High Peaks Pure Earth has translated an interview with Tenzin Dawa, a founding member of the most loved and established Tibetan rock band from Lhasa, Namchag (also known as Vajara in English and Tianchu in Chinese). The interview with Tenzin Dawa was carried out by the Lhasa-based WeChat arts and culture channel “Sweet Tea House” and published on July 18, 2016.
Here is a link to a YouTube playlist of Namchag songs and videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSSaRO32G2E&list=PL4UWKIP24QW89KAleUUlzISTMqB0wFEAk
For those interested in the Tibetan artworld as well as the music world, in August this year, High Peaks Pure Earth published a translation of another interview carried out by Sweet Tea House with contemporary Tibetan artist Gade.
From Young Rocker to University Professor: An Interview with Dawa
from the Band Namchag
By Sweet Tea House
Most people in Lhasa know the band Namchag; they have many loyal fans. Today, we invite the band’s founder, Tenzin Dawa, to the Sweet Tea House to talk to him about his life, his current work, music and society and of course about some unavoidable things related to his band…
Interviewee: Tenzin Dawa
Interviewer: Tsesung Lhamo
Interview place: Sweet Tea House
Let’s begin by talking a bit about your current work and living situation.
At the moment I am mainly teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students at the Art Institute of Tibet University, while also doing some related research. In terms of living situation, well, I have to take care of both my aging parents and my children. There is a lot going on in a big family, it’s very fulfilling. When I am free, I also like to drive to different places by myself to experience and record the situation of people and the environment in times of societal change; I also use this opportunity to collect and learn some folk music and to produce some experimental music.
If we had to pick the central themes of your life, we could certainly not do without “music”; as far as I know, you graduated from the music academy of Minzu University of China, so what I would like to know is whether this was just some coincidence or whether you chose this career for your love for music and pursued this goal to become a musician all along?
My parents were artists and there was always an artistic atmosphere at home, which really influenced me and made me love art, particularly music. In terms of the life choices I made, music always played a role. I can say that from my time at the Tibetan Art School to being a student in Beijing, and to working at the Art Institute of Tibet University, including completing my Masters degree in between, I have always been really lucky in that my journey in pursuit of an artistic career has been a very smooth one. If one were to place all of the world’s subjects in front of me and make me choose one, I would still, without any doubt, pick music. The saying that “a person who manages to do what he or she dreamt of doing as a child is a happy person” really applies to me. Music helps you understand many innermost feelings that script or words simply cannot express; it is that feeling that “you can only sense intuitively, but cannot put into words”. Even if I spend day and night listening to music, writing music, singing or playing instruments, I never feel tired or exhausted. When one loves something this much, one has no regrets. But of course, all of this is also inseparable from the immense support and understanding that I have experienced from my family.
After you graduated from Minzu University, apart from teaching at Tibet University, you also opened the “Unplugged Music Bar” in Lhasa, what was the main intention behind this?
Yes, the reasons why I called the bar “Unplugged” are twofold; firstly, it simply means that people perform without amplifying their music, and second, on a deeper level, it is about returning to more simplistic and original aesthetics. I want to emphasise the pure and genuine spirit of music and thus draw attention to the importance of caring for our lives and existence. But I realised that this original idea was really just an idea because in reality, most people today only get excited by amplified music. So we were forced to use “plugged” music to convey the message of “unplugged” music. In any case, our bar attracted many people who, apart from having a good time, were also exposed to the diversity of international and local music culture. Our stage was open to anyone who could play an instrument or sing, they could simply go up and perform; it then slowly turned into a platform for professional and amateur musicians to express themselves, communicate and learn from each other. So in a sense the bar became the musical platform to bring together different musicians that I have always wanted to establish. Finally, considering that Lhasa had no official music shops or private music schools, I later extended the “bar” into the “Sacred Music Shop” and “Sacred Music School”.
Most people actually know you through the band Namchag; being part of this band must have been an extraordinarily exciting time in your life; as the band’s “soul”, could you tell us more about how you came to found this group?
