Ama

Yungchen Lhamo, 2006

Among the world's great singers, there are a rare few who become the voice of a nation. After a decade of rapturous performances, recordings and international acclaim, Yungchen Lhamo has become for many the voice of Tibet.

As anyone who has heard her sing can attest, Yungchen's voice is an exquisite instrument. Free-flowing and enchanting, it can glide from a mesmerizing chant to a booming mountain call in the space of a breath. The pure sound of it can deliver its own message -- one that goes beyond words.

On Ama, her third album for Real World Records, Yungchen again brings that voice to songs infused with the quiet spiritual power of Tibetan Buddhism, but with a decidedly 21st century global feel. Trumpet, strings, African kora, Middle Eastern percussion and the even, sweet tones of a National Steel guitar are delicately woven around Yungchen's magical voice. With guest appearances by the British singer Joy Askew and the incomparable Annie Lennox, Ama becomes that rare destination where East really does happily meet West. No translators, or politicians, required.

Ama, which means 'mother' in the Tibetan language, is dedicated to Yungchen's own mother, who raised her daughter amidst the violence and persecution of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. She was a woman who suffered greatly, whose father was killed and husband forced to flee, who was beaten and even lost children to hunger in labor camps, but, as Yungchen has said, "never talked about anger or revenge". Those themes of struggle, suffering, peace and forgiveness - embodied in the life of her own Ama - remain at the heart of Yungchen's life and work.

Musically, Ama builds on the adventurous melding of Tibetan songs with modern sounds and production so strikingly achieved on her previous album, Coming Home. The songs on Ama, all composed by Yungchen, and produced and arranged artfully by Jamshied Sharifi, move from lyrical to playful to mournful. Sharifi, an Iranian-American musician and composer from Kansas City whose knowledge ranges from jazz to film scores to Middle Eastern music, was evidently a perfect musical match for Yungchen. "He is a genius and very open-minded," she says. "He has so many cultures."

From lyrical prayers for Tibet and the Dalai Lama, to a playful song of courtship, to the haunting 9/11 (her prayer for those who died in the September 11th attacks), Ama is the musical document of a Tibetan exile now living in the melting pot of New York, translating the pure strains of her native art into a distinctly modern musical language.

A devout Buddhist, Yungchen is adamant about making her music for the benefit of all. All religions, she says, share the concept of sanctuary or refuge -- found in meditation, in prayer or song -- and that is the goal she keeps in mind for her music. She calls on the highest deities to bring blessings to those who hear her songs. That is a benefit one doesn't often get with the price of a concert ticket or a CD.

At Home in the World

Born and raised in Lhasa in the years of China's Cultural Revolution when survival, not stardom, was the concern of most Tibetans, Yungchen gave little thought to being a performer. But there were signs. Her name, given to her by a Lama, means 'Goddess of Melody and Song'.

"I didn't think I would become a singer - especially a solo performer! You don't do anything alone in Tibet!" she says. "I wanted to help people but I thought it would be better if I was a man, that I could accomplish more. But my grandmother told me, 'You must sing and you will help people'." She could not have known how true it would become.

Yungchen learned traditional songs from her mother and grandmother, but did not sing professionally in Tibet. In 1990, after losing family members to persecution and violence, the 22-year-old Yungchen fled to Dharamsala, India - the seat of Tibet's government-in-exile. The harrowing journey over the Himalayas - a 1000-mile, one-month trek - has been called 'the longest and most perilous escape route on earth'. Many refugees who have taken that path have died on it. Thankfully, Yungchen escaped not only with her life but with a pure knowledge of Tibetan culture and song, untouched by Chinese censorship.

It was in Dharamsala that Yungchen first sang, as part of a troupe that performed in Tibetan refugee settlements in order to tell other exiles of the living conditions and situation in their homeland. There the power of her gift was apparent. She received the blessing of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and was encouraged by him and others to carry the gift of her voice and the message of Tibet to the world. On the journey that followed -- to Sydney, Australia, then in performances all over the world, and finally, in 2000, to her new home in New York -- Yungchen has done just that.

Ama finds Yungchen still longing for her people and home, but also embracing her new life in New York and as a member of the global community.

