Acclaimed Tibetan singer now calls Kingston home

Internationally acclaimed singer Yungchen Lhamo

Internationally acclaimed singer Yungchen Lhamo spins a Buddhist prayer wheel at her Kingston home. A native of Tibet, she fled as a teen from a labour camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. She has since lived in India and Australia – and now resides in Ulster County. Times Herald-Record/Dominick Fiorille

By Jeremiah Horrigan | Times Herald-Record

KINGSTON, US, 25 March 2013

Yungchen Lhamo has led — and continues to lead — an extraordinary life.

But seated in her Kingston home, she worries about telling her story. Her life is easily misunderstood. People make wrong assumptions about her.

She’s not a hero, she says. And the people who have done so much to torture and kill her people are not her enemies.

Here’s just the beginning of her story:

Lhamo grew up in a labour camp in her native Tibet, one of many millions to suffer oppression under China’s Cultural Revolution. She saw two of her brothers die of starvation in the camp.

At 19, Lhamo fled the labour camp in the company of a monk and two Sherpa guides, her infant son her arms.

She remembers hearing gunfire in the night, facing rushing mountain waters by day and swarms of biting insects.

She didn’t stop fleeing through the trackless wastes and forests and snows of the Himalayas for two months, until she reached the Indian border and eventually, Dharamshala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile.

It was a journey of 1,000 miles.

It was also, she says with characteristic humility, “not easy.”

Though she remains an exile from her homeland, though the Chinese government continues to wage cultural war against her people, Lhamo, who is a devout Buddhist, refuses to hate the people who have done so much to destroy the culture and people she loves.

“I don’t want people to hate the Chinese. It’s not useful. We need to be loving and caring toward all living beings.”

There’s enough hatred in the world, she said. She’s not about to add to it, nor even, in telling her story, to provide ammunition for those who may be stirred to anger on her behalf.

She wants to stir people in a different way, through a different means, the one that’s brought her most recently to live in Kingston.

Lhamo is a singer. A very acclaimed singer.

Encouraged by the Dalai Lama

Her name was given her by a Buddhist monk. It means “Goddess of Song.”

Anyone who witnessed a brief performance of hers during last month’s V-Day celebration in uptown Kingston will recognise the accuracy of her name.

Or you could ask music critics. The New Yorker’s has called her singing “brilliant.” Newsweek called her “angel-voiced.” The New York Times admired her “pristine, gliding vocal lines.”

If you’re still not convinced, you could ask Natalie Merchant. Peter Gabriel. Annie Lennox. Billy Corgan. Bono. They’re a few of the musicians with whom she’s performed and recorded.

Lhamo began her musical career by singing at Tibetan refugee camps in India.

Later, she met the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who encouraged her to use her gift to increase the world’s awareness of the problems facing Tibet.

Lhamo took the Dalai Lama’s advice to heart. She settled in Australia in 1993.

Two years later, her debut recording of Tibetan devotional music won the country’s equivalent of a Grammy Award for world music. Gabriel signed her to his Real World music label.

Lhamo has since become a fixture in the world music scene, touring internationally — 70 countries and counting — singing her original and traditional songs in concert and at benefits and festivals with the likes of Merchant, Bono, Corgan and Lennox.

Merchant, who lives in Rhinebeck and whom Lhoma describes as “more than my sister — she’s everything” convinced her to settle in Kingston. Lhamo said she likes the city’s quiet.

She’s not sure how long she’ll stay. She has a wish. She intends to become a US citizen, in part because it may increase her chances of being allowed back into Tibet to visit her father.

Lhamo can’t say how long she’ll stay in Kingston. She doesn’t know about the future.

She knows one thing for the moment: “I am here.”

That, she says, is enough to know.

Copyright © 2013 Dow Jones Local Media Group, Inc Published in Times Herald-Record Posted in Features » Tags: , , , ,