When I was at Minzu University I would often go to the Minzu Song and Dance Ensemble to watch Cui Jian and Tengger rehearse; I also went to the newly opened “Midi School of Music” to audit classes, which is when I first thought about forming a band. When I returned from Beijing, I realised that the in streets and alleys of Lhasa where people would sing and dance, most music that was played was foreign. That was when I decided to write songs that were not simply about the “blue sky and white clouds, beauty and gratefulness” and that only talked about love; I wanted to write music that would reflect the darker sides of human beings and society, that would express people’s deepest worries, struggles, contradictions and pains. Since rock music is one of the straightest and simplest forms to express these kinds of feelings, I chose to do rock music. When I was running “Unplugged” I met a few guys who came over to play and we got along quite well, so we formed a band. When we looked for a name, there were three factors that mattered to me: first, it had to be timely; second, it had to be Tibetan; third, it had to have a deeper and more acute meaning. One day as I was walking along Barkhor, I came across the word “phurba” (ཕུར་པ་ a ritual dagger, also called Namchag) and I immediately knew that this would be the name of our band. For one, from an artistic perspective, the structure of the word is quite avantgarde and unique; plus, it exudes distinct Tibetan characteristics; and most importantly, it has more profound implications, conquering the demons, attacking the darkness and evil, exactly what I wanted to express with my music; this is how the name “Namchag” came about. Because most of the members were mere amateurs and not professionally trained musicians, we started off by listening to a lot of outstanding national and international music, while at the same time also collecting and listening to traditional Tibetan music. During that time, I wrote the songs “Dream girl”, “Rinzin Wangmo”, “Some People”, “White”, “Wheel of Time” etc. At the beginning, it was me who wrote most of the songs, but slowly, when we made our second album, the other members would also write music, which was a huge improvement.
You were one of the first Tibetan rock bands; subsequently, popular music began to grow in Tibet and many music and rock lovers also started to release their own records. We can say that you were successful pioneers. About your band’s style and concept, you once said that your music is penetrating, not only expressing the good things in life, but also the other side of humans and society, looking back, how would you evaluate your band and your music?
Today, the main feeling when thinking back is that we were not very mature in many ways, but not being mature can also be positive; when we were young we were full of passion, we were genuine and not out for fame and profit, we just wanted to express some of our ideas through rock music. I actually think that the young and frivolous attitude is ideal for rock music. While praising the beauty of life on the one hand, we could attack the dark sides of humans and society on the other. Looking back, I think that we had a positive impact upon society at the time. We did quite well. At least many young people listened to our music and starting paying attention to themselves and to society, they started to reflect. Reflecting is in itself the beginning of change, even if one does not change directly, when one starts reflecting, things are already starting to become very different; it is like sowing a seed of change and one will start to subconsciously generate self-awareness and thus break free from ignorance. Music must be beautiful, the vast majority of music starts from this premise to express beauty, while often neglecting the ugly side; our band tried to convey beauty by fighting against the ugly. It is a bit like when you really love something, you will most likely not ignore its shortcomings, so we always tried to point out what was bad, hoping to thus improve things; it is exactly like the idiom “loyal advice jars on the ears”. But if I were to start a band at my age now, it would be different from back then, because one needs to think about and consider many different aspects, for example, the aesthetics of music itself, the messages that one wants to convey with one’s music, the form and angle of expression as well as the aesthetic level, orientation, understanding of and impact upon one’s audience. Back then we were young and without much to worry about, following the mantra of “if you like it take it, if not then leave it”. It was a “just do it” attitude.
We have not heard much about Namchag over the past few years, could you let us know a bit more about what has been going on?
As with all things, you get together and you part, there is a beginning and there is an end; a band is no exception. I always hoped that the band would be able to transform itself on the level of music, to constantly make breakthroughs, to move forward along with the changes happening in society itself; I want to see music and messages developing as we accumulate experience and to avoid stagnating at a simple, premature level. I also don’t like to see bands merely becoming simply tool for rock music amusement on a commercial level, this is not what I want to see and it is not what those who really like Namchag want to see. Before we split up, I said to the other members “I’d rather die than become corrupted”. Not long ago, namely in December 2013, all band members signed an agreement promising not to use the name Namchag to engage in any performances; after that we announced the end of the band.