In Renzen, the first song on Ama, Yungchen delivers a direct message of inspiration to Tibetans, urging them to persevere through their suffering and better themselves, whether in exile or at home. Ambient guitars and strings rooted by a heartbeat of Tibetan drums lift the song into an incantation of hope. Lhasa, a song Yungchen wrote for her father, celebrates her home city, 'a jewel in the heart of Tibet', accompanied by cello and National Steel guitar. With the soulful Joy Askew, Yungchen sings Tara, a lyrical offering to that powerful female deity of Tibetan Buddhism, infused with Indian-style accompaniment from violin and the bright, dancing tones of an African kora.

In her duet with Annie Lennox, Fade Away, Yungchen travels westward, with her shimmering vocal line trailed by a plaintive, whispering trumpet. Joined by Ms Lennox, Yungchen gives thanks to all those who have showed her kindness in her exile. That includes luminaries like Ms Lennox, many of whom have become fans and supporters of Yungchen's music and cause, but also the many good people she has met along the way. "Even if someone gives you a cup of water," she says, "this is kindness."

A Tibetan in New York

In 2000, Yungchen arrived with her son in New York City to make her new home. She has adapted to the hustle and bustle of the metropolis and embraced it as the cultural capital of "the country that has welcomed me, where people from all over the world make a home".

Yungchen also was witness to tragedy in New York. Even the suffering she had seen and experienced in Tibet could not prepare her for the shock and grief she felt on September 11th, 2001. "We were all living in a dream here. Then we were all forced to wake up. We were reminded that everything is impermanent. And there was so much sadness."

Her musical response, 9/11, offers some of the most stirring moments on Ama. The song begins with haunting prayer sounds for the people who died on that day. The stunning vocal performance that follows was recorded spontaneously in the studio. "Lyrics can't explain this experience. I wanted people to hear it and feel something directly from the sound, to go inside themselves." The song features powerfully in the soundtrack of American Zeitgeist, a feature-length documentary on terrorism due out this year.

Yungchen says the experience of living and making music in New York has influenced her to embrace new music and sounds. That is reflected in Ama. She likens the sound of the record to "coming into the international part of JFK airport" where the people of every nation arrive in a single place.

No matter where she travels, Tibet still holds the central place in her heart and mind. Not long ago, a stranger in the bustle of Times Square, struck by her calm and regal appearance, approached and asked her where she was from. "Heaven," she replied.

