Interview with Tibetan Singer Namgyal Lhamo

Namgyal Lhamo
Namgyal Lhamo

World Music Central recently interviewed singer, songwriter, actress and performing artist  Namgyal Lhamo, winner of the Best Female Singer award at the 2007 Tibetan music awards.

How was life in Dharamsala (North India)?

My ancestors originally hailed from Shigatse in Tibet but I was raised in the Himalayas near Mustang. I was born into a family with a rich cultural background and when I reached 8, I was sent straight away to a transit school in Dharamsala for young Tibetans where I was chosen to enroll at The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts which was founded by His Holiness The Dalai lama.

At what age did you join the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts?

I was 8.

What attracted you to it?

I remember as a young girl. Maybe at around age 4 or 5 I would listen to my mother humming traditional Tibetan songs and would try and imitate her. The imitation somehow became a star act and I would end up for singing at home all the time. I was completely engrossed in my mothers singing. Somehow, I knew that I wanted to sing forever, I was very comfortable with singing, and it was like a basic instinct. My mother was my idol.

What kind of education did you receive there?

TIPA in the 70’s was rigorous training and discipline all the way. We would work hard; it was like an musical commune where our daily lives would have proper schedules of training, rehearsal and performing arts. We did a lot of touring. Again there, I was very comfortable and blended in perfectly with the routine.

What kind of arts does the Institute teach?

TIPA is the only organization in the world that strives at preserving the cultural and aesthetic forms of Tibetan performing arts and singing through singers and performers who are trained in the purest of form and medium. Everything that you learn in TIPA is driven towards achieving a certain a certain level of excellence through one’s craft. The institute teaches singing and performing and mainly folk/opera (Lhamo). You have to be selected by TIPA to enroll for their training.

Where is it located?

TIPA is located in the hilly town of Dharamsala, in India. The residence of the Tibetan government-in Exile and the abode of His Holiness The Dalai Lama.

How is it funded?

Funding was a problem even way back then. We would mainly manage through donation and grant. However, TIPA was very self sufficient and we would manufacture most necessities on our own. It teaches strong independence.

What kind of Tibetan music do you perform?

I specialize in forms of Nangma and Toeshe singing and Traditional Folk. However, I revel in the challenge of singing high-pitched mountain songs know as LU and Tibetan opera songs. LU singing requires immense control and flight of voice. It pushes my creative boundaries as an artist. Tibetan opera singing is my forte.

What is the difference between Tibetan and European opera?

Essentially the medium of Opera throughout the world bear striking similarities however, it is the presentation, type of singing and innovation through story telling that separates one from the other. European opera is a solitary effort.

Tibetan opera always is looped with backup phrasing and voicing. It is always loud, flamboyant and a magnificent public spectacle. It is extremely difficult and challenging with all the costume and flavour. Tibetan opera singing demands high levels of discipline and training.

Tell us a little about your albums.

My first album “Songs from Tibet” was released in Europe in 2005 (Music and Words). This month sees a double release “Pure” (traditional/classical Tibetan) and The Enchanted Land (Electronic Ambient-Deep Emotions/Silk Road) distributed by Le Maquis/Harmonia Mundi. It was a beautiful experience working with a publishing house like Deep Emotions and Musician Arnav Srivastav from India. Deep Emotions is owned by Frenchman Achille Forler who is also the MD (Managing Director) of Universal Music Publishing in India. Both albums have been produced by Arvind Iyer.

It seems like most Tibetan musicians who play folk music also have an important spiritual component. Is there as Buddhist sensibility in your Music?

There is an inherent Buddhist component, yes. To my understanding, many Tibetan Folk musicians tend to focus on sound that is religious (prayer/chants) by nature. For me personally, the spiritual element lies in my songwriting and presentation, which is essentially inspired from nature and provides the perfect metaphor to human emotion. It is very elementary and basic. But there are many songs which speak of essential Buddhist spiritual principles. I try and live a relatively simple life and am a practicing Buddhist.

What does it mean to be voted Best Female Singer at the Tibetan Music Awards in 2007?

It was an overwhelming experience. I thank the organizers of the event and my many fans who voted online for me. In a way, it has set up a personal benchmark for me towards things to come. I am truly grateful to all the people who have supported me and my management team.

How did you get to participate in the movie Seven Years in Tibet?

I traveled to Argentina on an outdoor for 3 months, lent sound bytes to the film and got a very good understanding of how things work on a film set. I have always been fascinated with acting and when KARMA came along, The 7 years experience really helped.

You live in the Netherlands now and other Tibetan musicians live dispersed across the globe. How difficult is it to maintain Tibetan Culture and connections to your culture?

I have always been a solitary musician and performing solo. A few years I had formed Gangchenpa (a traditional Tibetan band). We did well and toured quite a bit.

I perform solo now. It gives me creative freedom and space to give my performances the maximum. Being solitary empowers me to create different forms within existing forms helping to discover unexplored areas in singing and voice layering. It is something that is virtually impossible in a traditional band.

Are you in touch with other Tibetan musicians?

Not really. I am an intensely private person.

You have been quoted as saying that your favorite thing is to perform. Can you elaborate on that?

Performing Arts is what I am from within. It came to me as I was born, I have been performing as a young child without knowing what performance meant and even as a child at home and in TIPA. When I was a little girl, my parents used to encourage me a lot and this really helped me gain confidence from the beginning.

Eventually it dawned on me as to why I would be lead onstage in front of everyone else all the time. Performing onstage gives me an adrenaline rush; the stage is like my home today. It is a sacred space where I come in touch with my innermost self.

What other projects are you working on?

My next albums are almost ready. Anthology (a traditional/classical collection) is a tribute to my roots, the people of Tibet and His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Highland Supernova, a progressive ambient blend of the ancient with the modern. Both are in postproduction stage adding to which I will be playing the lead in an upcoming English film to be directed by acclaimed Indian born research writer and music producer Arvind Iyer-The maker of my first film “Karma”.

I hope to be actively engaged in Music production and Film alongside running my restaurant in Utrecht called De Werfkring, which serves vegetarian earth cuisine.

I would love to perform more, in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. As an artist there is always so much to share and give within one’s own creative sphere and beyond.

Additional information:

  • Namgyal Lhamo‘s restaurant, Werfkring, is located at: Oudegracht 123-WERF, 3511 AH Utrecht, Netherlands. Phone: 030 2881001.

Reviews of her CDs are available at: