October 13, 2009

Featured Artist:

Andrea Clearfield is renowned for her cutting edge compositions and social activism. Don't miss performances of her collaborative piece Lung Ta, inspired by her travels in Mustang!



10/26 - 11/22
Tibetan Sand Mandala, Kalachakra,
to be Created as an offering to the City of Philadelphia:
World Peace through Inner Peace

For more info and calendar of events: http://www.losangsamten.com/upcoming_events.html

LUNG-TA, a collaborative performance

As part of the events surrounding the creation of Kalachakra, there will be a performance of Lung-Ta (The Windhorse), collaborative work and prayer for peace with music created by composer ANDREA CLEARFIELD, dance by GROUP MOTION DANCE COMPANY, Manfred Fischbeck, artistic director and artwork by MAUREEN DRDAK. The work is inspired by Clearfield and Drdak’s trek to Lo Monthang, Nepal last fall and was commissioned and recorded by Network for New Music. The performance will also feature a new work created by music composition and dance students at The University of the Arts inspired by Kalachakra.

Wednesday, November 18, 7:30pm.
Admission $20.00/$15.00 for seniors/$5.00 for students.
The Gershman Y Auditorium, 401 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA

Additional performances of Lung-Ta (The Windhorse) will take place at The Community Education Center, 3500 Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia on December 12 and 13, 8pm as part of Group Motion Dance Company's WINTERFEST. More information about Lung-Ta can be found at www.andreaclearfield.com

October 11, 2009

Upcoming Events!!

Hi Folks -- I'll be speaking at a couple of events listed below.


Friday, October 23, 1-3pm
University of Virginia
Department of Anthropology
Brooks Hall

World Oral Literature Project Workshop

Cambridge University

December 15-16, 2009

"This two-day workshop by the World Oral Literature Project, is bringing together established scholars, early career researchers and graduate students with indigenous researchers, museum curators, archivists and audio-visual experts to discuss strategies for collecting, recording, preserving and disseminating oral literatures and endangered narrative traditions. In view of the diversity of current research initiatives on the oral literatures of the Asia-Pacific, and the geographical strengths of Cambridge-based scholars, the workshop will broadly focus on this region. Specific sessions will be held on the Himalayas (India and Nepal), High Asia (China, Mongolia and Tibet) and the Pacific (Vanuatu)." [From: World Oral Literature Project. (2009).
Workshops. R 11 October 2009 from the Wold Wide Web: http://www.oralliterature.org/research/workshops.html]

Also See:



Be Proactive!

Check out Drokpa, a non profit that does fantastic work in grassroots development among pastoral communities in the Himalayas and Central Asia.


Drokpa works with a variety of programs in alternative energy, education and training, community health and social entrepreneurship and periodically host related events in the States.

August 27, 2009

Tashi Tsering sings Nyinda Angmo

Nyinda Angmo is about a father's relation with his daughter. Sorry for the quality of the visual on this one!

June 8, 2009

The Evolution of Lo Monthang's Music

At first it seemed unnatural for Tashi Tsering to perform behind a microphone and to be listening to him through large ear-covering headphones.  The World Map mocked the shiny, black, new equipment from its perch, on the wall just behind Tashi Tsering in our make shift studio.  But at the end of my three week stay in Lo Monthang, I sadly packed the Shure and Sennheiser mics, the Marantz recorder, the mic stands, the slabs of black foam, zip lock baggies and gafting tape into an equipment case.  They had found their place among the Chinese tea tables, Tibetan carpets and mud floors.  They had become an important part of the history of the Loba singing tradition.

Oral tradition is subject to evolution.  And it was the Marantz that had revealed to what degree and how.  A week and a half into our recording sessions I began to rerecord songs that hadn't come out clearly.  Maybe on the first take a bird had flown into the room or flies had collected around the microphone.  Perhaps the wind had caused the window to pop or the women who enjoyed congregating around the studio doorstep had gathered for their daily weaving, and were chattering loudly.  Or there was a cough, a belch, a loud slurp of chhang home-brew, or Tashi Tsering's oral signature in Logay intermixed in a percussive passage: This is Tashi Tsering, the most knowledgeable singer in all of Lo!  Transcribing is Karma, and recording is Katharine.  (And at that I was certain that Tashi Tsering would fit right in performing with any ACDC or Ozzie!)

