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'Tibet in Song' Tells About the Importance of Protecting Musical Traditions

The filmmaker, Ngawang Choephel, right, and a friend, prepare a traditional song for 'Tibet in Song'
The filmmaker, Ngawang Choephel, right, and a friend, prepare a traditional song for 'Tibet in Song'

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STEVE EMBER: I’m Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I’m Shirley Griffith with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Our subjects this week are movies. First, we discuss a movie made by Tibetan filmmaker Ngawang Choephel called “Tibet in Song.” It tells about his efforts to help protect traditional Tibetan music and better understand his own culture and homeland. We also learn about an online short-film festival celebrating women and the Muslim world.


STEVE EMBER: “Tibet in Song” is a celebration of traditional Tibetan folk music. It also explores resistance against cultural repression. The movie gives a clear picture of how China has worked to repress cultural freedom inside Tibet over the past fifty years.

Director Ngawang Choephel was two years old when he and his mother fled Chinese-ruled Tibet in nineteen sixty-eight. He grew up in a refugee camp in India. In the camp he heard traditional Tibetan songs from older refugees.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Like other folk music traditions, these Tibetan songs are about everyday life. They deal with subjects including family, social events, love and nature.

NGAWANG CHOEPHEL: “Tibetan folk music originated directly from ordinary Tibetan people’s mind. It’s a very pure form of, you know, oral tradition, of our Tibetan people’s history, knowledge and beliefs.”

In nineteen ninety-three, Mr. Choephel graduated from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India. Then he received a Fulbright scholarship to study musicology and filmmaking at Middlebury College in the American state of Vermont.

He noticed that the school’s music library had traditional music from all over the world. But it only had one recording of Tibetan music.

He decided to collect Tibetan folk songs himself. In nineteen ninety-five he traveled to Tibet. He visited rural areas and filmed people singing folk songs. After two months, he was arrested by Chinese officials.

NGAWANG CHOEPHEL: “They thought that I was doing a kind of spy work, which I did not.”

STEVE EMBER: Ngawang Choephel was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. He learned folk songs from other prisoners. He wrote down the songs on paper from cigarette packages. He also wrote his own songs.

NGAWANG CHOEPHEL: "I composed the melody in prison and one of my prison mates, he's actually my hero, he wrote the lyrics. It is about his determination. He says that 'No matter how bad enemies are to you, I'll never bow down my head. I'll never stop the fight.'"

Ngawang Choephel’s mother started a campaign to urge support for his release. Musicians Paul McCartney and Annie Lennox became involved, along with several United States lawmakers. Their efforts led to his release in two thousand two. He had been detained for six and a half years.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: When Ngawang Choephel returned to the United States, he decided to expand his project. He would collect Tibetan music and make a documentary movie about his efforts. Some of the recordings used in the movie were filmed by Mr. Choephel before his arrest in nineteen ninety-five. He had sent several tapes to a friend in India, so the recordings survived.

NGAWANG CHOEPHEL: "There are about seventeen songs. The story of this film is about the beauty of Tibetan music, and the diversity of Tibetan music and the beauty of the Tibetan culture in general. The film also is about my story and what has happened to me.”

STEVE EMBER: “Tibet in Song” also brings attention to what has happened in Tibet over the last fifty years. Mr. Choephel says that there are not many traditional Tibetan songs left except in some rural areas. He says China saw Tibetan culture as a threat. He says China used to train Tibetan singers to sing Chinese propaganda songs instead of their traditional music. And today, younger generations are more interested in current pop music recordings than music of the past.

“Tibet in Song” won the special Jury Prize for Documentary at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Ngawang Choephel says his movie is a call to action to the world and to the Tibetan people to save this special music before it is gone forever.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: An online competition is now ending for what is being called the first-ever international viewing of short films about Islam and women. Women’s Voices Now is an organization that formed in January. Its aim is to empower women by bringing attention to their struggle for civil, economic and political rights. The organization launched the film festival as part of its first year in action.

STEVE EMBER: “Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival” is aimed at bringing together women from many religions and backgrounds so they can tell their stories. The short movies are about women who live in Muslim majority countries, as well as Muslim women living as minorities around the world.

An invitation to submit films for the online competition went out in early October. The project was open to everyone, no matter his or her film experience, nationality or religion. Organizers will judge the films and give prize money to the winning filmmakers. The top films will also be shown in March at a Women’s Voices Now Festival in Los Angeles, California.

Human rights lawyer Catinca Tabacaru helped create Women’s Voices Now. She says the film festival aims to give a fair and deep look at how Muslim women are defending their rights.

Human rights lawyer Catinca Tabacaru helped establish the non-profit group that supports 'Women's Voices from the Muslim World - a Short-Film Festival'
Human rights lawyer Catinca Tabacaru helped establish the non-profit group that supports 'Women's Voices from the Muslim World - a Short-Film Festival'

CATINCA TABACARU: “There’s so much work being done in Muslim majority countries and by Muslim women outside of those countries for women’s rights. There is a social movement happening and that’s what we wanted to get behind.”

Catinca Tabacaru says the festival is the first to show a group of films about women who are in some way touched by Islam. She says it was especially important that some movies pay attention to the successes of Muslim women.

CATINCA TABACARU: “We’re very used to hearing about the Muslim woman as the victim, the oppressed, the veiled. What we are seeing through this film festival is that we’re getting stories which we would have never dreamed of getting. They are about women doing things that, before doing this project, I wouldn’t have imagined.”

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Organizers chose short films because they are less costly to produce and they can more easily be shared with viewers online. Showing the movies online was important so that people can easily watch them, make comments and rate the movies. Entries for the festival include a wide range of movies from around the world. Some tell imaginary stories, while others are documentaries. Countries represented include Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Niger and Turkey.

STEVE EMBER: Iranian-born Mostafa Heravi’s movie “Somaye” has no words. His movie shows striking images of a woman in a head-covering alone on a windy beach.

Pakistani Sanaa Iftikhar made a movie called “I Accept, I Accept, I Accept.” The film shows a young bride preparing her clothing and jewelry for her marriage ceremony. She expresses her doubts and fears about her future with her husband as she gives up her independence.

Jehan Harney in the United States submitted a film called “The Color of Veil.” It tells about the experiences of an American Muslim woman named Kimberly who wears a special cloth to cover her hair. She talks about how it was not easy for her to find a job because people did not like her head-covering.

Many of the films are from Afghanistan. One is called “We Are Postmodern” by Alka Sadat. It shows a girl and her mother begging for money in the street, day after day. A young boy stops to give them a coin every time he passes them.

Another Afghan film is called “A, B, C.” This movie by Mahbooba Ibrahimi tells about a fifteen-year-old Afghan girl named Tamanna. She is disabled and cannot attend school.

Her mother tries to find a teacher who will give her daughter private lessons so she can have an education.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Catinca Tabacaru says the response to the online film competition has been very good. More than seventy-five films have been entered. She says she hopes the films will get people to open their minds about the Muslim world.

CATINCA TABACARU :"And this is one thing this festival does; it provides information and it provides a new and more complex and nuanced view of these women, which I hope will challenge perceptions and will challenge the way we are so typically used to relating to the Muslim world. I think it's very important to the future."

STEVE EMBER: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange, with reporting by Faiza Elmasry and Julie Taboh. I’m Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I’m Shirley Griffith. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at And you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.