In 1971, Ani Choying Drolma was born to Tibetan exiles in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her parents had fled the Cultural Revolution (and their homeland) in 1959. At age 13, Anila entered Nagi Gompa, a Buddhist nunnery on the rim of the Kathmandu Valley. The abbot of Nagi Gompa, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, an honored teacher of non-conceptual meditation, looked after Ani Choying’s development and taught her to sing traditional Tibetan Cho chant.
Choying Drolma is a fascinating character. She told an interviewer “Even before I was a nun I always had this thought, this question, wondering why, if boys can do something, why can’t girls?”
“That kind of attitude continued with me even in the nunnery. I would see lots of male teachers come and teach. All males. Why is it only monks that go on to become teachers, to get these chances” The Tibetan word for ‘woman’ translates as ‘low birth.’ I hated that.”
Frustrated by the lack of educational and development opportunities for Tibetan nuns, Ani Choying Drolma established the Nun’s Welfare Foundation in 1998. In January 2000, she opened the Arya Tara School. The school’s six-year program offers a free secular and Buddhist education to nuns from villages in Nepal, Tibet, and India, with the expectation that the nuns will develop skills to put their vows of compassion to practical use as teachers, health care workers, and community leaders.
“That’s what I want to do with the school I’ve started, the Arya Tara school. I want nuns to learn many things and know why they are doing what they are doing, what the benefit is in it. Not just in practicing Tibetan Buddhism, but in learning math, English, learning basic medicine. If they’re doing something, they must know why they are doing it.”
In 1994, guitarist Steve Tibbetts visited the remote monastery at Nagi Gompa to record the music of the Tibetan nuns. Tibbetts recalls the experience: “I work occasionally for the Naropa Institute’s study abroad programs in Bali and Nepal. Some of the students were studying at a small monastery at Pharping in the southern part of the Kathmandu valley (Nepal) in 1993 and I stayed there nights to make sure they were greeted, fed, and seen off each day. One of the translators (Andreas) came up to the roof to find me one evening saying, “You should really come and record this nun singing in the shrine room.” I came down, set up my portable tape recorder, and was so entranced by the sound I was hearing I forgot to take the tape deck off ‘pause.’ Luckily, the translator was also recording and lent me his tape to take home.
“I came back to do the same job the next year and brought a DAT recorder and two mics to do a proper recording session. This time the nuns were up at Nagi Gompa, a small nunnery in the foothills above Kathmandu. I asked Andreas what I could bring them from town and he suggested Cokes, candies, and cookies. The nuns were happy. They crinkled the candy wrappers, chugged the cokes down, and burped during the session.
“I returned home and added some instruments to the songs I liked, just as a gift for the nuns. I sent the tape back to Nepal with a friend. The nuns liked it. In fact, they asked that I produce a rap tune for them. I declined, but I did give a cassette to Rob Simonds at Rykodisc. He sent it to Joe Boyd at Hannibal, we all had dinner in Minneapolis, struck a deal, and I went back in January of 1996 to finish the recording. In the course of the recordings I did get them to rap, just to loosen them up a bit. It’s not on the CD. Call me up; I’ll play it over the phone for you.” Tibbetts framed the recordings with elegant and restrained arrangements to create the stunning collaboration that is Cho.
To finance her school, Anila generates income through musical endeavors. In 1997, Ani-la began performing and recording Cho for audiences around the world, connecting Westerners to Tibetan culture and music. The dharma songs that Anila performs have been handed down from accomplished masters for hundreds of years. At her concerts, Ani Choying explains Cho and Buddhist dharma, in addition to educating audiences about the situation facing Tibetan nuns today.
Cho (meaning “cutting”) is the contemplative system of Tibetan Buddhism practiced by Choying and her colleagues. It involves the yogi or yogini mentally offering his or her own body as a means of severing attachment, literally “cutting through ego-clinging and the traditional four demons.” The training is based on the tradition of Prajnaparamita (transcendent knowledge), in which the practitioner sees through the illusion of a solid reality by recognizing the insubstantial nature of all things. The religious songs that accompany this tradition have been passed from accomplished masters to worthy students for hundreds of years. Tibetans do not regard this music as folk music, but rather perceive the depth of meaning in these songs as capable of enhancing understanding and transforming ordinary experience.
A second album came out in 2004. The new album was built around recordings made by Tibbetts and his longtime percussionist Marc Anderson in Boudhanath, a Tibetan enclave in the Himalayan country of Nepal. There, not far from a school for nuns that Choying Drolma has founded, they recorded her chants, often feeding a drone into her headphones to set the pitch before letting the tape roll. “It seemed like she was singing with four lungs,” Tibbetts recalls. “Some of her takes left Marc and I somewhat stunned. She’d finish the song. I’d quickly save the recording file on the laptop. Choying would say “Tik chha”, meaning, ‘it’s okay’ and Marc and I would slowly nod.”
Back in Minnesota, Tibbetts and Anderson wove together tapestries of acoustic and electric guitars, shifting drones, and subtle hand percussion. They enlisted the support of Lee Townsend, who has produced most of Bill Frisell’s recordings, and created an organic blend of ancient and modern, Eastern and Western.
Chö (Hannibal Records, 1997)
Dancing Dakini (Pastels, 2000)
Selwa (Six Degrees Records, 2004)
Smile (Music Nepal, 2005)
Inner Peace (SAC Music International , 2006)
Inner Peace 2 (SAC Music International, 2010)
Mangal Vani (SAC Music International, 2011)
Inner Peace: Healing Vibrations of Buddhist Chants (Times Wellness, 2011)
Time (Contents Korea, 2012)
Moments of Bliss (Music Nepal, 2012)
Kyap Dro : Taking Refuge (Pony Canyon, 2014)
Love For Rebirth (2017)