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V/A - Tibetan and Bhutanese Instrumental and Folk Music Vol. 2

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Artist: V/A

Album: Tibetan and Bhutanese Instrumental and Folk Music Vol. 2

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: Apr. 2, 2006

Nestled as it is among the northeastern Indian states of Sikkim, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and with Tibet to the north, the little country of Bhutan was bound to be caught up in a few spheres of influence. With its allusions to the droning tonic (inherent to the classical music of north and south India), as well as the pentatonic scales of the far east, Bhutan's folk music sounds like it might have owed to outside influence injected with foreign incursion after incursion over the millenia.

But, that conjures a new question. For a country so geographically and ideologically isolated that television was just legalized in 1999, would the indigenous inhabitants have resisted, ignored or even simply missed contact with the cultural sway of Mongol, Chinese, Tibetan and perhaps Indian Islamic invaders (that being one ethnic Afghan conqueror Muhammad Bakhtiyar, ca. 1200 A.D., according to historian John Keay). Is it faulty "armchair ethnomusicologist" reasoning to assume that Bhutan was more melting pot than vacuum?

Here, let it be the listener's choice: Take this music at face value and enjoy, or ponder the origin of its formative influences. In any event, the producers of this compilation, originally recorded in Bhutan by John Levy between 1971 and 1972 and subsequently released on the Lyrichord label, saw fit to take the former approach and hint briefly at the latter as food for thought.

As Guy Marc-Hinant asserts in a brief liner essay, some of this stuff is alarmingly bluesy for having been birthed so far from the Mississippi Delta, especially the first few tracks, which feature performances on the lute-like Bhutanese dramnyen, the sound of which checks in somewhere between a tenor guitar and a north-Indian sarod (hold the glissandi). Performer Ge-le Do-pe's resonant vocal scuttles pleasantly about his own dramnyen countermelody, never once sounding completely alien nor alienating. Do-pe (who, according to the outer packaging notes, was the Queen Mum's household painter as well as a prodigious musician) also contributes a performance on the donglim, or six-holed whistle. The birdsong-like flurry of notes sets up the next set of vocal solo tracks, which follow a similar approach to melody. As the vocalists deliver simple stories in intricate, warbling head voices, it's evident that there are some complexities at play here that are indiscernible to western ears. A few tracks – notably, an ominous-sounding excerpt from a Tibetan drama as performed by a troupe of yak and cow herdsmen – explore rhythms of the region, manifested by a sparse stomp or clacking pellet-drum serving as accompaniment to the vocalists.

The bulk of the material is presented in a light scholarly/archival context, although Levy's respect and devotion to his subject matter is palpable. Consider his inclusion of a track featuring an elderly minstrel singing a simple, fiddle-accompanied devotional song with enthusiastic help from his young son. Intentional or not, it comes across as a touching reminder of one reason why music "of the people, for the people" is vital in not just this society but any society.

While not an exhaustive overview (can one exist, really?), this coupled with Sub Rosa's first volume of Tibetan Buddhist ritual music of is perhaps the most well-rounded glimpse of music from a little country so equally little heard of and fascinating. And although it's not the point of the collection, maybe there is some evidence of cross-pollination here after all. A track featuring Tibetan fiddle solo track could have been cribbed from a Scottish highland piper – or, perhaps more accurately, vice versa. The world may never know, but it's an intriguing notion all the same.

By Adam MacGregor

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