By Carol Cooper
BOOK REVIEW: Message From Tibet Through Songs and Dances. Compiled by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu. (Shang Shung Edizioni, Italy). www.shangshungstore.org
In a bold attempt to bridge the cultural gap between the last generation of Tibetans raised in Tibet before the Chinese invasion (like the Dalai Lama), and today’s Tibetan teens (many of whom have been born to exiles forced to flee their native land), a Tibetan Buddhist teacher has just published a remarkable book.
After spending nearly five decades living and teaching Buddhist philosophy to Westerners outside of Tibet, Chogyal Namkhai Norbu took notice of how young Tibetans living under Chinese rule were using song, dance, and YouTube videos to express themselves. Sung in Tibetan, these songs celebrate rural and spiritual aspects of Tibetan life and culture that the Chinese occupation tends to devalue or repress. But the melodies are sweet. The lyrics are never angry, never directly hostile to the Chinese people. On videos the singers and dancers choose to dress in regional Tibetan garb, and perform rhythmic choreography in graceful circles which somewhat resemble a mellower version of Bollywood musical numbers.
In his new book Message from Tibet, Namkhai Norbu has translated 108 of these songs into English so that Westerners as well as Tibetans scattered around the world can feel more connected to the youth of Tibet. He also gathered videos he translated into a dedicated YouTube channel so people can more easily find them online. [To see Tibetan dancers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7B_gke9CwxY; To view Norbu student channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/HarmonyInTheSpace/videos?view=0&sort=dd&shelf_id=5]
Not only has this multimedia strategy become an excellent, non-violent way to make the world more sensitive to Tibet’s right to self-determination, but it also helps remind Tibetan youth that Tibetans who have left Tibet still care about those they left behind. This book and its companion videos raise the hope that Tibet’s political exiles and the cultural values they support will soon be allowed to return to their place of origin.
Over the past two years, Namkhai Norbu encouraged all his international students (scattered throughout diverse countries, from Italy to Russia to Brazil), to learn these dances and perform them during meditation retreats as an act of spiritual solidarity with emerging Tibetan performers. Uploaded YouTube videos also provide New York’s large Tibetan exile population an exciting way to stay in touch with their homeland. Tibetan kids growing up in Queens and Brooklyn may feel that Tibetan language and culture is not globally important anymore, and certainly not as relevant as the latest albums by Beyonce or Katy Perry. But getting on the computer to see and hear young Tibetans artfully proving that modern Tibetan language and pop culture remain alive can be a powerful source of self-esteem.
A song titled “Our Condition” sung by Khoten goes: “My words are not your playthings/My life is not something you can sell/ My youth is not your money/My world is not your factories/ Though you have no use for my life, to me it is valuable!” In “Lifetime Expectation” the singer Sherten speaks with religious devotion directly to the Dalai Lama: “The compassionate Lord of sentient beings/Had to go to the West/ His disciples of the three Regions/ await, tears running down their faces/ Lama, come back soon! Lama, come back soon! / Lama we can wait no longer!” In keeping with Norbu’s secondary desire to promote wider knowledge of the Tibetan language, each song in the book is spelled out both phonetically and in Tibetan script on one page, then translated into English on the other.
As Americans we know from our own folk song revival of the 1950s, 1960s, and early ’70s, how much music can help influence social change. Protest material by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder became the soundtrack of America’s civil rights and anti-war movements. I think that anybody who reads the lyrics in *Message from Tibet* then sees them performed on You Tube will find their message of love, pride and hope hard to ignore.