Reviews

  • 'Voice of Tibet' transcends Yungchen Lhamo was in the right milieu Saturday night. The singer often called "the Voice of Tibet" performed in the atmospheric setting of the Silk Roads Gallery, with its stunning plethora of Buddhist-related art. When Lhamo stepped into the small, improvised stage area, virtually surrounded by ancient sculptures, to greet listeners calmly seated on floor pillows and meditation cushions, the evening seemed primed for a rare display of performance synchronicity. Garbed in white, her long, black hair reaching her knees, she combined great reserve with a calming sense of inner focus. Lhamo's singing further reflected those characteristics. She sang her first set of pieces a cappella. In songs drawn from traditional Tibetan themes, her voice transformed lines of great simplicity into vehicles of contemplation. Much Eastern music is experiential rather than observational — intended to draw the listener into a participatory, meditative state of mind very different from the technical virtuosity, the rhythmic passion and the intellectualization more common to Western music. And as much as one might marvel at Lhamo's vocal control, at a range reaching from dark chest tones to astonishingly airy head sounds, at the subtle glottal-stop ornamentation that illuminated much of her phrasing, it was ultimately her capacity to create a mind-clearing immersion in her music that made the evening such a remarkable event. In the second part of her program, Lhamo, who usually performs alone, was joined by percussionist Greg Ellis and harmonium player-singer Zat Baraka. Although this ad hoc combination was largely spontaneous, Lhamo reached out to embrace the added sounds, rhythms and vocalizations. Ellis, always a sensitive drummer, was particularly supportive with percussive sounds from large, clay pots. Baraka's singing, interweaved between Lhamo's vocals, nourished and enhanced the music's reflective aspects. But the most engaging passages in Lhamo's performance took place during a pair of pieces in which she offered a starting note for the singing of Om, quietly encouraging the audience to more fully share the experience. No more specific than that, she simply allowed the audience's vocalizing to unfold in a series of impromptu permutations — some dissonant, some resonating with open-fifth clarity — as her voice soared above, around and through the collective expression. One couldn't have asked for a better example of the integrative, spiritual beauty of Lhamo's music. LA Times (USA)
  • A classy and accessible album A classy and accessible album... The dexterity with which Yungchen succeeds is epitomized by '9/11/, a hymn to those who died in the attacks. The singer, who witnessed that awful event, delivers a mostly unaccompanied song, gently multi-tracked, and her voices flutter as if a bird is ascending. New Internationalist (UK)
  • An Outstanding Album "Ama" has fulfilled all the hopes and promises invested in this gracious and slight vocalist. Her fourth release is a delicately crafted album that reflects a coming of age for Yungchen Lhamo.... This is an outstanding album that will, in all likelihood, see a new posse of fans follow Tibet’s most distinguished female voice. www.mondomix.com
  • CD of the Week Yungchen Lhamo's new album hits from Real World Records, and comes with a nice mix of her own Tibetan lyrics and sounds...Fans should check out the opening track "Ranzen" and her reflection of the tragedy of" 9/11" needcoffee.com (USA)
  • exquisite voice finds best setting to date This exiled Tibetan's exquisite voice finds its best setting to date, blending ethereal qualities with earthier tones made by strings, flutes, kora and more. Meditative, but also joyous and at times urgent. Uncut
  • Irresistibly calming sound and texture Lhamo's third album solidifies her role as the "voice of tibet" - a voice with an almost irresistibly calming sound and texture. She explores much more than tranquility on this album, however, with performances that also reflect the rough-hewn mountain grandeur of her native country, as well as a gripping duet with Annie Lennox on "Fade Away". The most remarkable track may be "9/11", a stirring, deeply felt response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, recorded spontaneously in a New York studio. Los Angeles Times (USA)
  • This is an album that's been a long time coming, but it's worth the wait... Yungchen Lhamo's third album finds the Tibetan songstress in firm control of her own destiny. She's a singer who works best in the abstract, unshackled by bass or rhythms, where her voice can soar freely....It's an album of surprises, like "9/11", which is elegiac and achingly sad, Lhamo's art at its most sublime. This is an album that's been a long time coming, but it's worth the wait, unhurried, a piece of art rather than commerce....In some ways this is the ideal new age album, beautifully spiritual, often seeming to not be of this planet. But it's so perfectly free of cliches and powered by imagination that it transcends genre. It simply is -- and in this case that statement is all you need. Yungchen Lhamo has made a wonderful album. Billboard (USA)
  • One of the world's most exquisite voices Lhamo has quietly established herself as one of the world's most exquisite voices, the purity and scale of her singing conjuring up the vastness of her Himalayan homeland....There are laments, but also earthy evocations of delight and contentment, notably on 'Tara', alongside guest singer Joy Askew. The Sunday Observer (UK)
  • A Transcultural Aesthetic Yungchen Lhamo is a new kind of Tibetan, one who was not only forced out into the world at large, but who embraces all its possibilities....This isn't a chant album, but original songs in Lhamo's native tongue. Produced by Jamshied Sharifi, an Iranian-American musician who is master of global sounds and voices, Ama has a transcultural aesthetic, mixing traditional Tibetan chanting and singing with Middle Eastern percussion, fuzzed guitar, Chinese erhu, and African kora, among other instruments. Amazon.com
  • Lovingly crafted piece of work A lovingly crafted piece of work, it provides poignant insights into the predicament of the exiled artist. Lhamo's cooly ethereal voice is given faultlessly tasteful settings - whirring and twanging traditional instruments merging with the subtlest touches of treated electric guitar. The sound has all the bracing clarity of a Himalayan morning, and there are moments of real beauty. The Telegraph (UK)
  • An Exquisite Exploration Ama's impact springs from the communicative power and beauty of her sublime voice....This carefully produced album reveals the mature development of an individual's artistic and spiritual vision - one that surpasses any attempt to merely make Tibetan music more accesible. Followers of Yungchen Lhamo's career since her flight from Tibet in 1989 will delight in the new range and richness of expression she acieves here, whilst new listeners will equally find much to inspire, provoke and enthral. Songlines (UK)
  • One of the most clear, exquisite voices in the world Blessed with one of the most clear, exquisite voices to be found anywhere in the world, Yungchen Lhamo is a refugee from Tibet, who escaped across the Himalayas to India, where she first started singing, and who now lives in New York. Inevitably, her delicate songs reflect her experiences. There are cool, drifting atmospheric passages that would work well as a film soundtrack, matched against gently sturdy dance songs that reflect Tibetan folk styles. The songs range from a tribute to her home city Lhasa to Fade Away, in which she's joined by Annie Lennox, and a Buddhist prayer for those who died on 9/11. Like many of the best songs it starts with the "voice of Tibet" singing solo, sounding even more powerful and distinctive without the global backing effects. The Guardian (UK)