High Peaks Pure Earth presents the English translation of an interview with Tibetan music duo who call themselves The Tibet Patient. The interview was originally published online at this URL last year but is no longer online.
The Tibet Patient are two friends Jigshed Kyab and Pema Dorje who hail from Amdo and met at University. In recent years, High Peaks Pure Earth has been translating a lot of Tibetan pop and hip hop music videos, this post marks a change of pace and introduces alternative contemporary guitar-based music.
Thank you Palden Gyal for translating the interview into English and watch this space for English translations of their songs will be posted soon in a follow up!
The Tibet Patient: We Are All Patients in Between Dreams and Reality
The two young musicians, using a quiet and calm style, conquered the Moments feed of many Tibetans on WeChat. The name of the duo, “The Tibet Patient,” sounds like a secret signal, and their songs are also just as cryptic. After the release of their second album “The Butcher on the Pilgrim’s Path” this year, their fan base grew rapidly and sooner than later they exploded onto the WeChat Moments of many Tibetans. Everyday it records over ten thousand listeners to the song “Empty Room” on NetEase. The strange thing is that the song so fiery, yet its lead creator is somewhat mysterious. Mr. Ti Hu conducted this interview with Pema Dorje, who reveals his face, removes the masks and let everyone meet the “secret signal” once.
Many of the songs of The Tibet Patient can be searched and accessed on the music portal NetEase. The band consists of Jigshed Kyab and Pema Dorje, the former is the lead vocalist and the latter the guitarist. Since the formation of the band, they have released two albums titled, “The Tibet Patient and “The Butcher on the Pilgrim’s Path,” respectively. Our interview begins by discussing the origins of the band – “Our friendship and affection towards each other is so strong that every time we part ways it brings tears to our eyes.”
Mr. Ti Hu (TH): What are your primary professions?
Mr. Pema Dorje (PD): Jigshed does Tibetan and Chinese translation work in Machu County in Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu. I am a judge in a courthouse in Qinghai.
TH: How did The Tibet Patient begin? How did you find each other to form the band?
PD: We set up time to work together during the days when we had no official responsibilities. We released our first album on January 1, 2015, but the band was actually formed following our graduation in 2011. I have known Jigshed Kyab since 2007, we both attended the Qinghai University for Nationalities. I was a year senior to him. He studied Tibetan language and literature and I studied law. He is the main vocalist of the band. In the beginning of 2009, I hoped to form a rock’n roll metal band, so we made a small attempt at it once, but in that process, we both realized that our musical sense and sensibility wasn’t penetrating enough, our ability to mix genres and create music wasn’t good enough. So we temporarily put aside the pursuit. In 2011, I was already working for two years in Qinghai and him too for a year in Gansu. One day, when we were idly chatting, Jigshed suddenly proposed that we should try and play folk songs. In those days, there wasn’t a single serious folk band in Tibetan music circles. I told him that he has a great voice and that he should be the lead vocalist, and that I play guitar. So, it was started just like that.
TH: Why did you form a new band again?
PD: The lead vocalist (referring to Jigshed) is a very calm and composed person. He likes to read books. He attended college in Qinghai (which is an unfamiliar place for someone who grew up in Gansu). He believes that I am the only friend he has. I also consider him to be a very important and cherished friend in my life. I told him once that men and women could have beautiful romantic relationships, but we could also create beautiful works together. Our friendship and affection towards each other is very strong. Everytime he comes to Qinghai to see me, he cries when it is time for him to leave. Therefore, we decided to create and produce an EP together. He writes lyrics, I compose melodies.
TH: Why did it take four years for the first album to come out?
PD: In 2012, Jigshed took a leave of absence from work and came to stay at my place for three months in Xinghai County, Tsolho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. During the day when I went to the office, he just stayed at home and during the night we created our music, wrote lyrics and composed melodies. First, together we reworked and refined the incomplete melodies he had in his head and thus created complete songs. “Dear Child” and “Those Birds” were composed and created during that time. Afterwards, because of his job I let him return to his city. Since I have some facility for recording techniques, I planned to record and try these songs as an experimental project. After finishing recording the third song, I just got so dissatisfied and disappointed with it. Except these two songs, even I myself couldn’t bear to listen the others. So I told him that we should continue to remain at and retain our professional jobs, and perhaps we could return to creation and production of music in the future. In May 2014, Jigshed came again to my place and stayed for six months. For the first three months we created and composed songs in my dormitory. In the next three months, we were able to successfully create and finish recording our first album. He left to go back home after that. I then made some light post-production refining and decided to release it on our lucky day, i.e. the first day of 2015.
TH: How were the circumstances in those early days?
PD: In the early days of this journey, it was just pure joy and love for music, we were brimming with excitement and enthusiasm. It is not that the conditions and resources weren’t good, we simply didn’t have any. What we had was just the ardent love for music.
TH: The cover of the your second album features two monks in masks, yet the title is “The Butcher on the Pilgrim’s Path,” many people use this as their profile photo or as the display picture of their friend circles, how did this come about?
