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Digital Music Project Races to Save Tibetan Folk Songs

Paul Mooney in Red Cliff Village, China
for National Geographic News
June 29, 2007
 
In the remote plateaus of Tibet, recording artists have been hard at work laying down tracks of love ballads, drinking tunes, and songs meant to soothe the savage beast.

That's because students at Qinghai Normal University are trying to save Tibetan folk music, which has been vanishing in the face of cultural conflict and globalization.

Led by anthropology professor Gerald Roche, the team is fighting fire with fire, using high-tech devices to capture tunes that are being lost due in part to encroaching modernization.

"The goal is to digitalize the songs we record and return them to our communities," said 20-year-old student Dawa Drolma. "We want to record as many songs as possible."

Dubbed the Tibetan Endangered Music Project (TEMP), the volunteer-run program aims to put all the digital songs they collect online, as a way of archiving the material for future generations.

So far the students have recorded more than 250 songs, including melodies for herding, harvesting, singing babies to sleep, and coaxing yaks into giving more milk.

"It is quite remarkable how much they have been able to accomplish from such a remote place, thanks to the Internet and digital recording technology," said Jonathan C. Kramer, a professor of music at North Carolina State University who has worked with the students.

"It is hard to imagine such a project even 20 years ago."

Fading Melodies

Tibetan music first went on the decline during the Cultural Revolution, a campaign between 1966 and 1976 during which the Chinese government sought to wipe out all "feudal" practices and "make art serve politics."

(See related photos of Tibetan traditions still practiced under Chinese rule.)

The biggest threat today, however, is modernization.

"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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