Yungchen Lhamo, 1996
Standing centre stage at WOMAD Reading, a diminutive, solitary figure in traditional pink and black brocade is decorating her rapt audience with vocal garlands. "I am only an ordinary woman, born in Lhasa in the land of Tibet," sings Yungchen Lhamo. "I weave each note into a chain of flowers for you / I'll offer this in the hope that it will soothe and ease both body and mind."
Hers is a singular voice of clarion-like beauty, a moment of sobering inspiration amidst the festival hullabaloo. Whether unaccompanied, backed by percussion and strings, layered over an audience chanting the Om mantra or captured on CD, the effect is spine tingling. Yungchen Lhamo receives a standing ovation with the same grace as she offers her blessings.
Part of the Tibetan diaspora, this serene, deeply religious Buddhist left her homeland out of necessity seven years ago. An arduous journey saw her trek 1,000 miles across the Himalayas to Dharamsala in Northern India, the home in exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There she met her Australian husband Sam, a student of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan language. Sam and Yungchen Lhamo had every intention of remaining in India, until a greater force deemed otherwise.
"My teacher called us in one day and said he thought we should go back to Australia," says Sam. "I pleaded to stay but he insisted there was a good opportunity waiting for us there." When asked about her role as an ambassadress for the political situation in Tibet, Yungchen Lhamo, who has family still in Tibet, replies: "There are many countries around the world where people are experiencing incredible suffering. Each one has their way of bringing their plight to the attention of the world. Through singing as I do, I hope to fulfill that role."
Yungchen Lhamo's Australian debut, 'Tibetan Prayer', won the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Award) for best world music album of 1995. It was, said her husband and manager Sam Doherty, recorded in three days merely so Yungchen Lhamo would have a CD for sale at WOMADelaide. 'Tibet Tibet' builds on the essence of this first recording, with Real World producer Richard Evans playing the mandola and overseeing instrumentation by Tibetan musician Dhumka on the string dramyen and Japanese percussionist Joji Hiroto.
Lyrically, 'Tibet Tibet's' songs are offerings. Par Panee Dawa Shar likens moonrise to her Lama's face, hoping that - by offering song and dance to him - he will shower down his blessings. Lama Dorje Chang asks the Dalai Lama to bless us with his enlightened mind. Om Mani Padme Hung is the Tibetan mantra, and Ari-Lo tells of entering a new land. At first, sings Yungchen Lhamo, the land may seem hostile, like a fearful stranger, but knowledge can lead to it becoming as close as a lover. The final track - telling of the strife besetting Tibet, the bravery of its people and the confidence that the Dalai Lama will one day preside again - utilises a full orchestra, courtesy of technological software. "You can't see the people, it's an invisible orchestra," giggles Yungchen Lhamo. "They fell from the sky."
Yungchen Lhamo's name was bestowed on her as a child by a holy man. Translated, it means "Goddess of Melody and Song". At pains to stress there is nothing special about her, Yungchen Lhamo sings in order to uplift and inspire listeners to pursue a spiritual path.
"... chants, laments and devotionals ... that cut to the soul on the strength of a diamond-pure voice."
Mojo, November 1996
"You can hear a pin drop until the standing ovation which erupts at the end of her performance."
Spirit, September/October 1996
" ... her pure unaccompanied voice swooping to meet her frail outstretched hands in songs of spellbinding mournfulness."
The Independent, 9 July 1997
"Lhamo carries the weight of the world with the grace of a dove."
New York Post, 6 April 1997
"... In performance, Yungchen Lhamo ... sings a cappella, high and clear as the Himalayan air. Her songs ... have mesmerised even rowdy downtown audiences ..."
New York Daily News, 4 April 1997
Tibetan singing is based on its geography. Tibetans sing in their valleys, letting their songs echo back. Whether animals stop to listen is a test of one's prowess. When Yungchen Lhamo first arrived in Sydney, she would rise at five to sing outside (Tibetans hate singing inside), and dozens of birds would alight around the backyard fence to watch. "If you sing in a sweet tone, animals and birds appreciate it as much as people. Because the nature of the songs is spiritual, it is of benefit to all living beings."
Before her live performances, Yungchen Lhamo puts herself into a meditative state. "I visualise all the Buddhas, all the saints, all the body chakras, all the spiritual beings, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama," she says, "so that when I go to sing I'm offering the beauty of the songs to them. I hope that, pleased, they will rain down blessings on the people listening - not just to the singer. When I sing, it's the interdependence with the audience that creates the quality and beauty of my voice. It doesn't matter whether you are a Buddhist or not, as long as you have a good heart," Yungchen Lhamo states.
"Sometimes people will proclaim themselves Buddhist as opposed to having a profound sense or awareness of their own mind. They might shave their hair, dress in robes and espouse a certain philosophy for awhile. Then another idea will seem more important. What I try to inspire through singing is a sense of spirituality in one's own heart and mind. I want to hit on that spot and give people the opportunity to use it."
Audience feedback has been unanimously positive. "People get very emotional," she says. "Many say they feel as if they've had a spiritual experience while I've been singing. Women come up to me afterwards, feeling inspired by the fact that a tiny woman alone can be so sweet and yet have so much power and force with her stories of escaping Tibet."
- ...her extraordinary voice soars as high as the mountain peaks of her native land... so beautiful that its almost guaranteed to lift the spirits. Telegraph Mirror, Sydney (Australia)
- ... pure, haunting, bell-like, clear, luminous. She sings from the heart, to the heart. March/April 1997 Yoga Journal (USA)
- ...these spiritual songs are inspiring on a more basic, felt rather than heard level. Language is no barrier for the Western listener; Dirty Linen (USA)
- Lhamo carries the weight of the world with the grace of a dove. 6 April 1997 New York Post (USA)
- cut to the soul on the strength of a diamond-pure voice. .. chants, laments and devotionals ... that cut to the soul on the strength of a diamond-pure voice. Mojo (1996) (UK)
- .. Yungchen Lhamos breathtaking delivery is one of the years great discoveries. Folk Roots (1996) (UK)
- ..this disc shines with strength and gentleness... ...a sole voice speaking through music to the people, land and spirits that guide her. Pasatiempo (1996) (USA)