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Tibetan Music: More than just Chanting

There's a lot to Tibetan music. Here we interview Tibetan pop sensation, Pema Samdup to prove it.


The Welsh have a saying, “to be born Welsh is to be born privileged. Not with a silver spoon in your mouth, But music in your blood. And poetry in your soul,” and I have long thought this  the same for the people of Tibet. Tibetans have a rich and spiritual culture, and  music is like a well at its center. By listening to music, as well as singing, Tibetans are able to collectively share their feelings and emotions, somehow transcending their material lives. Their music today is divided into three main strands:

  • Tibetan Religious Music (Chanting)
  • Traditional Tibetan Music (Folk Music)
  • Tibetan Pop Music

Tibetan Religious Music

Religious music has a long history and for centuries has been a way for lamas to worship; it is comprised of monastic chanting accompanied by ritual dancing. In the early 12th century a Buddhist scholar, Sakya Bandali Kungden was the first man to attempt a comprehensive documentation of Tibetan music and its form. His work rol-mo’i bstan-bcos included 400 verses of text recitations, as well as outlining the principles of composition and performance practice within Tibetan monastic chanting.


Buddhist chanting is the traditional means to prepare the mind for meditation, particularly as part of formalized practice, with  Tibetan monks often noted for their skill at throat-singing, a specialized form of chanting which uses the throat for amplification, causing an almost hypnotic effect on the listener.

The Venerable Thupten Donyo, founder of the Gyuto Vajrayana Center in San Jose, California, says:

“We are not really musicians, and we’re not singing songs. We make these sounds to please the holy beings, the Buddhas, using different tones and different instruments.”



Traditional Tibetan Music (Folk Music)

ethnic gruop tibetFolk music can be divided into, dance music, rap, opera,  and instrumental music. It occupies an important place in the pantheon of Chinese traditional music today, with the spectrum of the songs including labor songs, love songs and  chanting tones.  Lyrics veer to the ethereal with the sun, moon, stars, mountains and rivers featuring prominently. Beauty, the love of women and missed loved ones tends are all incorporated, tending to give the folk music a particularly wistful sense of longing.






Tibetan Pop Music

Tibetans also have a thriving  pop-music culture, which has started to move into the Chinese mainstream. Tibetan singers are particularly known for their strong vocal abilities, which have often been attributed to the high altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau.


Image courtesy of Alan Dawa Dolma on tibetmusicworld.blogspot.com

Since the 1980s, Tibetan pop has been  popularized by the likes of Yadong (Tibet), Dadon (now living in the US),  Jampa Tsering (Tibet), and the three member group Ajita. Gaoyuan Hong has  even introduced elements of Tibetan rapping into their singles.

Alan Dawa Dolma is the first and only Tibetan artist to break into the Japanese music industry.






Image courtesy of Neemah on www.yugongyishan.com

Neemah Band

Neemah band are a multi-talented Tibetan banded who use folk instruments; they sing in multiple languages to sing, such as Chinese, English, Tibetan, Mongolian, Urdu, Nepali and other others.

Their songs are based on Tibetan sounds, and uniquely fuse folk with Buddhist music, rap and other musical styles.

Neemah demonstrate their international approach by using a wide variety of instruments.

With Mick Jagger unavailable and in want of a scoop, we interview Neemah Band front man, Pema Samdup.

1. How did you become interested in music?
During the Tibetan New Year I used to go with my friends to collect candies at every door. I was around eight years old. My family are farmers and they could not afford good clothes for me. So I was wore my old pants with many holes on the knees. My mother knitted it many times it became to a small pocket and I put the candies inside. While we were singing door  door, I found pleasure in singing and it gave me happiness. Every voice has it’s own unique color and I found mine.

2. What music styles do you play?

I am do a special mix of pop and old Tibetan traditional music. This mix of two kinds of music style make my songs very special. When I first started with my career I only sung in Chinese, because I though it might be much easier to get famous. After two years my mind has completely changed and I realized fame is not my aim. I found out, that keeping my culture and tradition has a deeper meaning to me. 

3. How did you find your band members? When did you start the group?

All members in the band are from the same village as me in Qinghai. They didn’t get the chance to study at art university but that doesn’t matter for me – I would rather choose a person born as a pop star than a manufactured pop star  who graduated from an art university.

4. If you had the the chance to meet any pop star, who would you choose?

I used to be a crazy fan of Usher but right now I am the biggest fan of myself! (laugh).

5. What is your aim in your music career?

My message is to share my country’s culture and tradition with everyone who likes my music. I want to let them listen to good and healthy music, not fast food music! 

6. What advice would you give to Tibetan youth?

We need to keep and protect our culture during the new century and develop it for our future children. 

So, Tibetan music, a heady mix of pop, folk, chanting and much, much more. Go ahead and give it a listen…

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