Through comparing recordings of the same songs, two important elements of Lo Monthang's oral tradition were elucidated:  first, that Tashi Tsering’s ceremonial presence more valued in Lo Monthang than his lyrical and musical precision. Melodies and rhythms were never identical within one song's verses, or across recordings of the same song, but Tashi Tsering’s presence and presentation within a ceremony was essential.  If he was not present for ceremonies, villagers would visit him to express their frustration.  Second, the lyrics that Lobas had assumed were archaic or “difficult” Tibetan were many times alternate pronunciations caused by Tashi Tsering’s speech impediment or by additional nonsense syllables added to accommodate the melody.

Lo Monthang faces another imminent change in musical performance practice:  after Tashi Tsering is no longer be able to play the drums, the stigma associated with their performance will most likely preclude their performance.  How this will effect the continuation of Tashi Tsering's song repertoire is not in its preservation, as there is a strong enthusiasm among the youth in Lo Monthang to learn these songs.  How the lack of daman drums and an official musician will effect ceremonial practice is yet another question, as the timing of gatherings and ceremonies depends greatly on the daman rhythms and Tashi Tsering's presence.

June 6, 2009

Caste preservation of art forms

The Lo Monthang community leans on the lower castes to preserve music and dance traditions.  Tashi Tsering retains the Kha Lu repertoire.  His eldest daughter devotes substantial time to teaching the Lo Monthang Youth Club traditional dances.  Reputedly, Tashi Tsering's son and a group of his friends were talented musicians.  Before they left the area to earn cash in American army camps in Iraq, they were the up-and-coming adherents of local cultural preservation.

Tashi Tsering is the descendent of a professional musician caste -- entertainers in royal courts that can be traced back to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and even Persia.  But as Tashi Tsering's lineage became further removed from its origins both by geography and time, evidence points to low-caste musicians resorting increasingly to begging through musical offerings.  The cultural mechanisms that compelled locals to be sympathetic to the musicians' plight are unclear.  Perhaps religious teachings of compassion and stories of the Buddha as a beggar led the Loba in Lo Monthang to donate to singers.  But of interest today is that Lobas are now depending on low caste cultural perservators to rekindle old traditions.

Whether this will lead to a restructuring of caste dynamics for future generations is unclear.  The demographics of Lo Monthang are certainly in transition as the upper caste, the Bista clan, increasingly sends family members abroad for work and education.  This restructuring gives the Biki caste -- the low caste, to which Tashi Tsering belongs -- a larger presence and more local opportunity.  Tashi Tsering's daughters are now respected for their cultural knowledge.  They have also initiated their own local businesses, something, I was told, would not have been feasible twenty years ago.  

Surely the emphasis and market for cultural preservation will give artists increased opportunity from the foreign community working in Lo.  The extent to which these opportunities will change local perceptions of social hierarchy is uncertain yet merits close attention.

Understanding cultural change and gender roles through dance

It was my usual American ritual -- to dance the energy I felt about the area.  My friends and I had turned breakdancing into a roadtripping staple -- at a rest stop in the middle of a Montana valley we'd find quintessential Montanan train track-saloon backdrops to dance in front of.  And the wizened Montana wranglers laughed at us, but enjoyed our entertainment and could relate to our cramped legs and need for motion.

In the excitement of seeing Lo Monthang for the first time I busted out some moves (carefully documented thanks to my photographically adept traveling partner, Megna).  Pemba, our guide from Kathmandu, and Sonam, our porter from the outskirts of Kathmandu, laughed and smiled -- their enthusiasm for reaching Lo Monthang seemed to match our own (escalated, I assume, by their anticipation of turning right around to return to Kathmandu and their families with fatter wallets in hand!)  They reviewed the dance pictures, picking out the better ones, laughing when my shaky moves had led to a face full of sand.

