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Echoes from DharamsalaMusic in the Life of a Tibetan Refugee Community$

Keila Diehl

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780520230439

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520230439.001.0001

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(p.xvii) Preface

(p.xvii) Preface

Echoes from Dharamsala
University of California Press

It was my first Monday morning in India, and I was not where I was supposed to be. According to the grant proposal tucked in among my papers, I was at the Tibetan Homes Foundation in Mussoorie teaching elementary school children dressed in crisp green uniforms and neckties. In the afternoons, when English classes were finished for the day, I was to be found in the school's music rooms, dance classes, and art studios, easing into what was to be a nomadic year traveling from one refugee camp to another throughout India researching the ways traditional Tibetan arts were being taught to the youngest generation in exile. However, according to my senses—if they were to be trusted at this point—I was at the bus stop in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and busy hub of the Tibetan diaspora, wondering what to do with myself in a strange place at dawn and feeling very disappointed.

The original plan I had devised deliberately deemphasized Dharamsala because of the tendency of most researchers, journalists, and others interested in Tibetan refugees to focus their efforts entirely on this worldly capital-in-exile and to generalize their findings to Tibetans everywhere. Very little substantial documentary or ethnographic work had yet to be conducted outside Dharamsala, and I was uncomfortable with this trend. There are many logistical reasons for the stubborn centripetal force that attracts everyone to Dharamsala—permits to stay in remote settlements are, for example, difficult to obtain from the Indian authorities for security reasons—and there are other reasons involving the desires and expectations of Western visitors.

My own efforts to spend the majority of my fieldwork time away from Dharamsala were dashed within twenty-four hours of arriving in India because of political instability in the region where I was headed. My husband, (p.xviii) Fred, opened a newspaper over breakfast on our first morning in Delhi to learn that the state of Madhya Pradesh was in chaos over affirmative action legislation and that its government was on the brink of collapse. After reading that peaceful demonstrators in the quiet hill station of Mussoorie had been shot in the street by riot police, I quickly phoned the general secretary of the Tibetan Homes Foundation, who explained that she had arranged to have as many children as possible sent away from the area. I should, she insisted, put off my long-awaited arrival for at least a month. That afternoon, my Tibetan friend and advisor Dawa Norbu, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, advised me to go with the flow, jump on a bus to Dharamsala, and spend my first month in India making contacts in the various government offices and organizations there. “It can't hurt,” he added, by way of encouragement. The next evening I boarded Mr. Bedi's Bus, the infamous and somewhat treacherous transportation lifeline between Delhi and Dharamsala, and fidgeted all night as we lurched our way up into mountains.

We found a room in a guest house full of German and Israeli backpackers, and I began making inquiries in Tibetan shops and offices here and there. “Know any musicians? Anyone who plays the guitar? Anyone who writes songs?” That afternoon at the Tibetan Youth Congress office, a group of young men understood that I wasn't interested only in the institutionalized arts scene at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), that I wanted to meet nonprofessional musicians among their own peers and neighbors as well. Happy to take a break from typing forms in triplicate, they initiated a brainstorming session that generated the names of ten Tibetans of all ages who would turn out to be the heart and soul of my year's research in India. The young office workers were particularly enthusiastic about one guitarist, their friend Paljor.la,1 who worked as a translator over at the Reception Center. He had produced two cassettes and was now the lead singer and songwriter for a local rock group called the Yak Band. They led me out onto the TYC's rooftop balcony and pointed out a room built on the roof of a large yellow building with green railings on the next ridge. That's where he works. Kong yakshö ray. He's the best.

Days later, I climbed the dark cement stairs for the third time past the cavernous dorm rooms for recent arrivals from Tibet and was lucky. I found Paljor at his desk in a beige zippered jacket and blue jeans. He was about my age, with a kind face, short hair, and a thin mustache. Typewriter pushed aside, he was studying English vocabulary from a paperback called Increase Your Word Power! Thank God, I thought. He knows English. Ireally had no idea how to talk about the blues in Tibetan. “Tashi delek. (p.xix) Hello. Excuse me. I heard that you play the guitar.” This was before I learned something about how Tibetans make conversation, that you are supposed to talk about the weather for half an hour, drinking tea you have pretended to refuse, and then, as you are rising to go, casually let slip what you had come to say. But Paljor was used to dealing with inquisitive Injis, and he was clearly interested.2

He got a chair for me and a cup and saucer. I eagerly accepted the sweet milk chai he poured from the office thermos and launched forth. “I'm writing a book about Tibetan music and I'm going to be here for a long time and I heard that you play the guitar and I think it's great young people here are writing songs and I heard that you play the blues and I thought maybe is it possible that it was you playing on that purple tape I have at home?” I don't know who was more amazed. Paljor couldn't believe that this hyperactive American tourist owned a copy of his obscure purple tape, and I couldn't believe that out of all the Tibetans living in India, the first young musician I'd met had turned out to be the composer and performer of the “Tashi Delek Blues,” the recording that had planted the seed for my research topic. We just stared at each other for a while with funny looks on our faces, registering this connection until it became embarrassing. At last Paljor poured more tea.