PD: It is originally an actual photograph. It was taken by a foreigner in the 30’s or 40’s of the last century. There is a painter by the name of Mr. Liu Yi in Lanzhou, who drew and oil-painted the original photograph. We really loved this image, so with Mr. Liu Yi’s permission, we used it for the cover. We are grateful to him for his generosity and support. After all, we are an unknown and obscure band that no one will ever recognize us even when we are in the middle of a crowd.
TH: Can you describe the creative process of this album?
PD: After the release of our first album, the response was pretty good. Most listeners and admirers happen to be fairly educated individuals who would often come to us and say: “It is pretty good.” As a result, in early 2016, Jigshed’s gift of poetic imagination and creative power exploded in writing songs. He called me one day and suggested that we should record some songs this year. I told him that we should take advantage of my time and independence to work on and release our second album before I get married. So, in April 2016, Jigshed came to my place and stayed for two weeks during which we made the songs: “Dudul Dorje,” “The Moon of Those Nights” and “The Scream of the Mute.” Actually, the last song was originally titled as “The Third Crow on Earth.” Jigshed thought the name is a little absurd, so we changed it. After these three songs, he had to return home because he wasn’t able to secure a longer leave of absence from work. We would frequently do video calls to discuss and improve the details of certain songs.
In December, we entered my brother’s recording studio, we recorded some songs, created and composed others all along. The recording studio is in Guide county, which is about 300km from where I work. In the beginning, I would go to work during the weekdays, and we go to Guide on weekends to record. We even worked on some songs on the road. For instance, one day at dusk, while on the road from Xining to Guide to the studio, we were taking a rest and relieving ourselves by the roadside when we saw a couple holding each other far away. That very scene invited us to write a song as we talked about it later. Thus, “I am your toy, tomorrow” was created. Jigshed originally entitled it as “The Prince,” but I told him that it doesn’t go well with our grown-up temperament, so we renamed it. In reality, regarding this song, there is a small story behind and beyond the scene itself. It concerns Jigshed. He once met a young girl of around 20 years old at a banquet, after knowing that he is the lead singer of The Tibet Patient, she asked for his number. They started chatting and immediately they both had feelings of “regret for not having met earlier” towards each other. However, Jigshed is not only married, he is also a father to two kids. Since he has to take responsibility for his family, he knew he could never be with that girl. Afterwards, he stopped talking to her. At that time, when we saw the couple holding each other, precisely at dusk, not far from the straight and long road in an expansive and open landscape, the road scene looked like the American highways we have seen in films. It was a feast for the eyes. He right away wrote some things down. We recorded the song that very night. In fact, there is an undertone of mild pessimism to the song.
TH: Do other songs have such interesting stories behind them?
PD: I will tell you one secret. My favorite song is “The End of Autumn.” The song is written for someone who really loved me once. It describes the episode of our tryst and some beautiful wishes of mine. At the time of writing, I shared our story with Jigshed, and accordingly, he composed it. Right now, besides us two, only that girl and you know what this song is about. I really like this song! Jigshed wrote “The Butcher on the Pilgrim’s Path” in early 2016, but from the beginning of its composition we couldn’t really arrive at a comfortable version of it, so we composed a few different versions and every time we felt that it somehow wasn’t in harmony with the spirit of the song. On the last day of recording, we thought we should just go with the most uncomplicated composition for this song. In the end, we recorded and finalized it as a rather slightly dark folk song. However, we both were already satisfied, because our style isn’t simple folk music.
TH: How was the public reaction and response to this album?
PD: There weren’t many comments or feedback from that many people, but the few we received were all positive and it seemed they liked the songs. Some people who have listened to the second album after listening to our first say that the second album isn’t much of a success. Also, one older female fan told us that her eyes welled up as soon as she started listening to the songs. That was really touching to me. With our rather relaxed and gentle style, we tried to express relatively ordinary but real events in our lives. Even in Qinghai there are not many people who seem to understand or like the songs in this album. But these are records of the events in our real lives. We aren’t able to make any money with it, but in the future, when our children grow up, we can tell them proudly: “Your father released an album in those days.” That is good enough.
TH: In contrast to the first album, in what ways the style, sentiment or the songs themselves are different?
PD: The style of the songs in the first album is more unified, yet the expression of emotions is very plain and unsophisticated. The compositions are also simple and relatively crude without any gaudy techniques. After all, we didn’t have the resources or qualifications. In the second album, we made our attempts at a few different styles. For instance, while working on “I am your toy, tomorrow,” we were very diligent and careful from the prelude to the final stage of the song. We tried to integrate and add small skills with a wooden guitar. Perhaps the prelude of the song, which I composed, came out pleasantly distinctive to listen to; actually it is the result of overlaying the two guitars. In connection to trying out various special techniques and styles, I even had a quarrel with the recording engineer. More concretely, in terms of the songs, “The End of Autumn” is aimed at creating a sad romantic scene and sense, using an accordion to give it a warm touch –a feeling like that of seeing autumn leaves falling down a tree. We also spent a lot of time thinking about its composition and arrangements.
