Yungchen Lhamo - Artist Page
Yungchen Lhamo
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Biography:
 

Photo by Michele Turriani

Yungchen Lhamo was born near Lhasa, Tibet at a time when the isolated ‘forbidden kingdom’ was caught in the ravages of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Her once wealthy family was punished and forced to endure desperate poverty. 

In 1989, she escaped from Tibet with a small group of friends to find refuge in India. Despite her perilous journey, she survived, encouraged by her profound determination to meet the Dalai Lama, considered to be the living Buddha. She made the pilgrimage to Dharamsala, the place of exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader, where she succeeded in meeting him and receiving his blessing. It was then that she decided to communicate her ideal “to contribute actively to make things better” through her voice. 

She emigrated to Australia in 1993, where she had to overcome several obstacles: being a woman, singing Tibetan spiritual songs a capella, not speaking English… But the public was amazed by the purity of her voice and by the power of her stage presence and in 1995 she received the Australian Record Industry Award (ARIA) for the best world music album with Tibetan Prayer. It was the beginning of international acclaim. In 1996, she released her first international album Tibet Tibet (Real World) and toured the world. 

1997 was a breakthrough year for Yungchen Lhamo. Following the release Tibet Tibet, the singer traveled the world, garnering accolades for her spellbinding a cappella performances and raising awareness for the struggle of the Tibetan people living under an oppressive Chinese regime.

"I am determined to make a path as a solo performer," she says. "My childhood was one of such despair and poverty. Part of the Chinese rationale for the occupation of Tibet is that the Tibetan people are backward and inferior. By forging a path for Tibetan artists, I am showing what we really can do if we have freedom."

Yungchen Lhamo's stately appearance in Tibetan robes and mala prayer beads, her harrowing tale of childhood deprivation and flight to His Holiness the Dalai Lama's compound in Dharmsala, India, have made her a de facto ambassador of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism wherever she travels. But she is a woman and an artist, not just an emblem for a cause.

Yungchen's voice is very special. It is no wonder that a Lama named her "Goddess Of Song," which is the literal meaning of Yungchen Lhamo in the Tibetan language. In its long sustained notes, her voice evokes wind and mountain heights in its intricate melismas, the language of birds. Preternaturally expressive, her a cappella voice is stirring in full band context: richly complemented by guitars, violin, even the Finnish kantele, and subtle loops and electronics. The result is as utterly contemporary as the first modern Tibetan musical artist has every right to be.

"Traveling over the past years, I met so many musicians who wanted to work with me," Lhamo says. "I was reluctant at first, because I really love performing a cappella." But wary of her vocal gifts being sampled onto trance dance tracks, she decided to jump in, to explore, grow, and change. She met noted European producer Hector Zazou (Bjork, John Cale, Suzanne Vega, Huun-Huur-Tu) at Laurie Anderson's Meltdown Festival and was immediately interested. "He's a good man," Lhamo states, "and that makes a big difference to me." Encouraged by Real World founder Peter Gabriel, Lhamo set to work with Zazou at Real World studios in England.

"Singing a cappella is very difficult," Lhamo explains. "You feel totally responsible for everything the audience feels. Every sound is created by yourself." Recording with Zazou gave her the opportunity to focus her interpretive energy with other musicians. "It was very enjoyable," she says. "The years of singing a cappella have made me strong."

That strength is witnessed in Coming Home's songs, all written by Yungchen and based on Tibetan melodies, songs which share the trance qualities of Buddhist prayer and yet take off on graceful flights of their own. Each is steeped in metaphor, layered in spiritual, political, and familial symbols.

Heart and Dream are songs for Yungchen's son, who attends a Tibetan school in Dharmsala, separated from his traveling mother for much of the year. For Yungchen, who received very little secular education in Tibet, separation is a necessary sadness. "It's not just a school for Tibetan culture, it's a school for freedom of thought. In Tibet, children only learn about China. I myself never learned anything about the world from books, but I -have-been fortunate and have learned, from traveling, about countries I didn't even know were there."

