Yungchen Lhamo didn’t aspire to become a musician. When she was growing up in Tibet in the ’70s and ’80s the singer was more concerned with her Buddhist spiritual practice. But Lhamo’s grandmother knew that the young girl had an exceptionally beautiful voice—one that would sustain her through life, and further enrich the culture of her homeland.
“She said to me, ”˜Yungchen, if you want to do something for people, you must sing—you have a gift,’ ” Lhamo says, on the line from New York City, where she now lives. “ She taught me some chants, some from her village. Most of them were prayers.”
Tibet’s indigenous culture has been under threat since 1950, when Chinese Communist armies invaded and occupied the Himalayan nation. For many years Tibetan Buddhism was suppressed. As a young woman, Lhamo decided to seek freedom, and in 1989 she joined a party of seven people who crossed the mountains to India—a journey of 1,600 kilometres through the most rugged terrain in the world.
“Tibetan people who flee are risking their lives,” Lhamo says. “It’s not easy. You pack a small bag, and you leave. And you do not know if you will ever return. In the West, when you go on a trek, you have different shoes and different things for the trip. We just left, which is very dangerous. Many have died on the mountains. Even today, they do. It’s really frightening. I didn’t have much sleep, and there was little food. There are people chasing you, and if they catch you, you spend many years in prison. At one point, we were robbed. There were so many difficulties to face. Some mountains have snow, some have rain. And if you fall over, you can fall to your death.”
Fortunately, Lhamo reached safety in India, where she went to see the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Inspired by the meeting, she resolved to develop her voice and her music, and to share the richness of her Tibetan Buddhist heritage with westerners. In 1993 she moved to Australia and made a debut album of her original songs, Tibetan Prayer.
Lhamo’s wonderfully serene and hauntingly soulful voice caught the ear of rock icon Peter Gabriel, who signed the singer to his Real World label. She’s released three CDs with that label, including her most recent album, 2006’s Ama, dedicated to her late mother. Though on her studio recordings Lhamo works with other musicians, in concert she usually sings solo. The songs are almost all original pieces by Lhamo, deeply rooted in traditional chants and music, in spare arrangements that feature light percussion and instruments such as cello, viola, synthesizer, and National steel guitar.
In concert, however, Lhamo usually performs solo. “The reason I sing a cappella is that, when I came from Tibet, I lost everything,” she explains. “The only thing that I kept is what is inside of me. Alone on-stage, accompanied by the orchestra of only a listening audience, is a pure, lovely experience. I will go on performing this way. I wish that people will get inspired and look at their own spiritual lives—and see that to make others happy you don’t need many things around you.”
Yungchen Lhamo plays the Mission Folk Music Festival in Fraser River Heritage Park this Saturday and Sunday (July 26 and 27).