I know the band belongs to the past, but as a fan, could I ask you to share with your many fans some anecdotes or other unforgettable events in the history of the band?
For me, most of the interesting things happened when the band initially started off. That was the happiest time, we all felt passionate and had no interest in fame and profit. None of us had families yet and we got along really well. I remember when we first started, we rented a rehearsal room; once we were rehearsing for a long time when suddenly there was a power cut. We only found out later that it was our neighbours who got angry because of the noise and cut off the electricity cable. Subsequently, we had to cover doors and windows with blankets and other things to make the room “sound-proof”. Another time we went out for some food and when we came back, we realised that all our things had been stolen, so we went to purchase everything again and continued to practice. There were so many of such little anecdotes back then. But the most unforgettable event was when we attended the 2005 Midi Festival in Beijing; it was the first time that a Tibetan band was invited for their artistic value and not for some commercial reasons; attending this rock music festival under the theme of “Saving China’s Rivers” was really a milestone.
So, did you ever consider staying in Beijing to develop your musical career as a band?
We did have that opportunity; but we had our own careers, the band was always just a hobby, it was never a proper job for us. Turning a band into a professional career would have involved overcoming many challenges, which is why we returned. In fact, I suddenly remembered another anecdote, do you want to hear it?
We were once invited by a “nangma club” (a Tibetan dance hall) to give a concert. We were a bit drunk when we were on the stage, when a strong Chinese guy came up to us. We initially thought that he wanted to cheer and drink with us, but he actually came up to grab our bass player, saying “stop right now, it’s unbearable!” We had no idea what to do, whether to get off stage or whether to continue to perform. That guy was either drunk, or he simply disliked our music, or maybe his girlfriend was too interested in us guys (just joking), hahaha…
Regardless of whether it was with Namchag or in your current job as an educator, you have always been involved with traditional folk music. Some people have criticised you for modernising traditional music and combining it with rock music, saying that you “insulted traditional ethnic music”. But it is indisputable that you opened up new possibilities for traditional music and made it accessible to young people. Where do you currently see a market for traditional music?
In our music, we had a couple of traditional songs with rock influences, but they never lost their original characteristics, you could always immediately tell it is a Tibetan song and this is what is really important. Of course, looking back now, there were some obvious shortcomings and I truly hope that there will be others who will do better than us in maintaining the traditional characteristics of a piece, while at the same time being innovative; maintaining continuity in change is a problem and challenge that every single artist encounters.
As far as I can see, common music in Tibet faces two situations; on the one hand, you have the “nangma” clubs that focus on folk music but lack an understanding of the diversity of contemporary music, so they often simply produce disco editions of folk songs, which is possibly the simplest and most practical way of entertainment. On the other hand, you have the young urbanites especially those who studied in China; their world-view is much broader, they are familiar with Chinese music scenes and western music, but they lack an understanding of local folk music, to the point that we find no traditional Tibetan aesthetic “genes” in their music at all. I truly hope that these two groups can merge and find a common language to reconcile the traditional and the modern, the native and the foreign. If you can find such a common angle, there will be a new market for traditional music. As for audiences, we do also need some slightly more picky people who don’t just follow the mainstream. At the moment, most music lovers stagnate at an entertainment level, they are not well-versed when it comes to an understanding of other levels, such as heritage, education, expression etc in music. Music is evidently more than just entertainment, it is an essential part of people’s lives. So I just hope that audiences will become a bit more open-minded and don’t just consume music for the sake of enjoyment.
What are your views on the contemporary Tibetan music scene? Are there any singers or bands that you like?
