Crossing Borders With Ethereal Musicians Yungchen Lhamo And Vas.
By Ron Bally
AUGUST 7, 2000: TAKE A HYPNOTIC, trans-cultural journey to the far-reaching corners of the globe with two of the most expressive, natural born singers featured on today's international music scene with Tibetan songstress Yungchen Lhamo and Azam Ali of alternative world music duo Vas.
When these cultures unite in blissful vocal harmony, hardly a word of it will be sung in English. The naked human emotion expressed by each singer communicates a vivid and radiant purity for which no translation is needed.
Eleven years ago, Lhamo (her name means "Goddess of Melody and Song") left her family and friends and trekked 1,000 miles on foot across the Himalayas to escape persecution by Chinese authorities. Ultimately, she reached freedom in India. Since then her main objective has been to bring world attention to Tibet's ongoing oppression (Tibetans still do not enjoy religious, educational or cultural freedom) via her spellbinding live a cappella performances.
Lhamo credits her grandmother with teaching her to sing and encouraging her deeply spiritual talent in the face of extreme hardship and adversity. Speaking softly and enunciating slowly in her still developing English, Lhamo provided some background during a call prior to a WOMAD festival appearance in Redding, England.
"When I was young in Tibet," she said, "all we thought about was having enough food to eat. There was nothing else to think about. There was no future for us. There was no chance to sing. But my grandmother, she was always telling me I should sing to help other people. She said that I had a special voice--a gift."
Singing primarily in her native Tibetan, Lhamo often thinks of her grandmother while performing onstage, alone and unaccompanied. "I often see her and I feel quite upset," she reflected sadly.
"But at the same time, I don't want to show the audience that sadness. I don't want people to get upset because of my suffering. You can never escape from the thought of your homeland."
Audiences may not understand a word she's singing, but she manages to inspire a spiritual connection with listeners that parallels the emotional suffering and turmoil occurring in Tibet.
"I was born in a labor camp and life there was extremely hard," she said. "There were no chances there for children or women. But since I left Tibet, I realized why my grandmother insisted that I keep singing--so people will slowly understand what is going on in Tibet--because normally, there are so many people who don't think about human rights."
Lhamo believes listeners understand her emotional unrest, leading many of them to seek a more culturally informed or politically oriented stance on the plight of the Tibetan people.
"Each time I perform," she said, "I realize most people don't know about what is happening in Tibet. Even those who know about Tibet have very romantic views." Peace, love and compassion, monks chanting and yogis meditating in caves are Tibetan fantasies perpetuated by the occupying Chinese government and Hollywood-produced movies, she said. "This is all a romantic misconception," she added. "The reality is nothing like that. It is very, very difficult. People are dying from starvation every day."
Born in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, 32 years ago, Lhamo began working at age 5. By 11, she worked full-time in a carpet-weaving factory miles from home to help support her family. Of her five siblings, two brothers died from malnutrition. In 1989, fearing certain arrest because of her participation in a political demonstration, Lhamo escaped from Tibet. Before arriving safely at a refugee camp in Dharmsala, India, she had been robbed twice and was nearly dead from starvation. But her indomitable spirit survived and her wondrous vocal gift began to flourish and become noticed.
While briefly attending the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts at the refugee camp, Lhamo realized her voice conveyed not only emotions of longing and loneliness, but also of hope, compassion and determination. These universal sentiments spoke directly to the hearts of other displaced Tibetan refugees, and she began performing in other camps across India.
She then married Sam Doherty, an Australian working at the Dharmsala refugee camp. In 1993, they moved to Sydney, Australia, where Lhamo busked in the streets before recording her first CD, "Tibetan Prayer," which in 1995 won the Australian Recording Industry Association award (the Aussie version of the Grammy) for best world/folk release.
Two years later, Peter Gabriel's RealWorld Records released her first breakthrough album, Tibet, Tibet. Her latest CD, Coming Home, released nearly two years ago, boasts full Western instrumental accompaniment and is mixed by ambient producer Hector Zazou, who adds an astonishing, contemporary ambiance to Lhamo's impassioned Tibetan chants, laments, hymns and devotionals.
All songs on Coming Home were written by Lhamo and based on Tibetan melodies, songs that bear the luminescent qualities of Buddhist prayer and yet soar with elegant, lilting patterns of their own. Each song is immersed in metaphor, reflecting spiritual, political and familial meaning.
"I think I have to work hard on my songs," Lhamo stated, "and when I sing I have to use much effort so that listeners will connect with me. After my concerts, people often come to me and say they feel something--happiness, strength, sadness--every audience explains their reactions in different ways. I believe that music makes people become in harmony with each other."
Appearing at high profile concerts such as the annual Tibet House Benefit at Carnegie Hall, the star-studded Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York, and on several dates of the 1997 Lilith Fair tour, Lhamo is unquestionably the best-known Tibetan performing artist in the world today. "I have a big responsibility," Lhamo concluded. "I really want to make this (her singing career) work successfully so that I can take this success back to Tibet and show my people what freedom really means. I'm waiting for that day."
