Tibetan music in Nepal's sacred valley

After the 2015 earthquake, many mountain communities in Nepal stopped celebrating festivals because they were in mourning. More than three years later, devotional songs are being heard again.

Last month in Langtang the Drukpa Tseshi festival that celebrates the Buddha's first teaching at Sarnath was held for the first time since 2015. Ethnomusicologist Mason Brown was there, and says he was lucky to finally hear songs of Nepal’s Tibetan communities directly in relation to earthquake recovery.

As an American who grew up a Buddhist, Brown is also a folk music enthusiast, and used to perform at Bluegrass festivals in the US. After studies at the Naropa University in Colorado he went to Japan where he lived with a monk in Nigata and studied liturgical music. His fascination for the Tibetan language led him to choose Tibetan folk songs for his PhD thesis.

During his research, Browncame across a CD of songs from Nubri in Upper Gorkha. He has been visiting the holy valley ever since to record songs in the dozen or so Tibetan speaking villages beyond Ganesh Himal.

"Tibetan music in Tibet has been affected by the cultural revolution and also by Chinese musical traditions, whereas in Nepal their music has changed at a slower pace because of the isolation,” Brown explains.

Brown’s Nubri recordings have songs from celebrations, festivals, weddings, and contain Buddhist references even when they are secular.

This is very different from European music where sacred songs have a particular time and place (usually the Church), and religious references rarely find their way into ballads.

METAPHORS: Nubri residents perform a dance with a message of compassion. Folk preformances here communicate the Buddha's teachings. Photos: Mason Brown

A Nubri song that starts out as a mantra to Avalokitsewara urges the listener to not be lazy like a cow, but to take heed of impermanence and practice the dharma in this life. The simple lyrics encapsulate the wisdom of Buddhist philosophy: that life is transient, suffering inevitable, and the only way to remedy this is to practice dharma through good deeds.

The songs exhort listeners and singers to turn the mind away from samsaric occupations towards dharma, and translate complicated Buddhist precepts into easy to grasp explanations of the preciousness of life, karma, and how to life can be made meaningful before its inevitable end.

In one song, Lama Pema Gyamtsho evokes an image of Kathmandu Valley's holy sites and in doing so orients the people of Nubri towards Kathmandu, rather than Lhasa.

Boudha stupa is the great father 

Swoyambhu is the great mother 

The supreme pilgrimage places 

That are not found in other worlds are there 

Says Brown: "Their cosmology is usually organised in a mandala form. Usually there are two competing mandalas, of China and of Dharmashala, and Nepal is left out. But for the people of Nubri, Kathmandu is the centre.” Even so, the songs represent a Nubri-centred worldview rather than an acceptance of the dominance of Kathmandu.

With Boudha as the father and Swayambhu as the mother, the other chaityas between them are supposed to be 'happy sons,' self-arisen from leftover stones. Like most folk art, the songs provide a way of challenging dominant ideas and reversing a community’s marginalised status vis-a-vis other power centres, and passing on its unique identity to future generations.

Brown says each of Nepal’s Tibetan communities has a different music traditional with a unique identity. In Langtang he found musical harmony (playing more than one note at a time) more common in Western music.

The references to philosophy and spirituality, however, may be in danger of being lost due to the popularity of other forms of music among youngsters who migrate out of the high mountain villages for study and work.

But when he sees the same youth document their heritage with mobile phones, Brown is optimistic: "There are still young people who care deeply about local identity, so we don't need to worry about it yet. Hopefully, the music will be preserved and passed on."

"I Go for Refuge to the Authentic Dharma"

"Kathmandu Pilgrimage Praise Song"

Please listen! The secret ōm has (the five syllables): ma ni pad me hung

I go for refuge to the excellent authentic dharma

Please listen! Don’t habitually sleep like a cow, get up!

Without sleeping, make offerings to the excellent deity

Please listen! Meditate on Avalokiteshvara with undistracted body

recite without distraction, enumerate the six syllables

Please listen! Write the six syllables on fine paper

Offer it to the hand of the Lord of Death

Please listen! There is no point in worldly deeds

While we are here we have to practice dharma

Seeing pilgrimage places at the wedding

I vividly encountered Kathmandu

An amazing spectacle arose

I received great blessings at the stupa

Boudha stupa is the great father

Swayambu is the great mother

The excess earth and stone between them

Are the happy sons

In the upper parts of the Kathmandu city

I heard a golden shawm

It wasn't a golden shawm

It was the speech of the mother and the ḍākinīs

The supreme pilgrimage places

that are not found in other worlds are there

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