Memories in Song

Published: May 17, 2013 - 16:43

A documentary film, Tibet in Song, explores how the Chinese government’s propaganda songs are posing a threat to the rich Tibetan music
Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi

Tibet is a culturally rich country where people love to sing and dance. People have songs for every occasion -- milking song, butter churning song, drinking song, among others. It is said that there is no one in Tibet who cannot sing. But after the Chinese invasion in 1950, Chinese propaganda loudspeakers were installed across Tibet which played Chinese propagandist songs, to “erode the cultural ethnicity of Tibet.”

“The first music I heard was Chinese Communist propaganda and Chinese pop songs. It was an unexpected and alien sound that seemed to be following me wherever I went,” Ngawang Choephel recalls of his arrival in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. Choephel’s documentary Tibet in Song on Tibetan folk music was recently screened at the Lodi Garden restaurant in New Delhi on May 16, 2013 organized by No Man’s Land, a Delhi based studio.

Choephel had left Tibet and fled to India along with thousands of other Tibetans, seeking refuge from Chinese occupation. He went back to Tibet in 1995 to shoot the film. He believed that the Tibetan folk music was under the threat of extinction. Soon, Chinese army arrested him on charges of espionage and sentenced him to 18 years in prison. After serving six and a half years, he was released in 2002 with the help of then Vice President Al Gore, Paul McCartney, and Annie Lennox, among many others. Immediately after his release, Choephel finished the film that captures the repression and cultural exploitation in Tibet.

Folk songs, considered as “the mother of Tibetan education”, have taught people ethnic customs and religious beliefs since thousands of years. But the cultural imperialism of the Chinese government through its pop music and propaganda songs poses a threat to the rich Tibetan music. Copying music of Tibetan folk songs and putting propagandist lyrics, which were later sung by Tibetan folk singer, Tsetan Dolma, was seen by ethnic Tibetans as a threat to their culture. In one of the scenes, three young women narrated their ordeal of how they were imprisoned, beaten and tortured when they refused to sing the Chinese National Anthem.

The blaring sound boxes playing Chinese music are liked by youngsters in Tibet because they are “rhythmic and romantic”.  But for older generation, “past was better and melodious.”

Tibet in Song, through a series of interviews and folk songs, presents the journey of a Tibetan whose mission is to document and record folksongs from his homeland that also showcases Orwellian tactics of the Chinese government. The film is written, produced, directed and narrated by Choephel. The 86 minute documentary is in English and Tibetan, with English subtitles.


A documentary film, Tibet in Song, explores how the Chinese government’s propaganda songs are posing a threat to the rich Tibetan music
Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi

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