“Scream of the Mute” has quite the reggae effect to it; while “Jojo” is really a result of my imagination ran wild. The protagonist in “Jojo” is the main character in a novel by Jigshed’s elementary school Tibetan teacher. “Empty Room” is right now the most listened song, but we actually considered this song to be one of the most ordinary songs. The very first song we released is “I am your toy, tomorrow,” that is because we felt that it is the most lyrical song. Afterwards, we decided to release another song, a less tuneful one, which was “Empty Room.” The result, to our surprise, is that everyone liked “Empty Room.” These days, about seven thousand people listen to the song everyday on the Wang Yi music portal. For the first three months of its release, it was listened over ten thousand times everyday. We are extremely pleased and satisfied.
TH: Do you still plan to make more music videos?
PD: Probably not. To make a good music video, it requires you to have a lot of resources at your disposal. We do not have funds. Not making any music video is better than making shoddy ones that no one will enjoy. However, we talked about not having our photos out on the Internet before the success of our songs subsided but later we posted our photos anyway.
TH: Normally, what genre of music do you personally like?
PD: I somewhat like rock’n’roll, for example, Linkin Park, One OK Rock, and Gary Moore etc. Now, as I get older, I like hard rock’n’roll, rap metal, and more recently, also some Japanese bands. So it is mixed, but all totally leaning towards the genre of rock’n’roll. I think if we try to sing rock’n’roll, we won’t be that good at it, there will be a heavy smell of cow dung.
TH: I heard that you also like blues music, is that true?
PD: I feel that through blues I can express the thoughts and emotions of this foolish being more effectively.
TH: What about Jigshed? What genre or style has influenced him the most?
PD: With regard to composition of lyrics and poems, primarily, certain works of literature influences him. For instance, the works of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges is a huge of source of inspiration for him.
TH: How do you look at the relationship between your music and the Tibetan traditional music?
PD: Whenever I talk about an issue with regard to a nationality, I invariably become very serious and solemn, because such comments could easily give rise to disputes with other people. We both are of Tibetan identity and we grew up in the Tibetan regions. We studied in the city for a few years. With our appreciation of all kinds of music accompanied by all sorts of our thoughts and feelings toward life in general, we composed and released our first album before we turned thirty. I guess that can be considered an achievement in itself. We are now persons with a story. Additionally, with regard to Tibetan traditional music, it definitely has a lot of imperceptible influences on our thoughts and feelings, and sometimes I feel like even when we pass wind a part of it smells like tsampa (laughs). No need to be alone to prove that. Every generation of Tibetans has its definite and respective role and responsibility like our passion for music and capability for creating and composing songs in our mother tongue. Regardless of its quality, it is a contribution to the nationality in the field of music and arts, perhaps to create an uproar of some kind.
TH: How do you look at the state Tibetan music at the moment?
PD: There are just too many cover songs. Our music suffers from a dearth of original singers. At the moment, people have no idea as far as originality and innovation is concerned. In speaking of cause, perhaps, it is related to our limited economic circumstances and conditions. For instance, nowadays, there are many youth who learn guitar in Lhasa, but there are very few in this part of the Tibetan region. We Tibetans must have more youth who love to read books and play musical instruments. In this way, it is possible to make even better Tibetan music.
TH: A comment on the NetEase music portal goes: “Many people go to Tibet to cure diseases, but they don’t know that in reality Tibet is also diseased,” how to make sense of this comment?
PD: The dude is probably too pessimistic.
TH: Then, why do you call yourself The Tibet Patient?
PD: We picked this name with the purpose of attempting to express the human condition and pain that linger in between dreams and realities of our lives. We both didn’t pursue the lives or professions we are passionate about. I talked about this to Jigshed before. I told him that I thought about going to work and live in Beijing as a migrant worker, but my family didn’t agree, and nowadays my job muddle-heads me. He said he feels the same. He thinks he married and became a father too early. So, in a sense, we are both in conditions of depressed or sickly state of affairs – we are patients in between dreams and reality.
At first, when we were discussing the name of the band, we named it as “The Machu Patient”. Later we didn’t like it. We thought it was too small-minded. “Tibet” has a broad meaning, although it has a narrow sense too. The broad sense refers to the entire Tibetan region including Qinghai, Gansu etc. We also thought about calling the band “Mr. Stupid,” but realized that it is not good either. In the end, we named it The Tibet Patient.
TH: Have you ever thought about your songs curing “patients”?
PD: Cure patients? I think we have not cured any patient; we haven’t cured our own illnesses. Perhaps we can only be an example for letting people know that, as “patients beyond cure,” we have never stopped, renounced or refused treatment. We are still taking medication.
TH: Have you been to Lhasa?
PD: I haven’t, but Jigshed has. I am looking forward to my first visit to Lhasa, I want to sing a song at the gateway of the Potala Palace, an offering from the bottom of my heart.
TH: Do you plan to continue to create and produce songs? Will you try out any other genre or style?
PD: Yes, we will continue to make music. We plan to release our third album next year. Right now we are in a mode of complete rest, after all, we still need to take care of certain professional and family matters. I hope our style changes slightly more towards rock’n’roll.