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