“For us, Buddhism is something we practice from the moment we wake up. We don’t have a class you go to meditate for one hour, and you can’t just say some mantra and say you’re Buddhist. Especially in New York, so many people want to find out what this really means. I don’t particularly wish everyone becomes Buddhist; my wish is that everyone finds their own spiritual path. To become Buddhist is actually very difficult. Here you have so many new styles. If it helps more people, that’s good, but we should find our own spiritual lives.”—Yungchen Lhamo
From the moment Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo entered the T-Salon in New York’s Flatiron district’s there was no gap between her words and her being. Often she apologized for her inability to express herself coherently in English, yet she described her beliefs more fluently, and honestly, than most who only know this tongue. Her knowledge of language coincided with a basic Buddhist tenet: speak only meaningful words. Lhamo says much with little.
Much the same can be said of her three Real World albums, especially Lhamo’s recent Ama. Translating as “mother,” the record is dedicated to her own, an incredible woman who crossed the inexplicable divide Tibetans face in quest of freedom: a 1,000-mile journey on foot over the Himalayas to Dharamsala, India. Along the route her family lost members, not to mention beatings and torture endured while in Tibet. For Lhamo Ama is dedicated to an awareness of suffering her mother courageously undertook, not with weapons or hatred, but because “she never talked about anger or revenge.”
That’s a difficult concept to understand, especially in a city where bumping into someone on the subway could end in screams and punches. And yet Lhamo moved to Queens with her son a decade after making that long mountainous journey. “Often people on the other side of the world look at America as such a problem and disaster,” she said. “In New York there are many problems, but so many good people here want to share. I would like to share with everybody, not just Tibetans in New York. It would be nice for people on the other side to look differently at America.”
Today Lhamo stands as the crowning figure of Tibetan song in the West, a pleasant surprise to a woman who had no plans to sing professionally. Her name, which means “Goddess of Melody and Song,” could ring no truer, but it was her grandmother fostering this career path. Later in life she would be told from no less a man than the Dalai Lama that her duty was to spread Tibetan ritual music around the planet. Prior to that Lhamo had quite different dreams.
“I often said to her that I wanted to become a man. I always thought men were very strong and powerful. There used to be a well by where I lived and we would go there to pull water. The men could take big buckets while I couldn’t even lift a small pail. I wanted to be able to get water for everyone, and then my grandmother said there were other ways to help people.”
Ama, as well as her previous releases, 1996’s Tibet, Tibet and 1998’s Coming Home, are all fascinating examples of hand lending. Hers is a voice that penetrates, burrowing into your eardrums and creating space inside your heart. As in her speech, more is less on record. As beautiful as the instrumentation proves, it is the quiet songs—on Ama, the airy “Someday” and eerie “9/11”—that really hit the heartspace. In fact, this is the only way she performs live.
“Only one time in 14 years have I played with instruments, in Sao Paolo. They said, ‘This country does not understand acappella and you have to bring a band.’ So I took a band and would sing one song acappella, one with the band, and so on. After the concert the promoter said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ and I told her, ‘All my life I’ve performed acappella, you didn’t understand.’ Then she said, ‘I had no idea. Tomorrow we want you to<