Since fleeing Tibet on foot in 1989, Yungchen Lhamo has emerged as the leading Tibetan vocalist on the world stage. From the quays of Sydney, Australia to the spotlight of Carnegie Hall, her acappella performances have enchanted audiences in more than 70 countries since she began touring professionally in 1994.
Yungchen’s name was given to her by a Tibetan lama when she was a baby and translates to “Goddess of Melody and Song.” Since the release of her award-winning first album Tibetan Prayer, her music has met with critical praise worldwide, alternately described as “beautifully evocative,” “mesmerizing,” “spine-tingling,” and “transcendent.” Her songs take listeners on an emotive journey across plateaus and soaring over vistas, with a charge and a charisma no doubt informed by her remarkable life story.
Born in a labor camp outside Lhasa in Chinese-occupied Tibet, Yungchen began working in a carpet-weaving factory at the age of five. Tibetan singing was one of many customs banned by the Cultural Revolution, which began violently in Tibet in 1959. It was in this inhospitable setting that her grandmother taught Yungchen the devotional singing she has shared with audiences around the world. Yungchen kindly agreed to be interview by me recently.
Yungchen, Firstly can I thank you for agreeing to our interview. For many people reading this interview, it will be the first time they have heard of you as an artist. Your own personal history seems to be a triumph over adversity, could you give us a brief overview of your journey from Tibet to New York, and explain what made you leave your hometown in the first place.
I wanted to find out what means “freedom”. And I left Tibet in 1989. To leave your homeland and something that you love and know, and pack a small bag, and you never know when or if you are going to return there. I cannot put this feeling into words. People think that crossing the Himalayas is a big adventure or something romantic, but it isn’t like that. For many Tibetans who leave their homeland, many die on the way and never make it ,and I was so lucky, I survived.
At the end of the1,000-mile escape across the Himalayas, I arrived in India, where I visited numerous Tibetan refugee camps and had the opportunity to meet the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. I think I’m lucky to have survived and to meet the leader of Tibet, There I decided that my voice was my gift to help maintain my culture and to share something of Tibet with the world. When I left Tibet, I lost everything. The one thing I didn’t lose was my voice. And this I carried with me to the world.
For many people, the Tibet story is unclear, could you give us a brief insight into the problems the people of Tibet face on a daily basis.
Inside Tibet, for people who want to be Tibetan, then their lives are difficult. Every country is famous for something and I’m so proud that Tibet’s unique contribution to the world is Buddhism. Some people in the west believe Tibet is very exotic, with yogis meditating in caves , monks flying through the air, etc, but life inside Tibet today is very different.
We need to solve this problem very soon. Every culture , every country tries to preserve its culture, and we also try to do this despite the difficulties. My belief is that there is a younger generation of Chinese who can understand what freedom means, and so I hope that the situation will change soon. When I grew up in Tibet, though my own experience, I know the difficulties especially for women and children. My grandmother was a single mother, my mother was a single mother, and I grew up in a labour camp, .I try to help in my own way through my foundation, the Yungchen Lhamo charitable foundation, to help with refugees education and food. Each year we have a different project, and this years project is shoes for children in Tibet, and a film project.
Your music and lyrics are so very obviously influenced from the spirituality of Tibet, is that something you believe you have always had? Has that influence got stronger for you since you left, or do your early memories of Tibet get distorted with age?
Growing up in Tibet in my family, spiritual practice was very important, even if it was forbidden at the time for us, and for me Tibetan spiritual practice is a philosophy that teaches me love and compassion .As we grow and change we learn what the philosophy really means, not just from reading but really experience in the life. I have been through so much, whatever the difficulties I have been though, this spiritual practice has helped me, and this belief does not change wherever I go. This practice integrates with oneself to become a better human being and this is what I believe. We recognize that life is impermanent. We are only here for a brief moment so while we are alive we must do something of benefit.
How did you first discover your talent and passion for song writing and music?
When I left Tibet and arrived in India, I wrote my first songs. And my grandmother told me when I was young that I have a special gift, but I didn’t understand what that meant. My grandmother taught me devotional Buddhist songs. I learned from her songs from her village, but I didn’t notice until I reached India that I had this voice because my belief is that everyone has a voice. After I arrived in the west, and travelled to different countries, then I knew what she meant.
When I arrived in the west, there is so much freedom, and I saw so many great women artists and they inspired me, like Natalie Merchant, Annie Lennox and many others….
Within the constraints of Tibet, is there much exposure to Western music, or as part of the Chinese Regime was this controlled?
When I grew up, I heard lots of propaganda songs,. At that time, the songs were mostly about the greatness of Mao and the revolution. Now it must have changed. Since the West has pretty much influenced everywhere, I imagine by now some Western music is there.
