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Tibetan Traditional and Folk Music

The line between sacred and secular can be quite fuzzy when it comes to traditional and folk music of Tibet. Although some music, like love songs or work songs, is obviously not religious, many vocal songs, dances, drama/theater and instrumental ensembles depict religious scenes or accompany religious celebrations. The difference between this music and that under the heading “Tibetan Sacred/Monastic Music” is that the music presented here is not performed by monks.

Tibetan folk songs are generally performed solo or in unison chorus, sometimes accompanied by a chordophone, or stringed instrument. Songs are often strophic and melodies tend to be melismatic, with a great amount of weight put on ornamentation. There are two general types of song genres: glu, which is vocal only, and ghazs, which can be danced to and/or accompanied instrumentally. There are many different sub-genres within the glu and ghazs genres. Lyrical topics include banditry, love themes, satire about government, and herding.

Another form of traditional music is called gar, which is court music and dance of the Dalai Lama’s court. Gar includes sword dances and dances designated ‘male’ and ‘female’, accompanied by brDa-ma (drums) and bsu-nam (oboes), a traditional pairing of instruments in Tibet. Instrumental ensembles also perform without dancers in the gar tradition. The ensemble is typically made up of percussive and wind instruments, although sometimes replaced with chordophone ensembles.

Other traditional musical styles include nang-ma, and lha-mo, and the epic narrative, of which it is thought that only one, the Gesar narrative, still exists today. Epic narratives were/are traditionally performed by men, in which they go back and forth between reciting parts of the story and singing songs to well-known tunes. Nang-ma is a secular song-and-dance genre with instrumental accompaniment that in the past was often performed at special festivities, and is often performed in three parts: instrumental prelude, song, and dance. Today over 100 songs in this genre are still performed. Lha-mo, or Tibetan opera, only consists of eight different plays, which are performed by a troupe. The play includes narrative, dance, miming, singing, and instrumental ensembles, with wonderful costumes and masks. Songs from the nang-ma and lha-mo traditions can both be found today being sung in karaoke bars.


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