I had been intrigued by this person named Tsering Paljor Phupatsang before I ever met him. Maybe it's a funny way of backing into one's anthropological fieldwork on the other side of the world: to be amazed by the ability of the “other” to play the blues. But our love of the blues quickly turned out to be the common ground, the doorway that led to everything else. On a preliminary trip to India in 1993, I had bought a few cassettes of “modern” Tibetan music out of curiosity. Paljor's cassette had a striking image of barbed wire drawn at an angle over a photo of nomad children with wild tangled hair. It was a long time, though, before I ever listened to the tape all the way through. The tunes had a certain sameness—a kind of languid Simon and Garfunkel effect—and I couldn't understand the words. When the unmistakable lead into a solid Mississippi Delta blues number came on one afternoon when I'd let the cassette roll through to the end, I assumed it was a case of crummy Indian overdubbing. They must have slapped the Tibetan songs over a tourist's cast-off tape, I thought. But then the singing started: Yay nay shön pa tso! Yö nay men shar tso! (“Young men from the right side! Young women from the left side!”) I really could not believe I was listening to a Tibetan performing the blues until a friend in Madison later helped me translate the liner notes printed in tiny, blurry khyug script. Having been away from India for many years, my friend (p.xx) didn't recognize the name of the musician, but he was pretty sure that the lyricist credited was the elderly Tibetan state astrologer who worked at the Medical and Astrological Institute in Dharamsala. That added a new twist that made the song even more intriguing to me.

Without knowing much more than that, I anchored the prospectus for my dissertation and a conference paper on the “Tashi Delek Blues,” using it as an example of the kinds of complex contemporary forms of expression by refugee youth about which I wanted to learn more. I must have heard in this song the seeds of answers to many of the questions that had grown out of my graduate training in anthropology and ethnomusicology: Do Tibetans like this new music? Does it sound and feel “Tibetan” to them? Is it an aberration, this musician's own quirky idea, or part of a larger trend? Are such examples of musical borrowing by Tibetan youth living in the diaspora efforts to explore artistically, and even to create, their multicultural identities as individuals who are proud of their heritage and yet who have succeeded in developing deep relationships with other traditions as well? Or are these songs an indication that the “children of Tibet,” the generations that are growing up entirely outside the homeland, are truly losing their parents' culture and being swept into the increasingly homogeneous cultural soup created by global flow? Either way, does it matter? If so, to whom?

To break the awkwardness of the moment, I changed the topic and asked across the desk in an offhand way, “Paljor.la, do you know anyone with a keyboard? I'd like to play while I'm here and use it to transcribe songs.” It was a clumsy way to let him know that I am a musician too. “My band owns a keyboard,” Paljor offered. “But … ” Paljor slowed down, eyeing me, like he wasn't sure he wanted to deal with the implications of what he, as a kind and generous person, was already in the process of saying, “ … we don't have a keyboard player.” I burst out laughing. He did too. Fiddling with my teacup, I managed to say, “I'll just have to think about that, OK?” My mind was already racing ahead to images of us on stage somewhere under red and blue lights, reeling around cranking out “Smoke on the Water” or “Brick in the Wall,” images laced with memories of high school dances under basketball hoops. Was that really how I wanted to spend my precious time in India? I have no memory of how this first conversation eight years ago ended—maybe the phone rang—but I do remember having to restrain myself from dancing up the dirt street past the vegetable sellers on my way back to town.

Two weeks passed. Then at last, after several rounds of notes left on doors, delays, and missed connections, I met Paljor. la at the taxi stand, and (p.xxi)


Figure 1. The village of Naddi and the snow-covered Dauladar Range.

we hired a ride up to the yellow cement house where all the members of the Yak Band were living (except Paljor, who is married with three sons). It is also where the band rehearsed, far from the ears of neighbors and relatives. The rented house was up in Naddi Gau, a village six kilometers further still above McLeod Ganj, which commands a truly awesome view. The snow-covered Dauladar Range rises to 17,000 feet on one side of the ridge-top village, while, on the opposite side of the community's only road, all of India rolls out forever on the hazy plains far below. The hillside property where the Yaks lived belonged to a Gaddi family (local Indian shepherds) whose cluster of slate-roofed, mud-washed houses and animal pens sat just below the Yaks' front yard. Namaste-ji. We greeted the grandfather smoking a brass hookah on his porch. He nodded back at us, and his wife spinning wool nearby smiled. It seemed an unlikely setting for rock and roll.