Sky, a song Yungchen sings in English, addresses the faltering of confidence with the realization that all things are possible. The song grew from a teaching given to Yungchen Lhamo from the Lama Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche in New York. "When I was young I was sent to work very early, and had no opportunity to imagine what was possible in life. I was speaking to Lama Rinpoche about how daunting it was to be doing what I am doing coming from such a disadvantaged background. He told me that the Buddha Jetsun Drolma attained Enlightenment as a woman, so I shouldn't think that I lack the potential to accomplish anything. In Asian cultures, women still often have lower expectations than men."

Perhaps the most striking track on Coming Home is the aptly titled Defiance. Backed by a squall of distorted guitar and the gravelly overtone drone of Tuvan throat singing, Lhamo's voice poignantly enacts "the sound of my heart breaking but refusing to be broken." The song was written for a lifelong friend of Yungchen's who died not long after settling (for a time) in Sydney, Australia. Although her friend didn't die at the hands of the Chinese like so many Tibetans, it is easy to hear in Lhamo's spirit-wracking plaint the stirring reference to the cultural genocide in her homeland.

"It is a political song," she says. "Before the Chinese, Tibet had a social order that, while not perfect, was a society that cared for its own. The Chinese came and injected qualities into that order: forced labor, anti-spirituality, and the idea of cultural inferiority. The problem is beyond those who publicly resist and are tortured and killed. People's everyday lives are destroyed." The friend, whose picture she carries with her, was one of those lives.

And yet it's rare and remarkable for a Tibetan artist to convey such strident emotion over the crisis in her homeland. "It's not anger," she says, "but hurt. You can believe in non-violence but you can still be hurt. Many Tibetans are angrywe are hurt. We have seen our parents, our grandparents, tortured and killed. But we have a way of looking at the world where anger cannot be our motivation. The idea is not to act on that negative emotion, but to find another path."

One might find her faith's doctrines of non-attachment to the material world and devotion to the realm of the spirit incongruous in the life of a world-renowned vocalist. But according to Yungchen, "It actually makes it easier. There are basic understandings of life that come from the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism that make it easy to not get so distressed when things go wrong and not have an ego explosion when things go well."

While proud of her new record, she acknowledges that there will be voices who prefer the "purity" of her a cappella work. "You can't control how people will respond," she says, "so I can't worry about it. I don't live isolated. I'm part of the modern world, and that means growing, experimenting. I think people will want to hear what I can do.

"I feel very lucky to be able to do this, even though it makes for a very difficult lifestyle, always traveling but never reaching home. But I love singing with the motivation of inspiring people."

Lending her beautiful voice and expansive vision to the world, Yungchen Lhamo is fulfilling the destiny set before her. "In Buddhism, the ideal is to be of use, to actively contribute to things being better," she says. "It's very easy to sit isolated and talk about love and compassion, but to inject that into your work - that's spiritual practice."

Her status as an international star has been confirmed by performing twice at New York’s Carnegie Hall (alongside Michael Stipe, Sheryl Crow and Philip Glass) and at the Lilith Fair, also in the USA. 

She is recognized not only for her singing talent but also for her fight for the Tibetan people living under Chinese repression and she was the first Tibetan woman to be named in Marie Claire’s ‘Women Who Changed Our World’ series. Yungchen Lhamo is without doubt the most well known Tibetan performing artist today.

In 2013, Lhamo released Tayatha, an album with Russian classical pianist Anton Batagov.


Discography:
 

Tibetan Prayer (1995)

Tibet Tibet (Realworld, 1996)

Coming Home (Realworld/Narada, 1998)

Ama (Realworld, 2006)

Tayatha (Cantaloupe, 2013)


Booking:
 
Promoters wishing to book:

Larry Braverman
El Bee Management
larry.braverman@gmail.com

For North America bookings:

Folklore Productions
1671 Appian way
Santa Monica, CA
90401
tel (310) 451 0767
www.folkloreproductions.com

For European bookings:

Wolfgang Scheel
Haut Drayaux 24150
Lalinde
France
tel 33 553 585256
wolf@novaconcerts.de
www.novaconcerts.de


Bibliography:
 

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Tibetan