Ama

Yungchen Lhamo

Released 03 April 2006

  1. Ranzen
  2. Gebu Shere
  3. Om Mani Padme Hung
  4. Tara
  5. 9/11
  6. Look Down On Us
  7. Nyebe Nilam
  8. Someday
  9. Fade Away
  10. Lhasa

Liner notes

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.

Listen

Reviews

  • This is an album that's been a long time coming, but it's worth the wait... Billboard (USA)
  • 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 Songlines (UK)
  • One of the most clear, exquisite voices in the world The Guardian (UK)

Further Listening

  • Coming Home

    Yungchen Lhamo

    Released 01 June 1998

    From Tibet's most exquisite voice in exile, this is a set of stunning contemporary songs of freedom and beauty in dedication to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
  • Gifted: Women of the World

    Various Artists

    Released 09 October 2000

    This album brings together nine extraordinary female singers from around the globe to celebrate and explore the themes of women’s experience – from the contemporary day-to-day to that of the all-powerful goddess. From different cultures, in different languages and with their own individual spirituality and sensuality, these singers have each created a unique and beautiful statement.

Further reading

Society of Sound: Richard Spaven

The November release on Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound is the new album from Richard Spaven.

First acts announced for WOMAD Chile 2019

The festival, now in it's fifth year, takes place 15-17 February at Plaza la Paz, Recoleta.

Real World Sessions: Totó la Momposina, 20 August 1991

A look back on The Wood Room session with producer Phil Ramone and mix engineer Richard Blair.

The incredible story of 9Bach and the boy who lived with dogs

'Ifan' tells the story of Ivan Mishukov, the boy who lived with dogs in the streets of Moscow.