In Kathmandu we had seen a hiphop festival complete with Nepali MCing and breakdancing cyphers around the Boudha stupa, only feet removed from circles of traditional Nepali dance.  The grounds were so packed that we saw a drunken man, red in the face and unable to stand, be kept upright just by the continuous clockwise movement of the crowd.  All the while pilgrims of all ages were circumambulating the historic stupa -- traditions of old coexisting with the new.  Megna and I had passed the Om Hollywood Dance Academy that featured lessons from breaking to salsa, bollywood to traditional Tibetan dance.  And we listened to a live set at The Factory, a new addition to the Thamel bar scene, of Nepali-Klezmer-Hiphop fusion.  The interface was exhilarating -- one I certainly did not spend enough time thinking through.  That was Kathmandu and Boudhanath with internet access, a constant stream of tourists, areas described even by locals as "an escape from Nepal."  (Manjushri Thapa, Forget Kathmandu).

In some ways, I entered a different world traveling to Mustang, and then to Upper Mustang.  I should have understood the traditional Loba ways when I passed by street art of beautifully garbed Loba woman, painted with traditional clouds, with turquoise, coral and pearl jewelry, spinning wool to thread.  But the visuals were conflicting.  I saw the Tibetan woman painted on the door, but walking by was Kelsang with his baggy jeans that had "Stud" embroidered on the back pocket.  He carried around a cell phone that played Shaquira and NSYNC, ACDC and Bob Marley but never Nepali or Tibetan music.  And down the street worked sweet and seemingly innocent Kanchi who always dressed in a bakku but whose teahouse walls were covered with half-naked pictures of Avril Lavigne, John and Srithaal Rasipain.  They surrounded her shrine to the Dalai Lama, Rajarani, and a poster of the Potala.  

In a supposed "cultural exchange" one night, Kelsang and another friend got me on the floor breaking to Shaquira.  They clapped for me.  I noticed a couple of girls who buried their faces in their hands laughing.  A few others had blank looks on their faces.  And days later, the incident had erupted into a debate of western influence and cultural exclusion among the youth in Lo Monthang.

The debate was conflicted.  For some, my friendships with locals had become too close and too threatening.  On the other hand, potential donations for cultural initiatives necessitated foreign donations, and I was another potential donor -- someone to keep on their good side.  

For others, who had lived in Kathmandu and Pokhara and were returning to their village, my presence was the fast-paced slightly loud and uneasy entertainment that they enjoyed in the city.  And conversations with me removed them from the monotony they identified in their lives in Lo.  But I was also a target for American visa requests.   

As for me, I had become lost in cultural extremes.  I felt young and naive -- not because I had shared my own dance culture, but because I had not, and have not yet, come to understand the tension that aspects of development, communication, and global networking can cause.  While working in Sikkim, dance had brought me close to my students -- a group of fifteen girls from ages five to fifteen.  I recall writing in my journal, five years ago, that the girls and I had danced through the months we spent together.  We worked together on basic swing dancing moves and they taught me Bollywood choreography.  They ran into my room exhilarated when, after months, they had managed to do the worm.  And they laughed at my inability to dance in Hindi styles.  But one night my friend had taken me to a disco in Gangtok, the capital city, where there were zero women on the dance floor, and only a few married women in the disco.

My memories of Sikkim led me to believe that gender roles were at the core of the issue. Was my dancing in Lo Monthang a statement of strength, individuality and power uncommon and unacceptable for women?  Could gender also explain why my presence as a single, unmarried woman, trekking into Lo Monthang and researching there alone was such a shock?  I had often wished I was a male researcher in India to make things easier, and while it wasn't yet at this extreme in Lo Monthang, I wondered how I would be received as a young, single American breakdancing male.

Gender is a cultural determinant in Lo Monthang for duties, dress, marriage rights, monastic involvement, leadership, even mannerisms.  Tashi Tsering sang about the expectations of gender in his songs. Take, for instance, the helpless Princess Kusum being forced to leave her home to marry a Ladakhi prince.   Never angry, she never argued her destiny.  But every step of the way she asked her family, villagers and friends if they were sending her away because they were angry with her.  Power plays through gender roles became apparent in songs sung by another Loba, Yanzolm.  Young women she portrayed sang to men, "don't even try to court me, I'm to expensive for you to buy!"  All the while, the woman is dreaming of her future husband, playing out the traditional role of a wife.  Meanwhile, with Shaquira mp3's pervasively loaded onto cell phones and suggestive posters of female celebrities commonly hanging on walls of remote villages, a foreign female role that involves sex, money, drugs and power is setting an uneasy tone for women, especially to accept Western culture.

