Coming Home

Yungchen Lhamo, 2012

Freedom has a special savour in the mouth of an exile. For Yungchen Lhamo, a singer who fled Tibet nine years ago to make her way in the West, that taste of freedom is 'Coming Home'. The second release for Real World from the critically acclaimed vocalist is a bold new direction that at the same time renews pledges made to her people, her faith and to those around the world sympathetic to her cause.

That strength is witnessed in the songs on 'Coming Home'. All written by Yungchen, they share the incantatory qualities of Buddhist prayer and yet take off on graceful flights of their own. Each is steeped in metaphor, layered in symbols spiritual, political and familial.

"When I grew up I knew nothing of freedom. I lived in poverty and was denied the rights most people take for granted. This is the ordeal Tibetans are subjected to, then and now. Since I escaped, by foot over the Himalayas like so many other Tibetans, I have been able to find freedom in the West. Working on this album, being able to experiment using my Tibetan voice with Western sounds, is an expression of that freedom - a freedom to work and express myself that I never knew in Tibet.

"Tibet has many young, courageous and talented people working to keep our culture dynamic and alive. Tibetan culture will not die nor remain static. We will grow as part of the modern world as long as we have a chance of freedom - something most Tibetans unfortunately do not have. My greatest wish is to see the Tibetan people strong and free, working and living together in harmony. I hope my work here can contribute to the strength of my culture in this modern world and help raise people's awareness of our struggle."

"My first love is performing a cappella. Alone on stage accompanied by the orchestra of an audience is a pure, lovely experience and I will go on performing like that. Recording in a studio gives you the chance to experiment and explore new sounds. I have been very fortunate to have had the chance to work with Hector Zazou.

This album is dedicated to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The songs on this album, rich with political and spiritual metaphors, are for my son Tenzin Shaydrup and all Tibetan children who carry the future of Tibet in their hearts and minds."

Yungchen Lhamo's stately appearance in Tibetan chuba dress and mala prayer beads, her harrowing tale of childhood deprivation and flight to His Holiness the Dalai Lama's compound in Dharmasala, India, have made her a de facto ambassador of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism wherever she travels. But she is a woman and an artist, not just an emblem for a cause. 'Coming Home' brings us closer to Yungchen Lhamo's gifts, and belies considerable growth in her art.

With full instrumental accompaniment, the songs on 'Coming Home' touch the universal themes of longing and loneliness, but also hope, compassion and determination. Up front is Yungchen's voice - it wasn't for nothing that a Lama christened her "Goddess of Song": in its long, sustained notes, her voice evokes wind and mountain heights; in its intricate melismas, summoning the language of birds. Preternaturally expressive in an a cappella setting, it's stirring in full-band context: richly complemented by guitars, violin, even the Finnish kantele and subtle loops and electronics. The result is as utterly contemporary as the first modern Tibetan artist has every right to be.

"Travelling over the last four years, I met so many musicians who wanted to work with me," Lhamo says. "I was reluctant at first, because I really love performing a cappella." But wary of her vocal gifts being sampled onto trance-dance tracks, she decided to jump in herself, to explore, grow and change. She met noted French producer Hector Zazou (past work: Björk, John Cale, Suzanne Vega, Huun-Huur-Tu) at Laurie Anderson's Meltdown Festival in London, and was immediately interested.

"He's a good man," Lhamo states, "and that makes a big difference." Encouraged by Real World founder Peter Gabriel, Lhamo set to work with Zazou at Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England. "Singing a cappella is very difficult," Lhamo explains. "You feel totally responsible for everything the audience feels. Every sound is created by yourself." Recording with Zazou gave her the opportunity to focus her considerable interpretive energy with musicians. "It was very enjoyable," she says. "The years of singing a cappella have made me strong."

1997 was a breakthrough year for Yungchen Lhamo; following the release of 'Tibet, Tibet', the singer travelled the world, garnering accolades for her spellbinding a cappella performances and raising awareness for the struggles of Tibetan people living under the repressive Chinese regime. Appearing at high profile events such as the annual Tibet House Benefit at Carnegie Hall, the all-star Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York, and on several dates of Sarah McLaughlin's Lilith Fair, Lhamo is without a doubt the most well-known Tibetan performing artist today.

One might assume her faith's doctrines of non-attachment to the material world and devotion to the realm of the spirit to be incongruent in the life of a world-renowned vocalist, but according to Yungchen, "It actually makes it easier. There are basic understandings of life that come from the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism that make it easy to not get so distressed when things go wrong and not get an ego explosion when things go well."

