Throughout history, Tibet has always been the crossroads between South and East Asia. When Tibetan King Trisong Detsen decided to convert to Buddhism, he listened to teachers from both India and China, and eventually embraced the Vajrayana teachings from India, an auspicious choice that enabled this uniquely Indian branch of Buddhism to survive after it disappeared in India. Now that the Chinese have conquered Tibet, South Asian countries like Nepal and India have become the homes of many Tibetan Buddhist refugees. It is not easy to both adapt and preserve a culture when transplanted to a new homeland. But when there are Tibetans like Chöying Drolma, there is hope that Tibetan Buddhism can both safeguard its essence and change for the better.
In the West, the cry “Get thee to a nunnery!” is a command to keep wayward daughters under the thumb of patriarchal control. For Drolma, however, becoming a Buddhist nun was an act of rebellion against the traditional female role. “When I was nine, I didn’t want the life that was laid out for me: get married, have kids, be sad. One night my mother was comforting me, and I said, ‘Do I really have to go through all this? Like you?’ And she said, ‘No, you could become a nun.’ I didn’t know anything about what it meant to be a nun, but just not having to get married was enough for me.”
At the age of 10, she took some money she had saved and ran away from home to a nearby monastery. When she said she wanted to become a nun, the monks laughed at first. But once they realized she was serious, they cut her hair and gave her refuge vows and her Buddhist name. And to her surprise, her parents were very happy when she returned home with the news.
The next several years produced deep inner changes as she developed her inner practice, but no dramatic outward changes until a visiting American musician named Steve Tibbetts heard her chanting traditional prayers. He was so moved by the sound of her voice that the first time he tried to record her on cassette he forgot to take off the “Pause” button. But he returned later with high-fidelity digital equipment, and made several vocal tracks that he took back to his studio in St. Paul, Minn. After months of careful work he added guitar, percussion, and electronics, producing the widely acclaimed album Chö. Tibbetts eventually even booked a tour with Drolma, himself, and percussionist Marc Anderson. The three of them traveled around America in a van, playing churches, concert halls, and even a few bars.
Drolma was not sure at first that she approved of what Tibbetts had done with her chanting, which she had thought of as being more like worship than performance. But she eventually decided that this music was not only spiritually legitimate, but also an effective way of raising funds to help other nuns. She made three other albums of her own, (all with unaccompanied voice), toured Denmark and Germany, and seven years later made her second album with Tibbetts—this year’s Selwa, on Six Degrees Records.
While Chö was basically an artfully enhanced field recording, Selwa is a musical collaboration between two artists who have grown to understand each other. Both albums were made by recording Drolma’s voice in Nepal and then enhancing the tracks in Tibbett’s studio. But Drolma’s voice is now much more musical, with a rich melodious tone and vocal ornaments derived from both Indian and Tibetan music. On Chö, Drolma, and the nuns who accompanied her, played traditional Tibetan bells and drums to keep the beat. On Selwa, she sang to an unrecorded drone playing in her headphones. This gave Tibbetts much more freedom to add both chords and rhythms of his own—a freedom he uses sparsely and sensitively.
These are traditional chants in Tibetan and Sanskrit, many of which describe the complex visualizations in Vajrayana meditations. But Vajrayana practices are designed to transform powerful emotions, not suppress them, so each of these chants has a distinct emotional mood that Tibbetts specifically enhances. For example, the one track that has a high-powered techno drum loop is a chant to Kali “Powerful blood drinker, glorious vitality.” Don’t think, however, that this is an album of remixes for the dance floor. The main elements are acoustic guitar, subtle atmospheric synthesizer, and Marc Anderson’s hand percussion. Tibbetts adapts the music to the original chants, not the other way around, and there is no question that each of these tracks is a prayer first and a piece of music second.
Anyone who wonders whether this Tibetan Nun has “gone commercial” should visit her website at www.choying.com. Yes, she has mp3s of her music available, and a schedule of her concert tours. But every penny she earns goes to the Nun’s Welfare Foundation of Nepal, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the education and welfare of Buddhist nuns. The foundation’s biggest project is the Arya Tara School, which provides free education to impoverished young girls. These girls learn not only traditional Buddhist dharma and meditation, but also modern secular subjects such as math, science, and foreign languages. One can almost see the face of the feisty 10-year-old Drolma when one reads, “It is our hope that when society begins to see nuns living with noble motivation and action, they will also be inspired to view the education of girls and boys with an equal weighting.” After reading the plans for the new and expanded school, and seeing the photographs of the young girls at prayer and in the classroom, I gave them some money. Where else can you get an opportunity to support both traditional Buddhism and women’s liberation with the same contribution?
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.