Ranging from cries of protest to longing for home, the music of Tibetan exile artists creates a complex mosaic that becomes clearer in context.

An aerial view of the mountains outside of Lhasa.
An aerial view of the mountains outside of Lhasa.

Four years ago on a plane bound for Lhasa, I watched expectantly as the aircraft’s shadow passed over the verdant mountains surrounding the airport. I grew up picturing an idealized Tibet of snowcapped mountain peaks, shining bronze Buddha statues, and nomads on horseback. During my stay in Lhasa, I woke up every morning to a startlingly blue sky and fell asleep every night to the sounds of discordant singing drifting from the karaoke hall across the street from my hotel. Nothing I experienced between the open and close of my days there could be configured into a set of simple, congruent images.

The Dalai Lama’s visit to the United States this month led me to think about the complexities of my experiences in Tibet and of the Tibetan community living in exile, including its musicians. Approximately 140,000 Tibetans now live abroad, with the majority residing in India. The Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, the exile government, have been based in the Dharamsala suburb of Mcleodganj since 1960. Over the decades since the Dalai Lama left Tibet, tension has existed between the exile administration and the Chinese government, which makes historical claims on Tibet and states that Chinese leadership has improved the quality of life there.

Rock resistance

JJI Exile Brothers perform with Chinese musician Xiao Bin at a Common Grounds Project event in Dharamsala, October 2009.
JJI Exile Brothers perform with Chinese musician Xiao Bin at a Common Grounds Project event in Dharamsala, October 2009.

For numerous artists born outside of Tibet, the experience of being without a country and the desire to reclaim Tibet from China are prominent messages in their music. Many of the songs by JJI Exile Brothers, one of the earliest Tibetan exile rock bands, deal with these two themes. Encouraged by their mother, who owns a restaurant in Mcleodganj, brothers Jamyang, Jigme, and Ingsel formed their band in 1998. The brothers cite musical influences ranging from Tibetan exile folk singer Techung to American blues legend Muddy Waters. Over the years, JJI Exile Brothers has maintained a strong following and has inspired many Tibetans with their message.

One of the newer Tibetan rock groups to follow in the tradition of JJI Exile Brothers is Melong Band, founded in Minneapolis in 2007. The group incorporates Himalayan regional instruments, such as the dranyen, a long-necked lute, into many of their songs. Revolt, their most recent album, was released this month in conjunction with the Dalai Lama’s visit. Tenzing Jigme, the band’s lead guitarist, has appeared on Soyala, Voice of America’s contemporary Tibetan music show, and is also the founder of the online Tibetan music radio station Bhodshey.

“Bhod Gyalo” by Melong Band

Voice of Tibet

Yungchen Lhamo singing at a Witness Focus for Change benefit event, November 2009.
Yungchen Lhamo singing at a Witness Focus for Change benefit event, November 2009.

Originally from Lhasa, singer Yungchen Lhamo has lived in exile since making an arduous trek across the Himalayas in 1989. Now based in New York, she is often called the “Voice of Tibet” and has gained significant recognition for her music, including signing on with Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records and collaborating with prominent artists such as Annie Lennox. While dealing with the hardships of exile, such as longing and displacement, Lhamo’s music is also filled with hope and encouragement for the younger generation of exiles. Lhamo is known for her solo a cappella performances, but on her last two albums has also experimented with different types of accompaniments ranging from kora to full orchestra. In 2004, she established the Yungchen Lhamo Charitable Foundation, which sponsors relief and education projects for Tibetans around the world.

It is worth noting the potential for confusion between Lhamo and Yangjin Lamu, a Tibetan singer also living in the United States. In February 2011, Lamu was awarded for her contribution to Paul Winter’s new age album Miho: Journey to the Mountain. Although she uses the Chinese transliteration of her Tibetan name, the media sometimes refers to Lamu as “Yungchen Lhamo,” including China’s central television agency in its English-language coverage of the 2011 Grammys. Lamu primarily sings a mixture of Buddhist chant and meditation music, and is popular in China and Taiwan. In addition to her music, she is the founder and president of the China Overseas Tibetan Association.

