A Nubri song that starts out as a mantra to Avalokitsewara urges the listener to not be lazy like a cow, but to take heed of impermanence and practice the dharma in this life. The simple lyrics encapsulate the wisdom of Buddhist philosophy: that life is transient, suffering inevitable, and the only way to remedy this is to practice dharma through good deeds.
The songs exhort listeners and singers to turn the mind away from samsaric occupations towards dharma, and translate complicated Buddhist precepts into easy to grasp explanations of the preciousness of life, karma, and how to life can be made meaningful before its inevitable end.
In one song, Lama Pema Gyamtsho evokes an image of Kathmandu Valley’s holy sites and in doing so orients the people of Nubri towards Kathmandu, rather than Lhasa.
Boudha stupa is the great father
Swoyambhu is the great mother
The supreme pilgrimage places
That are not found in other worlds are there
Says Brown: “Their cosmology is usually organised in a mandala form. Usually there are two competing mandalas, of China and of Dharmashala, and Nepal is left out. But for the people of Nubri, Kathmandu is the centre.” Even so, the songs represent a Nubri-centred worldview rather than an acceptance of the dominance of Kathmandu.
With Boudha as the father and Swayambhu as the mother, the other chaityas between them are supposed to be ‘happy sons,’ self-arisen from leftover stones. Like most folk art, the songs provide a way of challenging dominant ideas and reversing a community’s marginalised status vis-a-vis other power centres, and passing on its unique identity to future generations.
Brown says each of Nepal’s Tibetan communities has a different music traditional with a unique identity. In Langtang he found musical harmony (playing more than one note at a time) more common in Western music.
The references to philosophy and spirituality, however, may be in danger of being lost due to the popularity of other forms of music among youngsters who migrate out of the high mountain villages for study and work.
But when he sees the same youth document their heritage with mobile phones, Brown is optimistic: “There are still young people who care deeply about local identity, so we don’t need to worry about it yet. Hopefully, the music will be preserved and passed on.”