By: Jamyang Phuntsok
Along with the novel, the film, and test cricket, the music album ranks high on my list of most satisfying human inventions. (War, tax return and polite conversations at parties are at the bottom.) All of them ask for some investment of time or participation from the audience for their full appreciation. Being labors of love, the good ones among them anyway, they desist from instant gratification and easy interpretation. They all have a narrative quality about them and release their full beauty in slow measures.
Now, how many Tibetan music albums can you recall from, say, the past two decades? I myself can think of only three – Tsawai Lama by Tsering Gyurmey, Exile Brothers by JJI and the one which my cousin co-produced and kind of became a joke among our families. They have certainly become a rarity nowadays. The internet and social media have given breaks to new singers and artists but they all seem to speak the language of singles released as music videos. So, paradoxically, we seem abundant on the artist/singer front yet starved of music albums at the same time.
That’s why Tendor’s new album is a cause for some celebration. I know we Tibetans love our music videos (that also serve as ads for the latest fashion in chupa). It’s hard to imagine our Losars and trungkars and changsas without them. But if you watch them closely, you’ll realize how much of the content is performative and ceremonial and abstract. They are more a reflection of our collective desire than an artist’s own personal creativity and vision. The result is something that is true but feels not quite honest, something that is familiar and warm but at the same time terrifically boring as well, which is a polite way of saying they’re cliche-ridden. (All this equally applies to much of our other arts such as paintings and films).
How novel and refreshing it is then to come across a music album that is personal and intimate (with cover art, lyrics, and liner notes). An album whose songs capture and mull over that slice of exile life that’s left behind when you’ve stripped off its ‘big issues’ and all the exotica. And lyrics that acknowledge and accept, if not celebrate, the ordinary yet poignant realities of our diasporic lives. Ultimately, the album is a melancholic ode to a second generation in exile. Exile not as a desperate longing for a real home as such but as a lived experience of here and now through days and months and years. Exile not as a bleeding open wound but as a pain that we have learned to swallow and carry on living. The songs span across mountains and oceans (Jokhang, Dharamsala, New York), yet is peopled with intimate friends and classmates who are now married with kids. So small is our community!
From the album’s mood and tone, it’s clear that Tendor is more interested in storytelling than belting out a couple of catchy tunes. (Perhaps that’s why half the album’s songs run beyond five minutes). And it’s no longer about taking a girl to Central Park (see ‘Central Park’ from his previous album Logchopa). He’s now more introspective and wondering about missed introductions. Friends have settled down. Someone has bought a house in Sunnyside, another has managed to acquire the all-important ‘papers’. (One friend is running around with a diploma hanging from his neck which is absolutely Dylanesque.) In ‘Like a movie’, he sings “ I’ve been to the realm of men, I’ve seen the realm of gods, And if there’s a realm called hell You can bet I know it well.” It is here, and elsewhere when he’s singing about samsara and suffering, that I found it hard to tell whether he’s earnest or being ironic. It’s something to do with his singing style which I’d call ‘not-from-TIPA’ or, equivalently, JJI-esque. (Yes, it’s one or the other). It always seems to retain a hint of playfulness that makes one wonder whether one’s missing out on an inside joke.
The standout tracks are ‘A small umbrella’ which contains the wonderful imagery: “You held a small umbrella that shielded only her, One of your sleeves was drenched in the shower.” and ‘Manhattan Bridge’. These lines from the latter were for me the emotional high point of the album:
“You keep your life’s history
Locked away in an iron chest
But a few pieces of the mystery
Have escaped from their nest.
On March 23rd, two thousand and seven
Where were you running to, all by yourself?
On the Manhattan Bridge as the night split even,
Who made you cry till the river flooded over?”
The final track ‘Nomad’s lament’, although a moving track in its own right that is in essence a lament of the Tibetan plateau itself, stands oddly apart from the rest of the album. Those who pay attention to the lyrics may notice the water motif that runs through the album. Someone is getting drenched in ‘A small umbrella’, in ‘Once upon a time’ he sings, “If the blue air is too light for you, The green water is too heavy for me.”, “Burned by the sun, Soaked in the rain..” in ‘Like a movie’, the image of the flooded river in ‘Manhattan bridge’ and the frozen lake in ‘Nomad’s lament’. What this may represent is quite beyond the scope of this review.
The last time I listened to a Tibetan album (JJI’s Exile Brothers) back to back I was in high school. JJI came to our school and I still have their cd somewhere. Thanks to the internet, now you can do an online release. I’m happy that Tendor has used this resource to make a music album and not a music video. God knows our video playlists for the various zom-zoms are packed enough. Instead, he’s given us a music album that’s a rightful heir to the JJI’s – less bluesy, more personal but equally exilic. And that is a cause for some celebration.