Tibetan Rock, Politics Mix

"We’re working for Tibet through our music," says Jigme, lead guitarist for the Exile Brothers band in Dharamsala, India.
By Maura Moynihan
tibet-rock-305.jpg Exile Brothers
Photo by Maura Moynihan

DHARAMSALA, India, Nov. 3, 2009—In their post-Olympic power surge, China has launched a new Tibet offensive, pressuring heads of state, including U.S. President Barack Obama, to forgo meetings the Dalai Lama.

Chinese Communist Party officials spare no targets, threatening film festivals, art galleries, rock stars, and poets who express support for the people of Tibet, as they launch virulent attacks on the exiled Tibetan leader through Chinese state-run journals and Web sites.

But in the half-century the Dalai Lama has lived on this hillside above the Kangra Valley, Dharamsala has become an alternate Tibetan universe where a new wave of pilgrims, and practitioners of Buddhism and rock music, mingle in the lanes of McLeod Ganj and pry open new pathways to a Tibetan-Chinese dialogue beyond the reach of Beijing’s censors.

The Exile Brothers—Jamyang, Jigme, and Ingsel—are Dharamsala’s resident rock stars, pioneers of a new kind of world music.

Born and raised in India, they are masters of traditional Tibetan song and dance and harmonize in perfect Hindi with their Indian neighbors. On stage they incarnate Hendrix and Coltrane to the rapture of their multinational fan base.

Café headquarters

The Exile Brothers are headquartered at the JJI Cafe on Bhagsu Road, run by their mother Nyima, a stylish beauty in a chuba who is also the band’s manager.

The walls are filled with photographs of the Dalai Lama and his youngest sister Jetsun Pemala, the beloved director of the Tibetan Children’s Village, and with band posters and letters from friends.

Monks and backpackers stop by for tea as the music of Miles Davis floats from the stereo. The cafe is a requisite stop for music lovers; even Madonna made a visit, flanked by bodyguards, a rarity in McLeod Ganj.

Every night the Exile Brothers can be found jamming with musicians who wander into the cafe.  Last week a young traveler from Beijing, who had come to Dharamsala for the Dalai Lama’s teachings, saw a photo of the band in the window and asked if he could join them.

The jam sessions led to a spirited Chinese-Tibetan jazz-rock fusion concert at the Common Ground Cafe, a project of Wen Oo, a Taiwanese-American who traveled to Tibet and then resettled in Dharamsala.

Common Ground Cafe (www.commongroundsproject.org) was created “to establish and promote innovative forums to achieve common grounds of shared understanding between Chinese and Tibetan people, a step towards a conducive atmosphere for a peaceful resolution to the Tibet issue.”

Wen’s initiative invites Chinese students in the United States to participate in music and photography projects in Dharamsala, as she expands Common Ground’s Web outreach.

In recent years, thousands of Buddhists from the Chinese diaspora have made the distant trek to McLeod Ganj to study with Tibetan scholars and receive teachings from the Dalai Lama. 

Many of these classes are held at the Tibetan Library, built with the support of the Indian government, where teachings in Buddhist philosophy are presented daily with multiple languages in simultaneous translation.

Recently, Wen and a team of volunteers set up an information table at teachings given by the Dalai Lama, handing out flyers to Chinese Dharma students from Beijing, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.

Web-based campaign

“The Dalai Lama gives so many speeches asking Tibetans to reach out to the Chinese people. But there wasn’t a platform,” said Wen, sitting in the elegant dining space at Common Ground, replete with periodicals, books, CDs, and posters.

“We don’t have any political agenda. We want to use creative ways for people to connect by making the space available. The best way to deconstruct propaganda is by people meeting and sharing information about what’s really going on inside China and Tibet."

Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) has already triumphed with creative Web-based campaigns, upstaging last year's Beijing Olympics Committee with on-site demonstrations and worldwide advocacy mobilization.

Lhadon Tethong and Tendor, the new SFT executive director, just arrived in Dharamsala, joined the Exile Brothers for a full-moon party to discuss the movement, and to sing in Tibetan, Hindi, and English.

“Ours is a nonviolent freedom struggle, so we need to use every device available, words, music, media,” said activist-poet Tenzin Tsundue, based at the Rangzen Ashram in lower Dharamsala, a nexus of international writers, artists, and peace activists.

“China is so paranoid about the Dalai Lama and us, 150,000 refugees. Now they recognize the power of Tibet.”

Jigme, the Exile Brothers lead guitarist, said, “We’re working for Tibet through our music. That’s how our Chinese friend found us. He loved India, [and] he said it felt like a second home. We don’t hate the Chinese people. The politics interferes.”

At a concert at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, the Exile Brothers paid tribute to Dharamsala’s poet laureate and iconic freedom fighter, Lhasang Tsering, seated in the front row with Lhamo Tso, wife of Dhondup Wangchen, imprisoned by the Chinese government for his documentary, “Leaving Fear Behind,” an expose of conditions inside Tibet.

“We hope that through the medium of music, we will break through barriers to peace and bring justice to Tibet,” said Lhasang Tsering from the stage. The band then performed an emotional rendition of his song “If I Could Go Back to Tibet.”


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Nov 05, 2009 03:22 AM

great piece/peace Maura. one can imagine how happy you are to be in the right place at the right time.

Oct 23, 2011 10:47 PM

ne can imagine how happy you are to be in the right place at the right time

Nov 14, 2009 10:09 AM

Keep up the great work Maura. I'm back in Australia and missing McLeod and the Tibetan people so much. Only a few months (5) until I'll be back though. xx Emily (aussie chick that went to Tibet this year). See you soon

Nov 04, 2009 03:48 PM


Jul 21, 2010 07:26 AM

Freedom, by any non-voilent means neccesssary.

Nov 05, 2009 01:05 PM

keep it up your good work and hope to heard more...