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|June 4 - June 10, 2009
A culture divided
Eastern Tibet makes a rare Western appearance
by Gene Ira Katz
A rare performance of music and dance from one of the most remote areas of the world whirls onto the stage of the Boulder Theater.
When most Americans think of Tibet, they either picture Mount Everest’s majestic peak or Richard Gere’s not-so-majestic shaved head. However, the country has a rich history of culture and art that varies greatly from one region to the next.
The region known as Kham lies on the eastern side of country, also known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Speaking distinctly different dialects and having developed a culture of their own, the people of Kham were once known as the Warriors of Tibet, a fiercely independent group, as one might expect from one of the highest elevations on the planet, with an average height of 15,000 feet. Kham was never controlled by a single king, but was a patchwork of two dozen or more kingdoms, tribes and chiefdoms that were constantly at war with each other. Since the collapse of the Tibetan Empire in the 9th century, the people of Kham aggressively maintained their independence from the modern capital of Lhasa.
Life has never been easy for the people of Eastern Tibet, about 2 million souls spread out over approximately a half million square miles, isolated from the rest of the world by its rugged mountain terrain, deep gorges and swiftly flowing rivers. In 2007, the Chinese news media reported that the annual per capita disposable income in the region averaged less than the equivalent of $400, primarily derived from limited agriculture and animal husbandry. Even though the People’s Republic of China — which claimed ultimate authority over the region after taking over Tibet in 1950 — recently adopted a program to boost economic development, the people in the TAR remain among the most economically challenged populations on Earth. According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy “…there is an indication that over 70 percent of the people living in the Tibet Autonomous Region are below the poverty line. These figures are also confirmed by refugee reports which indicate that many people face problems with food shortages, access to health care, education, and in other areas such as employment and housing.”
The Eastern Tibetan Culture Foundation, located in the Boulder area, was formed to preserve the endangered culture of Eastern Tibet. The ETC Foundation is promoting the upcoming presentation of the Eastern Tibet Dance Ensemble as a fundraiser to assist children of Eastern Tibet to attend school and help preserve and disseminate the values, culture and traditions of the Eastern Tibetan way of life. Spokesperson AH Dhar emphasizes that the concert is focused on cultural awareness and has no underlying political message.
“We are about raising money for education for the children and to help poor families,” he says.
Dhar notes that the people of Eastern Tibet have more in common with the traditions of Mongolia than those of China, specifically the similarities in many of the foods, spiritual traditions and cultural influences. This shows up in the performance elements as well with a lot of shared folk characteristics.
The area’s folk music can be divided into five categories: 1) singing and dancing, 2) ballad, 3) labor songs, 4) talking and singing and 5) instrumental. Singing and dancing music includes “Goshie,” which in Tibetan means singing and dancing in a circle.
“Shieqen” is singing and dancing of sobriety and elegance played at grand and ceremonious celebrations. “Raba” music includes instruments accompanying dancing and singing or interludes accompanied by Raba drums and brass bells. A yak horn qin is often played for accompaniment. “Agar” is singing and dancing associated with construction work. It is a very old and traditional art of singing and working while building monasteries, palaces and manors, and while repairing roofs or floors. Pasturing songs include herding songs, butter-making songs, shearing songs, milking songs and butter-refining songs, and they are among the popular traditions in the Kham area.
Dhar notes that the Eastern Tibet Dance Ensemble has toured in China and Taiwan, but the performance here in Boulder is a rare opportunity for Americans to see this colorful troupe in person.
Not only does this performance expand our understanding of a faraway culture, but this also promises to be a must-see evening of dance and music for a good cause.
On the Bill:
The Eastern Tibetan Dance Ensemble was scheduled to perform on June 5; however, at press time, we received news that the show has been postponed. Please check the Boulder Theater website (www.bouldertheater.com) for the new performance dates.
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