This is a feature I wrote at university in 2014 on Brisbane based, internationally renowned, Tibetan Australian musician and human rights activist Tenzin Choegyal.
His eyes close, his voice soars, and like any master of his craft, he becomes immersed in the performance. The emotion and spirituality in his music is tangible; it is as though everything else is immaterial to him.
Tibetan-born musician, festival organiser and advocate for Tibetan culture, Tenzin Choegyal, is a man in his element when performing. Whether singing a traditional Tibetan folk song and playing the dranyen (Tibetan lute), or as a member of innovative three-piece world music group, Tibet2Timbuk2, it is apparent that Tenzin embodies an intense passion for music and his Tibetan cultural background.
His warm nature is endearing; his face is handsome, chiselled and expressive. He seems shy, but after speaking with Tenzin awhile it becomes evident that it is more humility than shyness on display.
Tenzin was born in Tibet’s Mustang region, which extends south into neighbouring Nepal. His family escaped China’s brutal occupation of Tibet in search of a better life for their children, and made the arduous crossing of the Himalayas into Nepal, where they lived as refugees for a few years. They eventually found haven in Dharamsala, India, the site of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and home to the Dalai Lama and a well-established Tibetan community.
Tenzin’s first exposure to anything well outside the sphere of his family’s Tibetan lifestyle was as a young boy. While watching a train pull in at a railway station platform in India, the young Tenzin thought he was watching “a huge house on wheels, with the lights on inside.” This was a pivotal moment in his childhood, leading to a fascination with things Western.
After spending his school years at the Tibetan Childrens’ Village (TCV) in Dharamsala, Choegyal attended university in Chandigarh, India. Having graduated with a degree in English, History and Economics, he moved to Delhi to learn to play classical Indian drums, tabla, “Which I wasn’t good at,” he laughs.
His later fascination with other cultures led to spending much time with the foreigners around McLeod Ganj, the Tibetan enclave of Dharamsala, at full-moon parties. Choegyal was drawn in by the music they were listening to, which was “outside of Bollywood and traditional Tibetan music.” Bob Marley, The Eagles, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Rodriguez became favourites.
Tenzin was managing the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) shop, selling CDs of traditional Tibetan music and instruments. “I wasn’t the best shopkeeper,” he recalls, “but it became kind of like a hub for people to meet, and play music. I used to play dranyen just sitting on the stairs.”
At the same time, Bronwyn, now Tenzin’s wife, was a volunteer from Australia at the TIPA school, where she taught English and drama for almost two years. They met, Tenzin became Bronwyn’s guide in all things Tibetan, and their friendship eventually became a romance.
After some time back in Australia, Bronwyn returned to McLeod Ganj and the pair had a “hippy marriage,” as Tenzin describes it with a grin. “My first introduction to Australia was through Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Bronwyn made sure that I saw that movie,” he chuckles. Tenzin moved to Australia in 1997, and the couple made a new life together in Brisbane.
Tenzin’s first musical engagement in Australia was an invitation to a conference on Indian sub-continental music, where he says he was fortunate to meet Pat and Sim Symons from the Woodford Folk Festival. They gave him the opportunity to perform at his first music festival.
“When I first went to Woodford, it was like going back to India. It had that Indian bazaar element, chaotic but beautiful. That’s where I started to grow more as a musician.” And so began Tenzin’s new life as a world music musician, often mixing Tibetan musical traditions with Western influences.
Choegyal says he cannot imagine life without music. “Through music I’m able to tell stories and connect with people.” However, most important to him is using his music to “tell the stories of Tibet, and to give the messages of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”
Tenzin’s love for Tibetan culture and Buddhism is evident; throughout our conversation he refers several times to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He speaks of the adaptability of the Tibetan people, and their belief in the Buddhist principle of the impermanence of everything.
Tibetan culture has a tradition of music and song, inseparable from the peoples’ Buddhist spirituality. There is a danger, however, of that culture being lost under China’s systematic suppression of Tibet. Choegyal speaks of his desire to see music and art used on a greater scale as tools to amplify the voices of Tibetans.
I ask about the late MCA (Adam Yauch), of hip hop crew The Beastie Boys, who was a prominent supporter of Tibet in organising music festivals, and what Tenzin thinks about non-Tibetan involvement in creating awareness of the Tibetan freedom movement.
“I think that helped a lot. A lot of Americans at that point in time, students, got involved in Tibet’s cause. A lot of them probably just went there because of the music, and through using this music, [MCA] was able to draw attention to Tibet’s plight. That’s when Students for a Free Tibet formed, actually, during that time.
“But now that Adam’s passed away, the only follow-up, maintaining that kind of involvement, has been Students for a Free Tibet. I think as an outside musician, Adam brought music into the Tibetan cause, and it made music a form of activism. Now I think Tibetans are also getting involved in that way. I think because of his efforts, a lot of people who were then students are now in decision-making positions, and America is now one of the biggest supporters of the Tibetan cause.”
Today, Tenzin’s music takes him around the globe performing at a multitude of events each year such as the annual Woodford Folk Festival north of Brisbane, the Sydney Sacred Music Festival, the Tibet House Benefit Concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and WOMAD New Zealand, to name just a few.
High on Tenzin’s list of priorities is his own project, Brisbane’s annual Festival of Tibet, the seventh having taken place in January 2015. The festival is a not only a celebration of Tibetan Buddhism, art and musical culture, but also a chance to highlight the culture and introduce it to new and larger audiences each year.
Tenpa Dugdak, a Tibetan now living in Sydney where he works in disability support, met Tenzin around seven years ago. Tenpa has begun video documenting Tenzin’s performances, not only with plans to one day produce a documentary, but also to archive the performances in order to help preserve Tibetan culture.
Dugdak believes in Tenzin’s importance as a proponent for the survival of Tibet’s unique musical culture. “He finds, I guess, different outlets to express his creativity and his art,” Tenpa says.
“But most importantly, in all of his work… the focus is on Tibet. I guess it gives him a bit of comfort that he’s doing something for Tibet, and he’s contributing in his own way. And probably, that’s the factor that drives a lot of Tibetans including Tenzin.”