Digital Music Project Races to Save Tibetan Folk Songs

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"After we got electricity ten years ago, people began buying tape recorders, radios, and TVs, and then they began losing interest in traditional things," Drolma said of her remote village in Gansu province.

Anne-Laure Cromphout, a doctoral student at the Free University of Brussels, is doing research at Qinghai on the relationship between traditional and modern Tibetan music.

She said another problem has been the influx of modern Chinese pop music.

"People hear this music all the time on the radio, on [video CDs], and cassette tapes," she said. "It comes in and basically takes over."

Mechanization has also had an impact, she added.

"Butter-churning songs are disappearing, because there are now electric machines to do this and so no need to have a song to provide rhythm."

In a barren mountain region west of the provincial capital of Xining, TEMP volunteer Drolma sits with two grandmothers in a farmhouse in Red Cliff Village who are repeating the words of an ancient folk song.

The women are bent close as if in prayer, each cupping her left hand over an ear so she can hear her own voice more clearly.

The women are learning an ancient song linked to the hair-changing ceremony, a rare rite that celebrates a girl becoming a woman.

No one knows how long this tradition has existed here, but they do know the songs are fading from memory.

Cairang Ji, 61, is the only person in the village who still knows how to sing the 30-minute song. She is trying to pass the words on to her two neighbors.

Kramer, of North Carolina State, said that the assimilation of native peoples around the world has stripped them of traditional languages, beliefs, customs, and forms of expression.

The result is a marked incidence of alienation, alcoholism, and suicide among younger members of these groups, Kramer said.

These people, "having lost their traditional identity, seem to have lost some of their capacity to function effectively as human beings," he said.

The raw material of the music archive, he said, could be used to train folk singers and teachers to continue traditions.

"Educational curricula can be developed to teach children the songs of their ancestors, and from these songs learn about the ways of life that were once practiced by their parents and grandparents."

(Related news: "Poaching Wars in Tibet Inspire Mountain Patrol Movie [May 23, 2006].)

Keeping Up the Tempo

But financial hurdles still need to be addressed to keep the project up and running.

"Cultural preservation is not very high on the list of funding priorities in an area where basic human needs still need so much improvement," TEMP leader Roche said.

The recording equipment being used now is secondhand, and during this year's sessions, 6 of the 17 students reported their machines breaking down.

Back in Red Cliff Village, one of the grandmothers, Pumao Ji, is persuaded to take the mike. The shy Tibetan farmer belts out songs with a surprisingly strong voice for 30 minutes.

After she finishes, she puts on the headphones and for the first time hears what her own voice sounds like on tape.

"I like it," she said, smiling. But "I'm not as good as when I was young."

Pumao Ji and Pumao, the other villager who has come to learn the hair-changing song, say they're determined that the music will survive them.

"We'll teach this to the younger generation," Pumao said. "If we don't, the songs will disappear, and I'll feel sad."

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