The question for this blog, now, is how we, as responsible researchers, foreign aid workers, expedition members and tourists, can negotiate conflicting cultural roles when we travel.

May 31, 2009

Festival for Guru Rinpoche

Almost fifteen years ago the Lo Monthang Village District Committee (VDC) began what started as small restoration projects.  First, the VDC collaborated to restore a set of large prayer wheels outside of the village walls.  The community attracted international attention for local restoration efforts and project potential, which snowballed into international partnerships.  Various sources instigated the restoration of local religious structures and monastic art -- of ancient temples that had been used for grain storage and stupas that had been ignored for generations.  Restoring Lo Monthang's Thubchen and Jamba monasteries resulted in the purchase of two sets of Buddhist scriptures.  In homage to the process and in honor of Guru Rinpoche, the Lo Monthang youth and religious leaders spend a day circumambulating the plateau upon which their village sits, carrying the sacred texts.

Describing my most recent project...

What are your thoughts on effective cultural preservation?

The Kha Lu folk song repertoire of northern Nepal’s Lo region has been at the cusp of extinction; the aging Tashi Tsering, the Official Singer of the Royal Court of Lo’s capital city, Lo Monthang, is the sole preservator of this oral tradition.  In Spring 2009, by request of King Jigme Bista of Lo and with sponsorship by Cambridge University’s World Oral Literature Project, The Sager Family Foundation, and other private donors, Tashi Tsering, Karma Wangyal Gurung (a Mustangi cultural activist) and I spent a month in the highly restricted Lo region recording, transcribing and translating over fifty ancient Kha Lu songs.  Continuing project goals seek to refine Bhodi and Roman transcriptions and English translations of Kha Lulyrics, to digitally archive the lyrics and recordings, to circulate the collected material throughout the Lo community, and to publish a multilingual songbook and audio recording of select Kha Lu songs in partnership with Mera Publications, a Kathmandu-based, culturally-focused publishing house. Young Lo Monthang-based scholars will provide Nepali translations of the Kha Lu repertoire and a European-trained restorative artist from Lo Monthang has already begun to contribute original artwork to the songbook.  The project hopes to rekindle the Lo Monthang youth’s involvement with traditional culture, and to enable artistic preservation and cultural reinterpretation.  

May 28, 2009

Another Roadside Attraction

"Dear Jimmy," Amanda Smiled, "You're nearly normal.  All that stands between you and Wall Street is Tibet."  -Tom Robbins

May 15, 2009

लो मोंथान्ग्बता

Sorry, All, for not keeping my blog while I was away! Lo Monthang was just beginning to get it's daily allowance of four hours of electricity per evening while I was there, but internet is scarce in the region! Many postings, photos, songs and video to come when I return to the States in a few days, but for now I'll leave you with some lyrics.


This song is sung at festivals and during marriage, and is offered to the Lamas, Kings, and household heads. Many of the songs follow this format, saluting the layers of social hierarchy in the region through the verses.

From the center of the sky shines a golden pitcher.
Kept in the pitcher are precious jewels --
We will offer these to the Lama.
Outside the pitcher is the brilliant sun --
We will offer the sun rays to the laity.
Us Woman of Lo Monthang,
We tighten our boot laces to salute the Lama!

From the center of the sky shines a golden pitcher.
Kept in the pitcher are precious jewels --
We will offer these to the King.
Outside the pitcher is the brilliant sun --
We will offer the sun rays to the laity.
Us Woman of Lo Monthang,
We tighten our boot laces to salute the King!

From the center of the sky shines a golden pitcher.
Kept in the pitcher are precious jewels --
We will offer these to the Fathers.
Outside the pitcher is the brilliant sun --
We will offer the sun rays to the laity.
Us Woman of Lo Monthang,
We tighten our boot laces to salute the Lama!


(This song is sung at festivals and weddings, it and songs like it demonstrate the history of trade between Lo, China and Ladakh).

