WASHINGTON—Loten Namling was trained from an early age in the traditional music of Tibet. Now, he’s building an international following by fusing Tibetan folk songs with Western-style jazz and blues.
The result is a unique sound built on the “deep feeling” of different genres, Loten said in an interview.
Born in India in 1963 and now living in Switzerland, Loten is a master of the dranyen, a six-stringed Tibetan lute with a long neck and a drum-like lower body often covered with goat or sheep skin.
Many Westerners are familiar with the religious music of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibet’s folk music is less well-known and is played to celebrate harvest festivals, weddings, the raising of houses, and other community events, according to Loten.
Track 1: Om Saraswati So Ha!
Track 15: Ama Le Ho
Loten’s songs, called nangma toesche, come down from the Tibetan Muslims of Kashmir and from the western areas of traditionally Tibetan territory now under Chinese control.
Originally separate styles, they are now customarily played together. Some, said Loten, were composed by Tibet’s sixth Dalai Lama. When he plays these songs, he said, he often feels “transported” back to the days when they were first sung.
“I feel ‘awakened’ at those moments,” Loten said.
Loten’s love of music began when he was a child in the Indian hill-town of Dharamsala.
“There were many older Tibetans who were working building houses or roads,” he said. “And when I was very small I used to watch them, because whenever they worked they used to sing.”
When he was 16, Loten’s parents presented him with a dranyen, and he began to teach himself to play.
Loten was further inspired by visits to his school by traveling performers. He later searched for recordings by older masters and spoke with people who had seen musicians who had played in Tibet.
“I wanted to know about them,” Loten recalled, “how they looked, how they played the instrument, how they sang.”
During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Loten said, Chinese authorities in Tibet tried to destroy all forms of Tibetan culture, including its folk music. Later, they “put a lot of Chinese propaganda songs in these old songs.”
“You know, the lyrics were changed. And then they also tried to change the melodies.”
Today, though older Tibetans prefer the traditional forms, many younger Tibetans listen mainly to the Chinese and “techno”-style style pop music now popular throughout Asia, Loten said.
Loten’s own musical innovations are founded on his love for tradition. At the same time, he said, “it is very important—especially in this new world—to interact with different cultures.”
“I experimented [with] so many different things since I came to Switzerland, from the time that I first arrived here in Europe,” Loten recalled. “I tried many different things with different jazz musicians, or folk and blues styles.”
The CD “White Crane,” released in 2000, includes songs accompanied only by the dranyen and songs accompanied by saxophone, cello, and bass.
At a concert in 2005 in Berlin, Germany, Loten recited poetry and performed a spontaneous jam with a small jazz group.
'My Father's Raven,' from the Berlin Concert.
Tibetans often find it difficult at first to “hear” jazz, Loten said, adding that this was his experience, too.
“There were sounds that I never heard when I was in India. So, it was very difficult. But then of course I kept on listening to it to see what made it so different.”
Blues, too, is now a strong influence on Loten’s approach to his music.
Loten observed that blues can be associated with “Tibetans being oppressed in Tibet by the Chinese.” There is a “raw and fresh” quality to blues, said Loten, whose father and grandfather served as guerrilla fighters against his country’s Chinese invaders.
“I try to be very raw when I sing the Tibetan songs.”
Original reporting in English by Richard Finney. Edited in English by Sarah Jackson-Han and produced for the Web by Luisetta Mudie.