Vas, which means "vessel" in Latin, is a Los Angeles-based duo (supplemented with cello and keyboards on the current tour) consisting of Ali (voice and hammered dulcimer) and percussionist Greg Ellis. They're touring support of their third Narada CD, In the Garden of Souls, and play what they call "alternative world" music. It's an astounding combination of sensuous Middle Eastern vocal styles and compelling Western musicianship that is hard to classify.
"The problem with our music," declared the vivacious, dark-haired 29-year-old from her home in L.A. last week, "is that because our music is not culturally specific or geographically specific, we don't fit into the world music categories."
This lack of compartmentalization probably hurts CD sales. "I think it hurts a little bit," Ali admitted. "But in the grand scheme of things, just getting in front of people and performing--that's what does it. Because once audiences know who you are, this will eventually eliminate the need to pay attention to what section we're in.
"We're really pushing this whole 'alternative world' thing," she continued, "not only for us, but for all those other groups like us that are in the same dilemma."
And not unlike similar artists like Dead Can Dance, Sheila Chandra, Cocteau Twins, and hip new French talents Ekova, Ali sings strictly in a language of her own design. According to the Iranian-born and Indian-raised singer, her language is a hybrid, wordless dialect that is constantly evolving.
"If you listen to all the different people who do this kind of work like Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins," Ali offered, "all of them have a very specific kind of language. Each one is unique to the artist. For me, it naturally comes from the languages that I speak.
"When I first began doing this it was really just simple phrases that I would repeat," she added. "As I went deeper into the music, the language just evolved. Now it allows me to express things that are more in the unconscious mind as opposed to dealing with lyrics which I'm dealing with in my conscious mind. This language allows me to let go of all that and deal solely with the emotion."
Ali's unusual verbalization and collage of cultures is not some form of hippie psychobabble pontificating on the magical powers of self-healing, either. Her arduous writing process follows the same rigid guidelines as an artist composing music with notes and lyrics.
And, more importantly, Ali is meticulous about her unique songwriting approach and invented language. "As the melody becomes more intricate," Ali explained, "then I experiment with all different kinds of sounds until I make that one sound that I just know--that's it--that's the sound. Then I write it all out, the way you would regular lyrics. Then I sing them and memorize them after I've sung them a few times in the studio. I have to work twice as hard as someone who is singing lyrics because when you're singing lyrics you have the luxury of relying a bit on the words to sort of carry you through."
Ali's astounding vocal command intones imaginary hymns, chants and prayers over an ornate percussive panorama provided by Ellis, whose propulsive, multi-layered rhythms are defined by udu drums, tablas, dumbeks, temple bells and frame drums.
In terms of acquiring wider acceptance, increased sales and marquee recognition, why doesn't Ali sing in English? "I think it (singing in English) would definitely be the easier thing to do and it would make our music more accessible," she conceded. "But as an artist that's not what I want to do. My goal is not to entertain people. It's to take people on a journey--to really take them emotionally deeper. What I love about singing like this is that I'm inviting listeners to really create their own experience. When you're singing lyrics in English, you're entering into a very specific realm."
Despite the constant comparison with the post-modern aesthetics of Dead Can Dance, Ali does not see much of a connection beyond the analogous use of a fabricated dialect. "We have the same sensibilities," she stated, "but we (Vas) utilize a wider assortment of global music influences. We're obviously influenced by a lot of the same music, but I can't help my influences, I was born into them."
Some critics may have saddled Vas with an unfair Dead Can Dance analogy, but Ali says she owes more to the pure vocal essence of Medieval choral diva Hildegard von Bingen (who lived from 1098 to 1179) than the droning, trance-like qualities of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance.
Music of Hildegard is "what really got me into seriously pursuing my voice," Ali confessed. "Growing up in India, singing was part of natural, everyday life. I never thought of myself as becoming a singer. It's just something that I loved to do ever since I was a little girl. When I came here (to the States) in 1985, I wasn't really singing except for fun. Then one day I was listening to the radio and the music of Hildegard von Bingen was playing. A piece from Feather on the Breath of God was playing and I realized immediately it was almost like a calling from lifetimes and lifetimes ago."
Fearful that she would never be able to duplicate the exquisite crystalline vocal perfection of Hildegard because of her aggressive, throaty Persian upbringing and her naturally nasal Indian timbre, Ali worked diligently to perfect the beautiful, clear, almost flute-like tone unique to the Medieval abbess. "Once I was able to find that really bell-like place with my voice," she said, "I was able to let my Indian and Persian influences shine through."
Despite coming from diametrically opposed backgrounds and approaching their music from contrasting viewpoints, both Yungchen Lhamo and Azam Ali possess beautifully exquisite singing voices that can surely reduce anyone to tears.
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