Yungchen Lhamo: Goddess Rising

It’s not every day that a film journalist becomes acquainted with a musical goddess. It’s true that the words, "goddess" and "diva" are bandied around and even used to describe super models or pop singers, but Tibet’s Goddess of Song truly deserves the title. Similar to Tibet’s spiritual leader in exile, the Dalai Lama, Yungchen has become a de facto ambassador for the plight of the Tibetan people as they struggle against Chinese oppression.

Having crossed the Himalayans on foot ten years ago where she found exile in Dharmsala, India, Yungchen was christened the "Goddess of Song" by the Dalai Lama. Over the past ten years, Yungchen has recorded several albums, but is most noted for her Real World Record releases, Tibet Tibet and Coming Home. She has also appeared at such musical festivals as Lilith Fair and WOMAD as well as, at smaller venues and Carnegie Hall where she performed for a benefit for Tibet House.

Politics aside, Yungchen possesses a bird-like voice that mesmerizes audiences and mother nature alike. When she took the stage at WOMAD USA, a flock of cawing crows flew overhead joining in Yungchen’s song and a stiff breeze shuddered through the trees. Similar to a spiritual magnet, Yungchen drew her audience up to the lip of the stage as the collective of WOMAD attendees bathed in Yungchen’s rich vocals.

Later that same damp Saturday, I witnessed Yungchen perform with Argentine Barbara Luna and Lo’Jo’s Nid El Mourid sisters. It didn’t even matter that the woman vocalists sang in three different languages. The end result was spectacular and not forgotten by misty-eyed witnesses.

Yungchen appeared to be suffering from exhaustion of the day’s events when I interviewed her. However, the compassionate performer was as generous of her words, spoken in proper English as she was with her voluptuous voice. And the interview turned out to be ten minutes well spent and ten minutes of my life I will never forget.

Patty-Lynne Herlevi: I have noticed that many journalists have called you a musical ambassador of Tibet, how do you feel about that title?

Yungchen Lhamo: Yes, I want to do something for my country and I also think that everybody has responsibility to do something, not only just for your country.

PLH: What are your feelings about musicians and artists fulfilling a spiritual path in this life?

YL: I think for me as a singer and as a woman I am really happy that I can do something that I want to do and now I understand why my grandmother used to tell me that I should sing. And she said, "you have a gift" and I really did not understand what she meant by gift at that time. But now I understand and I thought about the things she said after I came to the West.

PLH: When you were a young child in Tibet did the elders predict your path in life?

YL: Yes, that’s why I am a singer today.

PLH: So then your grandmother predicted your destiny?

YL: Yes.

PLH: And of course, the Dalai Lama blessed you and he called you "the goddess of song." That’s pretty special.

YL: Yes, that is special. It is something special that you can not explain easily. He’s a spiritual leader and it’s really something special that I made a decision to leave Tibet and took that hard journey. But at the end of that I saw him and I believe that in life everything is changeable.

PLH: I believe that things are starting to change, but not as quickly as we would like. I feel that the spirit behind the WOMAD festival is definitely a step forward. It brings world cultures to people who normally wouldn’t be aware of other cultures.

YL: Yes, I think that WOMAD and other festivals do that. And I do my own concerts and I do the little fairs, like this. And I think that this brings people together in a harmonious way.

PLH: Yes, there’s definitely a peaceful feeling here.

YL: Yes and this is very good.

PLH: I heard that you trained yourself to sing.

YL: Yes, yes.

PLH: How did you go about learning how to sing in a traditional style? Did you listen to music?

YL: No. In Tibet there is no music. My grandmother told me that I should sing and then I learned some songs from her. And I left Tibet 10 years ago and I listen to different music. I like different music, traditional music, but I work with this everyday. And my voice is a gift that I can make different rhythms in my voice. So I can write songs for my voice.

PLH: Yes and when you sing you just light up. When you’re singing do you feel spirit coming through you? I guess I’m talking about energy that some call Prana. Do you feel that?

YL: Yes, often and also I connect to the places where I perform. And normally I perform in theaters and churches. And this is really something that is a special experience.

PLH: And of course theaters and churches have lovely acoustics that could only enhance your vocals.

YL: Yes.

PLH: As a woman musician, what do you think a woman’s role is in music at the moment?

YL: I think because I am a woman and for me also from the beginning people said, "you have a beautiful voice. You should play in a band." I said no. Then they would say, "no, no, no, you need to at least put rhythms behind your singing." And I said, "why?" That music in the West people can not listen and people can not concentrate. And I said that I will do my songs acappella. If one person comes I will sing for this person. And my singing is not for them or somebody else. I have a gift and if one person comes to hear me sing my songs I will sing for them. So I made this decision which is hard. I go to a festival and someone asks, "where’s your group?" And I say, "there’s no group." Then they say, "no, where’s your band?" "How many people are with you?" And I say, "just myself."

PLH: Yes, where’s your orchestra?

YL: Yeah, people often say, "where’s your orchestra." And I say that my orchestra is my audience. And they say, "OK." But I think that they are getting mad (laughs).

PLH: Will you be working on a new album in the near future?

YL: Yes, I have lots of songs.

PLH: And my final question, how did you get involved with WOMAD? I saw you play here in 1998 and I was wowed by your performance, but I wondered about the history behind your involvement with the festival.

YL: I performed WOMAD at Leeds and at that time I had made one CD. And that CD had won the British version of the Grammy Awards. Then after that Peter Gabriel and WOMAD asked me "how about you sign to WOMAD?" And that’s why I came.

This interview took place at WOMAD USA, July 2001. It appears courtesy of Patty-Lynne Herlevi, 2001. Originally published in Cranky Crow World in 2001.

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Author: cranky crow