Bright Lights Film Journal

Who Took the Folk Out of Music? Everybody, It Seems

“How does Tibet’s cultural destruction differ, in essence, from Time-Warner’s choreographed glamorization of bitches and ho’s in inner-city America, or death metal’s hold over disenfranchised Midwestern youth?”

I recently attended a screening in Washington D.C. of the award-winning documentary Tibet in Song. Afterwards there was a fascinating question and answer session with the Tibetan director (and seven-year political prisoner), Ngawang Choephel. I urge you to visit the movie’s website for times and locations in your area. The movie is powerfully moving on a number of levels

Commenting on China’s systematic fifty-year effort to supplant indigenous Tibetan folk music with state-sponsored propagandized music, Choephel (via narrative overdub, and I paraphrase) makes the rather sanguine observation that “gradually meaninglessness acquires meaning.” What appears as an alien vessel to one generation (a virtual Kubrick obelisk) gradually fills with memories for a younger generation, no matter how illegitimate the vessel’s origins might be. The implications here are positively Orwellian. He who controls the music controls the soundtrack for a culture. Time legitimizes all things. Or does it?

There is a priceless scene of older Tibetans watching a Chinese production with utterly vacant stares. Even an unschooled observer lacking the ability to discern “real from fake” Tibetan music will glean all from the mystified faces on the screen. Like a body rejecting an organ, the writhing is palpable, as in ‘What is this alien noise that has been dropped into our midst?’

By way of offering further proof (in a scene apparently shot a few years later), Choephel questions a young Tibetan boy to sing his favorite song. The boy launches into a made-in-China composition as though he’s known it all his life. And he has! The fresh-faced boy is parroting, with all the exuberance and innocence of youth, a cultural deception.

As Choephel notes with ambivalence, the early prohibitions against Tibetan folk music have been relaxed by the Chinese invaders. Why? Because Tibetan youth have already been severed from their cultural underpinnings so that overt prohibitions are no longer necessary. As George W. Bush might say: “Mission accomplished.”

During the post-show question-and-answer period, I got the opportunity to ask Choephel if he saw parallels in the Chinese cultural hegemony in a larger global context. After all, one could argue that a global alienation project has been underway for at least fifty years for the purpose of severing Westerners from their indigenous music, the better to provide a bumper crop of malleable consumers for ever-shifting “modern music.” Perhaps my question was mildly impertinent, if not a bit off-topic. Notwithstanding the extreme and reprehensible measures employed by the Chinese overlords (no small thing to be beaten, killed and imprisoned, tactics I hardly wish to minimize for their barbarity), how does Tibet’s cultural destruction differ, in essence, from Time-Warner’s choreographed glamorization of bitches and ho’s in inner-city America, or death metal’s hold over disenfranchised Midwestern youth?

Choephel noted that, while Western cultural imperialism is no small problem, at least we are not subjected to torture and death for listening to indigenous music. We remain the masters of our radio dials. Indeed, this is a fair point. After all, American youth is not forgoing the Grand Ole Opry under threat of imprisonment. On the contrary I’d be the first to champion the teenager who accedes to a couple of months in the slammer rather than endure Minnie Pearl’s rendition of “Howdy!”And yet, how much inner-city violence — gang versus gang, misogynistic, etc. — has Time-Warner and it ilk stage-managed across the American landscape?

There is another especially heartbreaking scene in the movie where four young Tibetan women, all former political prisoners, recount in near-whispers their refusal to sing the Chinese national anthem, even after suffering electric prods and daily beatings. This horrific treatment culminates in the martyrdom of a few of their number.

Tibet in Song reinvigorated one set of jaundiced American ears (mine) to the transformative power of music. Music, in its most authentic manifestation is an expression of the soul, to which Madison Avenue jingles and Chinese revolutionary songs can only offer the most insipid parodies. Like the blank-faced old Tibetans who know a real song when they hear one, the heart is never fooled for long.