Tibet in Song

Institute History


Tibet in Song presents a unique story of struggle and survival – that of traditional Tibetan music. It depicts the determined efforts of Tibetan people, both in Tibet and in exile, to preserve their unique cultural identity after more than a half-century of Chinese occupation. In this way, the film powerfully evokes themes of courage, defiance and determination that have preserved Tibetan culture as unique and important in contemporary consciousness. Renowned Tibetan musician and music scholar Ngawang Choephel directs the documentary, acting as intermediary to an array of accomplished musicians engaged in a fight for the life of their cultural patrimony.

Tibetan folk music is not simply an overlay to traditional life, but completely integral to it. It represents the heart of Tibetan culture. Historically, it has embodied the signature Tibetan values of compassion, loving-kindness and harmony, accompanying religious ceremonies, farm labor, cooking, drinking and so forth. Its influence was so profound that the Chinese government astutely suppressed it from the earliest days of occupation, infusing pro-Communist lyrics into Tibetan melodies, and setting up puppet Tibetan musicians to perform these hybrid songs. Contemporary Tibetan life is suffused with this bastardized music, blared by loudspeakers in open public spaces, as well as television and nightclubs. While documenting traditional music in Tibet in 1995, Ngawang Choephel was arrested and imprisoned by Chinese authorities for seven years on charges of espionage. He now lives as a political asylee in the US. Several musicians from Tibet have also recently left the country, seeking greater freedom from Communist repression. Tibet in Song introduces us to these men and women (and others, still in Tibet, whose testimony was captured before Choephel’s imprisonment) in the first such encounters on film between a Tibetan director and Tibetan subjects. These heroes provide rare, firsthand accounts of modern life and music in their home country. Tibet in Song relates their stories of defiance and ingenuity, and gives audiences a rare chance to witness performances by these Masters in a rare and totally unique repository of Tibetan music on film. Through their story, the film helps us to realize the importance of all the world’s indigenous cultural expressions, and the sustenance that they represent.


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