A complex mosaic

When asked about my trip to Tibet, I find that the stunning landscape is the one element that I describe consistently, followed by a narrative of my trip as jumbled as my experiences. Sadly, this beautiful plateau is at the heart of a tough sovereignty issue that impacts the Tibetans living there and those in exile. Images of Tibet’s pristine sky, mountains, and grasslands are frequently evoked in songs by exile musicians, but the perspective from which these artists sing often differs. Musicians born outside of Tibet describe a place that they have never seen, while artists like Yungchen Lhamo sing of a place that they hope to return to. Beyond rock and traditional music, Tibetan exile music is now also expanding into the realms of hip hop, folk rock, electronica, and other genres. These many voices of the Tibetan musical community form a complex mosaic that is complete only when viewed within the context of the different generations and life experiences of its artists.

“Happiness Is” by Yungchen Lhamo

Aerial photo by Sarah Lin Bhatia.

JJI Exile Brothers photo by Wen-Yan King.

Yungchen Lhamo photo by Kate Glicksberg.


Hip-hop music blog Word is Bond joins the global effort to support post-earthquake relief work in Japan with the compilation album Hope for Tomorrow.

Tokyo’s unlit skyline on March 11.

As most people across Japan settled down for bed on March 11, a powerful 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the country. The images and stories of the tsunami and the nuclear disaster that followed are still almost too painful to comprehend five months later. According to recently released figures, 20,889 people are dead or missing and property damage amounts to $210 billion—and these are only estimates.

The other side to these terrible events is that countless governments, organizations, and individuals around the world quickly demonstrated a tremendous amount of support for Japan by sending much-needed relief supplies, workers, and funds. Musicians, both individually and collectively, have joined the efforts by organizing benefit concerts and releasing special albums, such as Hope for Tomorrow compiled by the hip-hop music blog Word is Bond.

Hope for Tomorrow was released within an impressive two weeks after the disasters and features tracks from nearly 40 independent hip-hop artists from eight countries, including Japan. Downtempo piano and other instrumental songs comprise most of the album, with also a sprinkling of rap, soul, and spoken word throughout. “Vespers” by Phish a.k.a Soundzimage, a French artist who maintains an elusive web presence, captures not only the spirit of the project but also the mood of many people in the earthquake’s aftermath: a deep sadness mingled with hope for the future.

Now offered free for digital download on Bandcamp, Hope for Tomorrow raised over $7000 for Japan’s disaster victims within four weeks of its release. Word is Bond encourages listeners who download the album to make a donation to an organization like the Red Cross in support of ongoing Japan relief activities. Japan still has much need for aid—both financial and in kind—especially with thousands of people displaced by the situation at the Fukushima nuclear complex and with basic public services in shambles in many places.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, people across Japan donated relief funds to the United States in a gesture similar to the benefit activities of the past five months. It takes the collective effort of the entire world to rebuild after a disaster of a magnitude such as Japan has experienced. And it shows that hope can shine on even despite seemingly impossible circumstances.

Tokyo skyline image by Evan Blaser.


After listening in early June to the “From Brazil with Love” episode of the excellent new NPR show Alt.Latino, I became hooked on the album Red Hot + Rio 2.

The three weeks’ wait for its June 28 release was well worth it. Now with thirty-three Tropicália-inspired songs loaded onto my MP3 player, I have a lot of music to enjoy and reflect upon during my daily train ride.

Red Hot + Rio 2 is the most recent compilation produced by the New York City-based nonprofit HIV/AIDS awareness and relief organization Red Hot. Here are two tracks that give just a small taste of the breadth of styles and artists on this expansive compilation.

“Um Girassol da Cor do Seu Cabelo” (“A Sunflower the Color of Your Hair”)

Inventive singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd of Los Angeles and José González, an Argentine-Swedish folk musician, give new voice to this song by Lô Borges, a founder of the influential Clube da Esquina music collective.

“O Leãozinho” (“Little Lion”)

American indie-folk band Beirut produced this march-like rendition of a song originally by Brazilian artist Caetano Veloso, a noted Tropicálista. (This track is currently available for free download on the Red Hot website.)