Resisting globalisation - Tenzin Gönpo and Damily

Audio 21:09
Photo: Pierre Vallée

Tenzin Gönpo and Damily demonstrate that you can play guitar while defending your country’s traditional music and customs. Gönpo interprets the mainly lay music and folksongs that tell of his native Tibet’s troubled history. Damily has electrified more traditional Madagascan rhythms to develop a dance music known as tsapiky, designed quite simply to relieve his people’s suffering.


Gönpo first shone as a dancer before embracing instruments like the piwong (2-string fiddle), ling-bou (flute) and dranyen (lute). He now sings, dances and plays a largely lay repertoire of traditional Tibetan songs, many of which he learned at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India, where he spent 20 years before securing asylum in France in 1990.

He has few memories of his native Tibet, being just five years old when the Chinese invaded in 1950. His mother smuggled him out into neighbouring northern India, and although he’s never been back, he continues to hold a torch for Tibetan music.

“I’m trying to resist this culture disappearing,” he told World Tracks. “Tibetans are more into Buddhism, it’s their right, and the new generation is more into consuming and fashion. But I like to keep a collection of the traditional music. One day it can speak about Tibet.”

But he admits that lay music has not had an easy ride. When Tibet came under Buddhist influence, around the 7th century, music was not compatible with Buddhist philosophy.

“It was looked down on, and many good musicians became beggars,” said Gönpo.

Then under Chinese rule, it was controlled, if not suppressed. And nowadays the younger generation is into drum'n'bass.

Gönpo helps keep the pockets of resistance alive, albeit abroad.

One of his albums, In Memory of Tibet, takes us on a tour of popular Tibet, away from the monasteries. We visit the eastern part of the country whose music is dominated by a fiddle made out of yak horn, known as a piwong.

While in the western part near the border with Pakistan, Gönpo says the tradition is mainly oral. There’s little education, so music is used to teach.

“Singing and dancing are used to educate, there are songs and dances where men and women debate.”

In France, Gönpo has lent his talents as dancer and musician to the likes of choreographer Carolyn Carlson and French equestrian circus artist Bartabas. He also featured in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film 7 years in Tibet.

He recognises that his country’s music cannot and should not be conserved in aspic.

On The Gate of Lhasa he sings and plays acoustic guitar, a way of bringing the music - and for those who speak Tibetan, the message - to a wider audience. The song is based on a poem written during the 1980s which calls for the three stupa, or Buddhist monuments, in Lhasa, which were destroyed by the Chinese, to be rebuilt. Only two of the three have been.

“It’s a metaphor for those that want Tibet back,” said Gönpo. “For me some of the songs which I like to play, I like to express their suffering. That’s why I chose and adapted in guitar, it’s easier for western ears.”

Photo: Pierre Vallée

Singer-songwriter Damily also expresses his people’s suffering, or rather aims to relieve it. The 39-year old Madagascan musician, who now lives in France, developed a dance music called tsapiky back in the 80s in the region of Tuléar in south west Madagascar. Using electric guitar, drum and bass on traditional rhythms and vocals, it has a lively, driving beat and is played at traditional ceremonies such as burials and circumcisions.

“My people have suffered a lot,” Damily explained, “this music aims to relieve that suffering and get people dancing”.

Though Madagascar is riddled with political turmoil, tsapiky steers clear of politics.

“It talks about everyday life, of life in Madagascar’s ghettos. That’s where it was born.”

And the occasional resemblance to kwaito music from the South African townships is no coincidence.

“In the south west in the late 80s we could get radio from over in Mozambique […] and we were too far away from the capital – 1000 kilometres – to get national radio anyway”.

Damily heads a five-piece band of the same name, while with six albums under their belt they’re famous on the island.

Though Damily now lives and records in France, he hopes to return one day, when things are safer. Their latest album Ravinahitsy - meaning a new blade of grass - is available in France. And a new album is due out in September.

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