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Tenzin Choegyal. Photo by Jan Smith. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

Homegrown Plus: Tenzin Choegyal’s Tibetan Music from Australia

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Welcome back to Homegrown Plus! We’re continuing to place the 2021 series of Homegrown Plus online, after interrupting it to premiere the 2022 series right here on the blog. (Find the whole Homegrown Plus series here.) We’re continuing the series with Tenzin Choegyal, a master musician who is part of the global Tibetan diaspora, based in Australia. Like other blogs in the Homegrown Plus series, this one includes a concert video and a video interview with the featured performer, plus links and connections to Library of Congress collections.

A man with a musical instrument
Tenzin Choegyal. Photo by Christopher Michel. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

Tenzin Choegyal is a Tibetan/Australian artist, composer, activist, musical director and cultural ambassador. Born to a nomadic family in Tibet, he escaped the Chinese occupation with his family in the early 1970s and was raised in a Tibetan refugee community in Dharamsala, India. There, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama actively encourages his people to preserve their culture, Tenzin first began to explore his musical talents. He feels a particular connection to the music of the high Himalayan plateau and, as a son of Tibetan nomads, he remains dedicated to preserving the musical traditions of his ancestors.

Choegyal is a master of the lingbu (bamboo flute) and the dranyen (three-stringed lute) but is best known for his extraordinary vocal ability and performance of droklu, the nomadic music of his parents. Choegyal’s original compositions are inspired by Buddhist texts and poetry, traditional nomadic songs and playful folk tunes that reflect the experiences of the Tibetan people. He also embraces opportunities to take his music into more contemporary, uncharted territory, both in the studio and on stage. Choegyal is a regular at festivals and events in throughout Australia, and has performed in New Zealand, Japan, India, Germany, Bali, Bangladesh, New Caledonia, Russia and the United States. Tenzin has nine independent albums, three of them with his fusion band Tibet2Timbuk2, and regularly performs with Camerata Brisbane’s acclaimed Chamber Orchestra. His collaborative albums include The Last Dalai Lama? with Philip Glass and the 2021 Grammy-nominated Songs from the Bardo with Laurie Anderson and Jesse Paris Smith, which is a moving interpretation of the religious text popularly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

In his concert, Tenzin performed traditional songs as well as some of his own compositions rooted in the traditions of his parents.  See the concert in the player below.

[Transcript of Concert]

]In the interview, Tenzin spoke about Tibetan culture, the Nomadic heritage of his parents, his instruments, his songs, and his work as a composer. We talked about the Tibetan diaspora and his early life as a refugee, as well as his current life as a respected musician in Australia. Because of technical difficulties, we ended up doing it in two installments. See the first part in the player immediately below.

[Transcript of Part 1]

See the second part of the interview below

[Transcript of Part 2]

Collection Connections and Links

Here you’ll find links relating to Tenzin Choegyal’s songs, as well as links to Library of Congress collection items connected to Tibetan history and traditions.

First of all, you can visit Tenzin on the web at this link.

The Library of Congress has been presenting folklife concerts since 1940. This is not the first to feature Tibetan songs; in April 1994, Lamas of Drepung Loseling Monastery, Tibet, presented Tibetan Buddhist sacred music and dance on the Neptune plaza. That was long before our concerts were shot on video to be presented on the Web–it was almost before the Web itself! But one of our photographers did shoot the photo below.

A man in Tibetan garb dances
A monk from the Drepung Loseling Monastery dances on the Neptune Plaza outside the Library of Congress. April 21, 1994.

Tenzin’s first song comes from a poem written by the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, (1683-ca. 1706). Gyatso was an unconventional Dalai Lama who wrote love poems that are still popular with Tibetans today. To find out about rare Tibetan materials in the Library of Congress, visit this link to read the Tibetan entries in the Four Corners of the World blog.

At the Library of Congress website, you can learn a lot about Tibetan history by listening to (or reading translations of) 500 hours of oral histories with Tibetan people in the “Tibet autonomous region” of China, and in exile in India and in the West. The interviews in the Tibetan Oral History and Archive Project (TOHAP) are divided into three categories: “Political/History,” “Common folk,” and “Drepung monastery monks.” This archive of Tibetan oral histories, which you can find at the link, is the largest of its type in the world.

Bamboo transverse flutes are played throughout Asia and the world. Tenzin’s Tibetan version is called a lingbu. He is a master at working with the natural overtones of the instrument! The Dayton C. Miller collection at the Library of Congress contains almost 200 bamboo flutes, some of them of unknown origin; they could even be Tibetan. One of these mysterious flutes was donated to the collection by Rae Korson, a former head of the folklife archive. Find all of the Dayton C. Miller collection’s bamboo flutes at this link.

Like many Tibetan songs, “Little Bird” deals with the theme of exile and return. Because so many of our Tibetan collections were made in other countries where Tibetans live, especially India, it can be tricky to list them in geographic finding aids! At the link find AFC’s Tibet-related collections guide.

“Heart Sutra” is based on Buddhist cosmology, which is also illustrated in Tibetan scrolls known as thangkas. The Library of Congress has several rare thangkas, including one given in 1908 by the 13th Dalai Lama to William Woodville Rockhill, a Tibetologist and American diplomat serving as U.S. Minister to China in Beijing. See the Library’s stunning digitized thangkas at the link.


A man sings and plays a Tibetan lute.
Tenzin Choegyal performed at the 21st Tibet House Benefit at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Tracy Ketcher for TheMusic.FM. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

As always, thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. The idea of the Homegrown Plus series is to gather concert videos, video interviews with the musicians, and connections to Library of Congress collections together in one place for our subscribers. (Find the whole Homegrown Plus series here!)

For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress.

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