One of the places I was most excited to visit on this adventure was Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon, a small country right up against the eastern side of the Himalayas nestled between India and Nepal. They measure their country’s success by Gross National Happiness (GNH), and strive to preserve their national heritage rather than giving into Westernization as many of their neighbors have done. Music and dance are an integral part of Bhutan’s culture and they have many festivals throughout the year, most notably the Tsechu, to honor their traditions and Buddhist religion.
Although I visited during the down season for these events, the Haa District was holding their fifth annual Haa Summer Festival, which showcases traditional living culture, nomadic lifestyles, local cuisine, traditional sports and religious performances. I mingled with the locals, taste tested buckwheat and turnip dumplings and sipped on ara, a regional throat-burning liquor that will have you seeing double.
After opening ceremony speeches by district officials, a group of young women came on stage to perform choreographed dance to boedra, a Tibetan-folk influenced genre of Bhutanese music. The most exciting part of the day, however, was witnessing the cham, a traditional dance enacted by highly trained monks who are adorned in colorful costumes and ornate masks. The masks are hand carved and painted, each representing a demon (think deadly sin) in animal form, most being mythical creatures. For example, the snow lion symbolizes pride and the bird-like garuda personifies stubbornness. Depictions of these can be seen throughout the country, mainly as paintings on the outside of buildings and homes.
The next day I ventured to the Capital of Thimphu to meet with Kheng Sonam Dorji, founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Music of Bhutan Research Center, to discuss the importance of keeping these practices alive. Dorji is a classically trained musician and composer as well as a fierce advocate for the preservation of Bhutanese traditional music and performing arts. The MBRC works to document, archive and record the works of musical elders, such as the master singers and dancers from the 1960s royal court, and in turn use these pieces to obtain international presence and, most importantly, instill these rituals in Bhutan’s youth so that they may carry them into future generations. A couple of the ways they do this is by way of outreach presentations in schools and colleges throughout the various districts of Bhutan, as well as visiting and setting up performances in other countries such as Germany and Austria.
“The first thing is to enhance the essence of the Bhutanese music in our modern day society and present this music to a global audience, because music is very much real in our community foundation. In olden times the actual meaning behind our music, the theme, was spirituality. It was for realization, where you yourself are getting connected with God. It was used virtually for the meditations and for the enlightenment that happens here in Vajrayana Buddhism, [the national religion of Bhutan]. We have that, you know, connectivity. Comprising the spiritual leader of the high Buddhism. This was the core meaning behind the creation of Bhutanese music,” he explained.
To continue their efforts the MBRC has some other large scale projects in the works.
“We are currently working on starting up a museum center where we can house all the archives. There we are planning to have a small [stage] where we can have live performances from the traditional musicians to create a better platform for the artist and to allow them to showcase themselves to visitors. We would also like to incorporate a professional recording studio so that we can render better services to these musicians. Other than BPS, Bhutan Percussion Service, there are really no other quality studios here in the country. Furthermore, I would like to start up a festival of our own called the Himalayan Festival that would be inclusive of all the [Bhutanese] districts, and bring in our neighboring people, such as Nepal and Tibet. And within that, add more flavor by inviting some other countries to take part, such as Ireland and America, to all share our traditions. So these are the things we are planning for the future.”
If you are interested in contributing to the efforts of the MBRC please visit their website for more information.