Honestly, I am a little bit disappointed about the current situation. Firstly, most of today’s music is simply an imitation of foreign music; secondly, even though there are many pieces that claim to be Tibetan, in terms of structure and harmony they are completely alienated from the original characteristics of Tibetan music. For instance, sometimes Blues songs are equipped with Tibetan lyrics and then presented as new Tibetan music. I feel that many people don’t even understand this anymore, especially young people have no sense or feeling for traditional characteristics. Tibetan lyrics don’t make a Tibetan song, Tibetan music is defined by its distinctive melody, rhythm and structure. It is the responsibility of musicians to make sure that we don’t accidentally destroy traditional Tibetan music through this so-called new Tibetan music. I hope that those who make traditional Tibetan music will go back to its pure roots, without replacing its original tonal structure with common harmonies. The essence of traditional music must not be compromised. Or else don’t call it Tibetan music and thus obscure the facts. If we don’t stick to our heritage and the unique features of Tibetan music, we simply borrow from other people at the expense of losing our own traditions. In some sense, this is indeed one musical choice, but if this becomes the mainstream way, then we have a problem and one day you get to the point of no return, and you will suddenly realise that you are no longer yourself. Nowadays, we rarely encounter traditional Tibetan music, including court music, religious music, folk music or opera, as a whole. It is ok to simply get together, form a band and play music. But I hope that it won’t just be about entertainment, about being cool and following the trend; I hope that people will reflect as to whether what they do is useful, whether their music has value. I also hope that on the basis of our own traditional music, we go and borrow from other people’s music, not in a clumsy copy-cat fashion, but in an intelligent way. Of course, all bands go through a stage when they copy their idols, but copying must not become a goal in itself, you cannot always stay in the shadow of someone else. You should also not be overly proud of some minor successes, but work hard in trying to find your own ways and style to express traditional Tibetan music.
So, honestly, apart from Choying Dolma (who strictly speaking isn’t even a singer), there is no one I particularly enjoy. Sometimes I like someone, but then they quickly change and become worse. Society has become extremely impatient, that’s the way it is.
— Have you ever thought of going back and getting involved again?
I really enjoy my current situation, it makes no difference whether I come back or not. Now, I just want to peacefully make the music that I like, want to use the music that I like to express what is going on at the grassroots level of society and in the minds of the people. There is too much boisterous music out there today, no need for me to get involved and join in the excitement.
Finally, is there anything that you would like to say to those youngsters who like music and specifically rock music?
First of all, you should all listen to various different kinds of traditional music, and don’t just try and understand the lyrics, the religious or spiritual meanings, try to also understand the special characteristics and profound emotions inherent in the musical structure themselves as well as the artistic esthetics and “genes”. Apart from that, you should listen to music from other groups around the globe, also and particularly music that fits your personality. I hope that today’s musicians won’t be too obsessed with fame and profit or get too carried away by trivial things. Why did bands like the Beatles or U2 become so famous? It is because they touched upon themes that are of interest to all human beings, they pursued things like truth, equality, freedom and peace. Today, we often simply look at ourselves, are only concerned about our own little universe, but that is not good, there is no value in that; the ultimate goal of art should be to change people to the better. We must pay more attention to what happens around us, for instance, our culture of “compassion”, our love for all people. We can start from the details in our own immediate society to convey and touch upon larger issues, that would be ideal. Another piece of advice is to not simply use, for instance, the harmonies and structures of hip hop, equip them with Tibetan lyrics and then call it new Tibetan music. In this way, we will actually deceive those who don’t understand music. Finally, you should also learn to be more patient, you should calm down, read some books, pay attention to producing good music. In that way you will not only not lose your own characteristics (i.e. the characteristics of your own local music), but you will also find a suitable way to express yourself in today’s world (i.e. borrow from foreign music); that would indeed be a good solution.
— Thank you for sharing so many thoughts with, it was a pleasure talking with you.
I thank Sweet Tea House.
The world’s highest rock band: Tibet’s first ever rock band Namchag is as mysterious as the snowy plateau; they have presented the world with the purest voices… Namchag’s records and songs are full of the flavours of nature, transmitting powerful rock music and subtle charm; they combine anger and sorrow with romantic emotions; genuine rock music turns into a genuine care for humanity, showing and spreading the good side of humankind. “The reason why we make records is to spread our thoughts,” says Namchag’s mastermind and drummer Tenzin Dawa.
This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)