life’s work to preserve Tibetan culture through its native song. Growing up in a refugee camp in South India, Ngawang heard this music every day; songs of longing and heartfelt compassion for a homeland these exiles assumed would be theirs again in time.

Enchanted with the Tibetan folk songs of his youth, and knowing that this music was quietly dying out, Ngawang pursued a career as a music teacher, enrolling at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, which had been established by the Dalai Lama in the wake of forming his Tibetan Governmentin-Exile in 1959. To this day, TIPA is the only institute in the world devoted to the study and performance of traditional Tibetan arts and music.

In Lhasa, Ngawang discovered that it was possible to travel to the provinces by a chartered truck system that provided more freedom of movement than on state-run tourist buses. He decided to journey to his birthplace in Western Tibet, to Ngari, to record the folk songs of his native villagers and re-connect with his own father in Dawa, whose face he had not seen since he fled Tibet with his mother at age two.

“In Ngari we speak at least seven different dialects; I very much wanted to record native folk songs in the dialects of my birthplace,” Ngawang explains.

After sending half of his tapes back to India with a friend, Ngawang departed on his journey, only to be stopped by Chinese officials who had been tracking him from Lhasa. Among articles confiscated by the Chinese were Ngawang’s camera, his field notes and 16 hours of footage. He was arrested and imprisoned for more than a year before he was charged with espionage – without a fair trial. His musical footage was deemed “sensitive material” that threatened the national security of China.

Ngawang’s imprisonment attracted devoted followers around the world, who connected to the deeply human message of his story, in addition to major coverage from world media outlets in print, film and television. Awareness of Ngawang’s plight was heightened through organizations like Amnesty International and Students for a Free Tibet as well as through the Tibetan Freedom Concerts over the years 1996 to 2001, turning him into a cause célèbre among celebrities and politicians.

Annie Lennox personally delivered a petition to the Chinese embassy in London, emphasizing how Ngawang personally risked his life in order to record the footage he film on the last trip to his homeland.

“This was a particularly poignant and harrowing case because Ngawang had been given an incredibly harsh sentence for merely going back to his homeland as a Fulbright scholar to record the songs and dances of his own culture,” Lennox stated.

“Several organizations, including Amnesty International, were campaigning for his release and I took an active part,” she added. “Needless to say we were all overjoyed when we heard he had been freed. I’ve always been fascinated by the rich variety of ethnic music from all over the world but Tibetan culture is uniquely special in all kinds of ways and I believe that the heritage needs to be cherished and passed along as the representative heart, soul and identity of the Tibetan people themselves.”

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