Music as Empowerment!

By Tenzin Nyinjey

While watching a talk show on television a year or so ago, I was struck by American writer and activist Cornel West when he referred to the need of what he calls as ‘danceable education’ for today’s restless youth most of whom couldn’t endure reading books.

West said that the phrase ‘danceable education’ was coined by the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and refers to the use of art and music, not just for entertainment, but also to educate and edify the hearts, minds and souls of young people. In short, music as an instrument to enlighten, empower and serve people!  

Most of us take music simply as another form of entertainment. We listen to music only in hours of relaxation such as when we finally retire to our beds after a day of laborious work. We hardly wish music to challenge our intellect by forcing us to think and question our presuppositions and preconceived notions. Often the kind of music that we listen to, while entertaining, does not empower us.
I am referring to those overtly sentimental and melodramatic film songs that we are addicted to. What is worse, these songs usually endorse and strengthen our prejudgments and prejudices. Music, as a result, becomes, without our even knowing it, an instrument of oppression shackling us in chains of ignorance and slavery.

Like most exile Tibetans born and brought up in India, my music experience began, apart from the Tibetan ones taught in school, with songs composed by the Bombay film industry. The highly melodramatic and over-the-moon romantic songs have their own charms. However, most of these songs gave us a twisted and unrealistic notion of precious values such as love, as if it is some sort of abstract sentimentality rather than serving people.
They gave us pleasure than joy, engulfing us in a make-believe world than concrete human reality grounded in suffering. Such music became obstacles in our efforts to grow up as human beings. Our hearts, minds and souls failed to mature, stuck as they are in grand illusions.
Giving up the addiction of not-so-good music is painful. But in the end, only great music empowers us; it gives us real strength during our worst of times. During my two-year sojourn in US in one of the most remote states, Wyoming, it was good Tibetan music—both classical and modern songs composed by Tibetans in and outside Tibet—that saved me from severe existential crisis I experienced there.
Living with non-Tibetans (or non-Indian Tibetans to be precise) for the first time in my life, in a non-Tibetan community, surrounded by things foreign and unfamiliar with Tibet and the Tibetan experience, whether it is language, culture, food or ideas, was a benumbing and unsettling experience.
I felt acutely what it means to be suffering from ‘identity crisis,’ as if someone has pulled the rug from under my feet, as if all of a sudden I woke up one early morning and found myself landed on a no-man’s island. The result was terrible pangs of loneliness, dispossession, dislocation and emptiness of soul.
That experience, however, was a blessing in disguise, for it forced me to pay attention to things Tibetan, to take refuge in Tibetan music (and in Tibetan literature as well). They helped me to deal with my experiences as an exile, filling my empty Tibetan soul, once again connecting me to Tibetan experience. I realized for the first time the preciousness of Tibetan artists, their hard work and contribution to our lives, which I had taken for granted till then.

The classical songs of Techung, especially his Nang ma stod gshes, literally transferred my spirit to seventeen-century Tibet, the golden period of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama’s reign, during which Tibetans belonging to different religious traditions, including Tibetan Muslims, thrived in peace and harmony. His songs gave me an imaginative glimpse of what Lhasa, with a strong Tibetan Muslim community contributing its arts, crafts and music, especially Nang masongs and mosques, must have looked like. Dhadon’s songs, melodious and heart-warming they are, was a window to the life of ordinary Tibetans in Lhasa gripped by Chinese colonialism and market capitalism, with their Karaoke bars, and how artists find creative spaces to express their voices.
Yadong’s Ama reminded me of love and sacrifice made by mothers for their children and the responsibility of the latter to repay their kindness when they grow up as adults. Gyu drug’s mi rabs gsar ba gave me insights into the minds of young Tibetan artists dealing with overwhelming violence inflicted by Chinese occupation. Like African Jazz, the band showed us how suffering and misery can be transfigured into genuine art to empower people!
Rang btsan gshon nu brought back fresh memories of idealism of Tibetan youth in exile for freedom in late seventies and early eighties—at a time when Tibet was slowly emerging from the bruises, wounds and scars of the so-called Cultural Revolution. The song nga tsho bod kyi ‘brog pa reignited my once-upon-a-time burning desire to eat yak meat and cheese made by Tibetan nomads. It was such a powerful emotional moment—of joy tinged with sadness—when I saw one of the band members performing live at an event organized by Student’s for Free Tibet in New York.
Non-Tibetan artists also gave me spiritual, moral and intellectual inspiration. Bob Dylan’s ‘blowing in the wind’ helped me critically examine myself as a man and the poison of male supremacy; ‘like a rolling stones’ made me realize the ordeals of being a homeless refugee, always rolling down like a boulder without any sense of direction trampling upon any one that came in its way;  ‘let me die in my footsteps’ taught me the sanctity of honor, dignity and integrity in our lives and the ability to hold our heads high up in the face of oppression and cruelty. Tracy Chapman’s ‘talking about revolution, it sounds like a whisper’ gave me the true meaning of revolution—that most distorted word in history—which is all about having compassion and sensitivity to hear the cry of suffering and misery of the most invisible, neglected and deprived sections of society—the poor people.
‘Danceable education’, therefore, is a source of real empowerment.  It forces us to come to terms with the ‘dark corners of our souls’, to examine our hearts and minds and see if they are being used to serve noble purposes of reducing human suffering and misery.

Thangtong Gyalpo
Like great sermons of prophets, great music arouses our conscience and inspires us to shake off our complacency and indifference to evil and work for freedom and justice, especially of the most vulnerable ones. Like the great fourteenth century Boddhisatva master thang stong rgyal po, who founded Tibetan opera to entertain Tibetans engaged in back-breaking labor of building iron-bridges, ‘danceable education’ or great music ultimately has to do with concrete human action and participation, teaching us what it means to be practicing true love and compassion—the joy of serving people!
NOTE -- Tenzin Nyinjey works at Kashag Secretariat, Central Tibetan Administration.
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