While proud of her new record, she acknowledges that there will be voices who prefer the 'purity' of her a cappella work. "You can't control how people will respond," she says, "so I can't worry about it. I don't live isolated. I'm part of a modern world that means growing, experimenting. I think people will want to hear what I can do."

"I feel very lucky to be able to do this, even though it makes for a very difficult lifestyle, always travelling but never reaching home. But I love singing with the motivation of inspiring people," Yungchen Lhamo says. Lending her beautiful voice and expansive vision to the world, she is fulfilling the destiny set before her. "In Buddhism, the ideal is to be of use, to actively contribute to things being better," she says. "It's very easy to sit isolated and talk about love and compassion, but to inject that into your work...that's spiritual practice."

Perhaps the most striking track on 'Coming Home' is the aptly titled 'Defiance'. Backed by a squall of distorted guitar and the gravelly overtone drone of Tuvan throat singers, Lhamo's voice poignantly enacts "the sound of my heart breaking but refusing to be broken." The song was written for a life-long friend of Yungchen's who died not long after her settling (for a time) in Sydney, Australia. Although her friend didn't die at the hands of the Chinese, like so many Tibetans, it is easy to hear in her spirit-wracking plaint stirring reference to the cultural genocide in her homeland.

"It is a political song," she agrees. "Before the Chinese, Tibet had a social order that, while not perfect, was a society that cared for its own. The Chinese came and injected qualities into that order: child labour, anti-spirituality, the idea of cultural inferiority. The problem is beyond those who publicly resist and are tortured and killed. People's everyday lives are destroyed." The friend, whose picture she carries with her, was one of those lives.

And yet it's rare and remarkable for a Tibetan artist to convey such strident emotion over the crisis in her homeland. "It's not anger," she corrects, "but hurt. You can believe in non-violence, but you can still be hurt. Many Tibetans are angry, we are hurt. We have seen our parents and our grandparents tortured, killed. But we have a way of looking at the world where anger cannot be motivation. The idea is not to act on that negative emotion, but to find another path."

'Heart' and 'Dream' are songs for Yungchen's son, who attends a Tibetan school in Dharmasala, apart for much of the year from his travelling mother. For Yungchen, who received very little secular education in Tibet, separation is a necessary sadness. "It's not just a school for Tibetan culture, it's a school for freedom of thought. In Tibet, children only learn about China. I myself never learned anything about the world from books, but I have been fortunate and have learned from travelling about countries I didn't even know were there."

'Sky', a song Yungchen sings partly in English, addresses the faltering of confidence with the realisation that all things are possible. The song grew from a teaching given to Yungchen Lhamo by the Lama Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche in New York. "When I was young, I was sent to work very early and had no opportunity to imagine what was possible in life. I was speaking to Rinpoche about how daunting it was to be doing what I am doing, as a woman coming from such a disadvantaged background. He told me that the Buddha Jetsun Drolma attained enlightenment as a woman, so I shouldn't think that I lack the potential to accomplish anything. In Asian cultures, women still often have lower expectations than men."

Reviews

  • While its themes - loneliness, hope, compassion and resolve - remain constant, it's a surprisingly experimental effort, mixing guitars, violins, drones and electronics in with Yungchen Lhamo's ethereal vocals 22 May 1998 The Independant (UK)
  • ...spacious epics... ...songs that look down on the vain efforts of rock's ambient sky-chasers (Eno's U2 et al) from a very great height. Time Out (1998) (UK)
  • ...Lhamo is a young Tibetan exile, whose exquisite lamentational voice has so far been heard alone. Producer Hector Zazou adds the subtlest of textures to complement it. The sense of stillness and endurance is profound. The Observer (1998) (UK)
  • She’s normally found in a cappella mode... ...here benefitting from the assembled ranks of ... an internationalist electro-acoustic bunch to beat all others. Birmingham What’s On (1998) (UK)
  • Helped by French producer Hector Zazou, Lhamo weds the incantatory qualities of Buddhist prayer with a Western sound and sensibility. The results are delicate, haunting, full of loss and yearning yet also hope...A remarkable album, no wonder the Tibetan Llamas christened her Goddess of Song. 18 July 1998 World Music Cd Of The Week Birmionham Post (UK)
  • ...that calming voice hangs in the air like smoke... Q Magazine (1998) (UK)
  • ...places her warm, beautifully poised voice in a series of dreamy pop contexts, fluffy and delicate as a soufflé. July 1998 Wire Magazine (UK)