Paljor and I sidestepped tentatively past the enormous black water buffalo tethered near the pathway and settled down on the front steps of the “Yak Shack” to wait for the others to show up, as we would do dozens of times. Paljor slipped a cushion under me as I bent over to sit on the cold cement. “You shouldn't sit on that. You'll get sick.” After a minute or two, he said he thought I might find his family's history interesting. To pass the time, he started with the story about his father. His pala was a Khampa (p.xxii) chieftain who was airlifted with other members of his resistance group back into Tibet by the C.I.A. in the late 1950s after being trained in guerilla warfare to fight the Chinese incursion from the East. But they were dropped in the wrong place and quickly found themselves captured by the Chinese. Paljor's father and his friends, now Tibetan folk heroes, all took cyanide pills and died. Paljor was born in Darjeeling (in West Bengal, India) a few months later. As a refugee and semiorphan, he was schooled by Irish Christian missionaries, thanks to financial support from Western sponsors alarmed by the 1959 flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet.

Two other Yaks had arrived during this story and were squatting around the yard now too, listening to Paljor. Phuntsok had made ginger milk tea and handed it round in the small glasses used in chai stalls all over India. I'd met Phuntsok and Ngodup briefly once before when they stopped by my guest house to leave a message, but no one ever gets introduced in Dharamsala anyway. You just figure out who's who. Over time I realized that musically inclined Inji tourists were regularly scooped up in town by the Yaks and brought to Naddi to jam with the band and teach them something new. The band's leader, Thubten, was apparently “out of station,” but we ended up having a spontaneous rehearsal without him. Phuntsok hot-wired the cracked and dusty Yamaha keyboard, and we jammed for three happy hours. Periodically, the Gaddi kids from next door would half-appear in the doorway and linger wide-eyed with their hands over their ears until they caught someone's eye and ran away.

I was completely amazed by Paljor's skill on the guitar that first day, especially since I knew he had learned everything by ear from well-worn tapes. First the band worked on a new song called “Rangzen” (Freedom or Self-rule), which the Yak Band was preparing to use as the title song on their first cassette. Then, to my delight, Paljor launched into the “Tashi Delek Blues.” Despite, or because of, the unbelievable din created by a full rock band in a small cement room, the song sounded fantastic. Actually, I could hardly even play along—I just listened with my hands hovering over the keyboard and smiled and smiled and smiled. Partly because it just felt so great to hear the blues again, but mostly because it was so amazing to be standing in a house in a Gaddi village in the Himalayas in north India improvising the missing keyboard part for the very song that had gotten me there. After a few more numbers, including Bob Marley's ubiquitous “Buffalo Soldier,” Phuntsok started experimenting with ways to incorporate an amplified dranyen (six-stringed Tibetan lute) into some pieces, and the Yaks had a great time contorting a traditional Tibetan folk song into contemporary “dance music.”

(p.xxiii) The light outside was incredible when we finished playing for the day. The mountains were lit up pink, with October's terraced fields of drying cornstalks glowing warm in front of them. Paljor said they were hoping to film a music video at this spectacular site after they returned from a planned concert tour in January. I got a ride back down to town through the deodar forest with Phuntsok on the band's red motorcycle—it was a beautiful ride, nice and slow—and found myself thinking that maybe things were on track after all, even if I had little idea of where the track would lead.

As it turned out, I made great headway that first month in Dharamsala and became so immediately and intensely involved with a number of both young and old musicians that by the end of it I felt it would be counter-productive to start over again so soon in a new location. It would, in fact, be six months before I got to Mussoorie and the Tibetan Homes Foundation, and then only for a short visit. Despite this significant change in plans, I did spend a lot of time in many other Tibetan settlements in India and Nepal and, unexpectedly, was able to visit Lhasa at the end of my year, trips that helped me maintain a perspective on Dharamsala's uniqueness. I do retain to this day some remorse that I have yet to contribute more to the ever-im-portant cause of decentering Dharamsala in the ongoing effort to represent the experiences of late-twentieth-century (and early-twenty-first-cen-tury) Tibetans, but the seeds for future projects to be conducted out of Dharamsala's limelight were sown during my year in the Indian Himalayas, and I now find it difficult to imagine how things might have unfolded otherwise.

I have sought to write this book in a voice that is neither overly direc-tive nor transparent, reflecting the personal-professional nature of the experience of being a participant-observer in a foreign community. As a result, my perspective naturally shifts, depending on whether I am writing about theories of globalization learned sitting at a desk in graduate school or about audience feedback learned while playing the keyboards in a Tibetan rock band. Both voices have their advantages. My hope is that the resonances between them, and the varied reverberations and echoes between the musical sounds that provide the score for Tibetan refugees' lives, will fill in some gaps for the reader familiar with Tibetan culture and pique the curiosity of the reader who is new to this field of study. (p.xxiv)


(1.) In Tibetan, the honorific syllable la is added after names, except when another title is already included in the form of address and in informal situations.

(2.) The term Inji, derived from the word English, is used in colloquial Tibetan as a noun to refer to a “Westerner” and as an adjective to describe anything originating in the “West.”