Lhamo began the evening alone before the audience. She entered the stage quietly and then stood for a moment in silence, strikingly priestess-like in a gold Tibet gown with her long black hair falling to below her waist. With slow, modified Tibetan dance gestures, she then began to sing. More accurately, she offered to the audience a series of musical sounds of tremendous sweetness, wistfulness and simultaneous strength, extending high notes to impossible lengths so that they floated, suspended, out over the audience until they dissipated at a distance.
Lhamo then addressed the audience in an English that, though fragmented and ungrammatical, nonetheless conveyed her intentions and hopes. Speaking almost in a whisper, she inquired as to everyone’s comfort – Warm enough? Really, warm enough? But not too warm? and later, Are you thirsty? – and then explained both her own intentions in music-making and the ideals of daily life that we should all aspire to. Lhamo reminded the audience that this moment, every moment, is precious, that we should use our voices to reach up to the highest, to ask for blessings and to give them. She then set the audience to a steady “ohm” as she “set syllables on top of it” and after a few minutes, the space vibrated.
Lhamo was soon joined on stage by her colleagues. Over the course of the next several songs, the four musicians collaborated smoothly, flexibly and gracefully. The music they made together – Lhamo’s songs – varied tremendously from one piece to the next: some were gentle and lyrical, some sexy and witty, some impassioned and huge. Two commonalities emerged. First, the organic, mutually respectful musicianship of all four was part of the atmosphere of shared welcome and engagement that Lhama established from her very first appearance on stage. Second, Lhamo’s sense of artistic and spiritual – and, by extension, social and political – mission of reverence for mindfulness, personal and global interconnectedness, and shared blessings as an instrument of peace informed every moment of her performance.
Though Lhamo has absorbed all sorts of Western musical idioms and made them her own, her voice is distinct in its range of octaves and volumes and in its gorgeous ability to make both human and nature sounds that Western singers wouldn’t permit themselves to attempt. Lhamo’s musical origins are identifiably Tibetan, but the accumulation of her human and artistic experience has made of both her voice and her intentions something entirely her own.
Improbable meetings of allusion and reference made for new, unexpectedly natural feeling genres. One song had the feel of spacious, leisurely monastic blues. Another contained an urban salsa edge with flirtatious birdsong.
In one or two songs, there were recognizable English lyrics – one funny song was about the cosmic futility of dependence on electronic gadgets for true and meaningful communication – but mostly, the songs’ “words” were sounds and syllables as well as formal lyrics in Tibetan. For members of the audience who don’t know Tibet’s language, the listening experience became an intensely sensual one, based on memory, imagination and an immersion in non-verbal sense. One particularly beautiful song might have been a lullaby, a lament for love lost, a dream or a prayer; it was gentle and ethereal.
Speaking regularly to the audience, always solicitous of their happiness, Lhamo spoke of music and song as a means to send light into the world, to release one’s capacity for unconditional love. Her shared thoughts were never explicitly political, yet it was clear that she perceives her own singing as a way to elicit from within herself and her colleagues, from within anyone who will sing with her and from her audience a capacity to bring peace to the world we all share.
Her final two songs – the formal last song of the concert and an encore – were exquisite. Their delicacy was like something transparent; their fluidity was sensuous; their weightlessness floated between a haunting and limitless hope.
The concert was very much a gift from Lhamo and her colleagues to the audience, one that offered complex artistic beauty on the one hand and optimism about the human capacity for good on the other.
Lhamo’s remarkable gifts will be offered again on March 8, 2015 at the Marble Collegiate Church at 2:30 in the afternoon. They should be captured and cherished.
Yungchen Lhamo (January 28, 2015)
World Music Institute
Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater of the Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street