You have worked with many artist in the past including Sheryl Crow, Peter Gabriel and Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins, and you have been part of the touring Womad festivals in the past, did you ever imagine as a musician that these experiences would expose you to such a wide audience?
For me, this voice came to me, I didn’t go to look for it. My wish is not to become famous, I don’t look at this as the purpose of my life. I look at this precious human life as a gift, and I always want to do my spiritual practice to benefit other people, yet I have this opportunity. Since I can remember, always I asked, “how can I help people??, this is my search. In 1995 I won the ARIA award, which is like the equivalent of the Grammy award for Australia. For me success and fame mean nothing in themselves, but if I can benefit others, then it is good. I’m so lucky that I have been able to meet and work with all these great artists, like Lou Reed, Natalie, so many, and I never thought I would perform with them, and travel around the world, and meet so many different great people so this is a honour for me.
Your new album Ama, (see competitions for your chance to win a copy) is your third album, in a recent interview you said you wrote over 100 new songs, how did you go about selecting the tracks that finally made it onto the album?
You have to make decisions. I write a lot of material, but you have to decide. On Ama the theme is really songs for my mother, and the all the great mothers of this world, who inspired my music.
Musically, the album appears to be a very clever fusion of your Tibetan heritage, but using more modern sounds, music and instruments, now when you listen back to the album, is it how you imagined it to be?
I believe every artist if you are creative artist, then you develop your art. I’m not a museum piece, not static. Keeping tradition is very important but so is creativity. I try to have both. Yes, I am very happy with the results. I collaborated with so many great artists who worked with me on the CD and I’m very happy. We have gotten so much strong feedback from many sources so yes. For many years I didn’t record any new music, and I wanted to go do my spiritual practice. But, even without recording I travelled around the world performing, so when I travelled my fans are waiting for the new CD, and so it is also for them.
Fade Away is the track you recorded with Annie Lennox, and we know your relationship goes back quite some time with Annie. Could you explain how your paths both crossed?
I’m so honoured to meet the great artists in the world. I met Annie Lennox first in 1996, in London. As I am a woman and she is for me an inspiration, Annie has a unique voice and a talent. And not only that but she has an immense heart for the people.
What is the story behind the song Fade Away, your website attributes it to how the people of New York have welcomed you to their city.
This song is about thanking people who showed me their kindness. When I went through so many struggles and difficulties, so many people showed me their kindness. Now I live here and there are so many people from diverse cultures living here in a very harmonious way and so I appreciate New York for artists, we have the opportunity here to create, and the freedom, and for this I love New York.
How did you both decide to work together, and how did the whole process work, had you already written the song and you asked Annie to contribute?
We asked her, and Annie was very happy to participate, because she very generous. This song I wrote especially thanking people who have shown me kindness and since I know Annie, she has always showed me her kindness continuously, therefore Annie was the right person for this song. I had already written the music and lyrics. Sometimes technology is good, not always, but in this case it helped. For Annie, we sent the song through the computer, and for her its different than for other artists. She understands and cares about the Tibet issue, and the world, and with that motivation, she is wonderful to work with. Annie is not just an amazing singer and artist, but also she is a caring and loving mother and she has been an inspiration for so many women, therefore I really admire her and am honoured to work with her.
What did you learn about working with Annie?
I enjoyed working with Annie, and the contrasts of our two very different styles was for me very satisfying . I am very happy with the result.
You’re undertaking a schedule of live appearances and you are coming to Ireland soon, can we expect to see you in the UK soon?
We don’t have any plans to be in the U.K., but I would love to perform there soon. I’m looking forward to going to Ireland to do our second annual concert, on July first in Dublin. Ill be performing with great Irish artists who will be contributing to the show. It will be at the Main Auditorium of the national Concert Hall in Dublin with these musicians
Paul Brady, Liam O Maonlai & Lasairfhiona
Its called Yungchen Lhamo and Friends, please come!
I’ll be performing in Washington D.C. on the 15th of June, Evart Michigan on the 17th of June, June 21rst in Paris for Music day, and Brussels on June 25th, so I hope some of you can come to these shows.
Finally, would you like to send a message to the people reading this interview?
I wish everyone to be well, I wish there was no fighting in this world. Instead of putting ourselves in categories, we would learn to love each other. We live in this world together and we are one people.
And I hope that you enjoy the music .
Yungchen, Thank you so much for your time, and your very interesting answers.
Realworld Records have kindly given us 2 copies of Ama to give away, please visit the competition section of the site.
For more information on Yungchen’s work, please visit her various websites:
http://www.yungchenlhamo.com/ – Offical Site
http://realworldrecords.com/yungchenlhamo/ – Realworld Records Website