Ladakh to Mustang is very far.
But if your mind has a good purpose, it seems close.
You can climb the Chu Lhagne Hill between them.
And when you have completed your journey,
Just think you will come back home happily.
Because distance is not so great when your heart is close to home!

In the Ladakhi Mountains, I searched for herbal medicines.
But I didn't find these medicines -- instead, I met a goddess.
At the start of my journey I offered her a katakh.
And afterwards I offered another to the great King of Lo.
It was only then that my work was complete.
Because distance is not so great when your heart is close to home!

March 28, 2009

TO DO's and Run Ons

Preparing for a trip to Asia is a TO DO list of Rapunzelian length:

-Cypro and diamox from the pharmacy  
-BestBuy for memory cards, AA's and AAA's
-Buy duct tape and sand paper, apply to electronics case (cheap but effective premium for my equipment insurance policy) 
-Safeway for ziplock bags (Clause two of equipment insurance policy to protect against the elements)....

...If I forget anything, I'll end up with grainy mics that get heisted while I'm too sick with unmedicated AMS or Asia Flu to react.  But ke garne, I won't have any batteries left for recording anyway -- remember, I didn't have time to run to BestBuy.  So even if I don't get through the list, I'll still have faith in equilibrium.

And then there's the planning.  My Timeline for this trip was spellchecked with bolded, underlined headers and page numbers in the bottom right hand corner.  But when I looked away from my monitor, I felt Reality's imposing shadow.  Flooded by details, howevers and ifs, the formatting came atumblin down as I tried to to communicate with Tashi Tsering, the official singer of the Royal Court of Lo Monthang.

Lo Monthang is an ancient Tibetan walled city in Northern Nepal where I'm headed to record Tashi Tsering's music for the next couple of months.  It's walls, dating back to the 15th Century, are still standing.  And while Lo Monthang may seem isolated, it sits in a prominent glaciated pass at the base of the Himalayan Plateau -- a trough so large it'd challenge Moses, and one that provided an obvious trade route between Tibet and Nepal.  

But compare it to Jackson, and Lo Monthang is isolated: the town has one computer, little to no electricity, and even from this distance, I've begun to feel the polyrhythms of cultural time zones.  As I emailed Tsewang in Kathmandu, who responded to say that he'd gotten in touch with Sonam in Jomsom who'll call Indra in Lo Monthang, who'll walk to Tashi Tsering's house, discuss, walk back home, call Sonam, who'll email Tsewang, and that he'll keep me posted until I arrive in Kathmandu on Thursday, I realized that my Timeline is the Humpty Dumpty of Himalayan adobe.

I imagine that while trekking to Lo next week, I'll keep a look-out for Humpty's missing pieces amidst the sandy crimson cliffs.  And I'll listen for the murmurs of the Wind Horse, trying to catch snippets on my new recording equipment -- the equipment that's now fully insured, because I did have time to pop into Safeway for ziplock bags this afternoon!

March 25, 2009

vignettes of Ladakhi musician castes

---, a 42-year-old surna player and carpenter who lives in a hamlet of Nubra Valley, only a few kilometers from the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, understood that playing his music is a double-edged sword -- "Music is very important, valued very much in our Ladakhi culture...but we musicians are taken advantage of.  Our music is demanded.  We must play when we are ill and not complain.  We must make three-day treks in the middle of winter to play for a festival.  We must accept what they give us in return for our music, and not complain if they give us nothing or treat us badly."  --- spoke about the social role of his family and about the social and physical isolation of his community hamlet.  "It is where we Nurbuxsha live.  It was called Bekhang," referring to the peripheralized and untouchable community of which he is a part.

Twenty years ago, --- was required to play for a monastic celebration continuously for over twenty-four hours.  To stop would have been considered offensive, but he began to vomit blood.  The consequence of his overexertion left him unable to play the surna, thus without a source of livelihood.

In a village situated at 15,000 feet, near the border of China, one 80-year-old mon musician declined to share his history.  Villagers related memories of a neighbor beating him at a wedding because he had stopped performing his music before the party finished.  The village has since boycotted him and his family; they do not speak to him, will not sell him goods, or let him borrow their livestock for farming.