Rocking For a Free Tibet

A three-brother band in McLeod Ganj is giving voice to the angst of the Tibetan youth in exile

An old picture of the JJI brothers seen on a wall at their rehearsal space. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SAMI SIVA
01 November, 2010

I HAVE A PROBLEM WITH MY HEAD. It’s like short-term memory loss,” says Tensin Jigme, a sheepish smile spreading across his face. “It’s here, in my head, but I am not able to remember it exactly. You are going to have a hard time talking to me.” I have just asked him what music he is into while Jimi Hendrix bellows from the café speakers in the background.

Jigme is a part of a local three-brother band called JJI Exile Brothers— their names in the order of age: Jamyang, 33 (bass and lead vocals), Jigme, 31 (lead guitar, vocals) and Ingsel, 30 (drums and vocals). The brothers are second-generation Tibetan refugees living in exile in McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the official residence of the 14th Dalai Lama. The town is home to several Buddhist monasteries and thousands of Tibetan refugees.

JJI’s music—rock and blues fused with the acoustic melodies of Tibetan instruments and Bob Marley-style protest lyrics—is giving voice to the un-Buddhist rage of this troubled generation. The continuing unrest in Tibet has immediate repercussions on the exiled community in McLeod Ganj.

We are in the JJI Exile Brothers Café on Bhagsu Road, run by the brothers’ mother and uncle, one of many bustling spaces along the Bhagsu stretch where tourists come to buy Buddha statues, thangka paintings and Free Tibet t-shirts.

Jigme plays his guitar before the Sunday show at their café. {{name}}

Jigme disappears while I study the vibrant interiors, struck by the imagery of numerous colourful posts stuck to a bulletin board from visitors, fans and musicians with whom the band has performed.

Acha Nyima-la, the brothers’ mother and band manager, eases into Jigme’s place in the chair. The breakfast crowd has left and it will be a while before the lunch-seekers start trickling in. A lone customer sits at one of the six tables, leisurely reading a newspaper and drinking his coffee.

Nyima, a petite woman with a short crop and wary eyes, looks strikingly younger than her 50-something years (she is not sure about her exact age). She runs the café, teaches Tibetan at an international school and takes care of the band—from renting sound systems for the local shows to managing their international tours—not to mention being a single mother.

As a child, she came to McLeod Ganj with relatives soon after a group of refugees had escaped Tibet in March 1959, following the brutal invasion by the Chinese Red Army. The group accompanied Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who had fled Tibet after a failed uprising against the Communist Party of China. The Indian government offered him refuge in Dharamsala, where he moved the exiled government in 1960, after having established it in Mussoorie.

Nyima has no memory of Tibet or her parents. “I think they could have been killed by the Chinese,” she says, fiddling with the pockets of her chuba, the traditional Tibetan dress for women, an ankle-length robe bound around the waist by a long sash and worn over a long-sleeved blouse.

She beams at the mention of her ‘rock star’ sons. “I realised early that the all three boys were interested in music. They have grown up listening to The Beatles, The Doors and regular Bollywood songs that I played. When still in school they used to sing while playing imaginary guitars, drums. In 1998, they said they wanted to form a band and take to music professionally. I said let me listen to your music before I approve. We did a local show and some people came and they liked the music. The second show we organised was big. It was on the Tibetan New Year. We thought nobody would come but 300 people turned up at the 500-seat auditorium. Media from all over the world came for the celebrations—CNN, BBC, Star TV, NDTV. The band became popular after that event.”

She talks of the transformation of the town from a little-known hill station into a tourist hotspot for honeymooners and pilgrims alike. Yet an undercurrent of conflict exists between Indians and Tibetans in the town that hosts hundreds of thousands of travellers every year, of whom a vast majority come for the Dalai Lama’s teachings. The native Himachalis feel the Tibetans try to dominate the tourism business—hotels, taxis, guided tours—because they think it’s their right. There is also a notion among the Indian community that the Tibetans are flush with foreign aid and do not need their support any more.

Nyima, however, says refugee life is one of insecurity. “There is no government support for us, in the way that the Indian government supports their musicians. The band can’t participate in music shows on TV or take part in national music competitions because we are not Indians. When we organise shows here, we book the hall, rent the sound system ourselves. While the guitars are a gift from my American students, I had to sell my jewellery to arrange money to record their first album. But I don’t care. I grew up as an orphan and I wanted to make sure that my children could pursue whatever they wanted to.”

THE NEXT MORNING, Jigme confesses he was a rebellious teen, the sheepish smile still there. He has a modest build and the eyes of a baby goat, his long, straight hair parted in the middle. Small blue danglers show in his ears every time he laughs, throwing his head back. At 15, he and some of his “partners in crime” ran away from his residential Lower Tibetan Children’s Village school. With whatever money they had on them, the gang took a train to Bombay where, having roamed the city and slept at the railway platforms, they proceeded to Calcutta to repeat the routine. But once there, they soon ran out of money and panicked on realising they had no way home. “There was no other option, we had to call the school administration,” he says. “They sent a teacher to Calcutta to get us back, and once there, we were punished in the morning assembly the next day, in front of the whole school. That, besides the beating from my mother, who had no clue I was missing.”

The rehearsal space of the band. {{name}}

Jigme talks and pours cups of herbal tea, sitting in their much-lived-in room; right beside the café, down a flight of cement steps, under a corrugated tin roof. The two cushions on the single bed are still warm with sleep. The old TV plays the Discovery Channel. The walls are consumed by Tibetan masks, prayer flags and freedom graffiti. The adjacent practice room is packed with guitars, drums, microphones, amplifiers and cables. Rolling papers and empty cigarette packets occupy whatever space is left. On the table, along with a big mug of tea and books of contemporary Tibetan poetry, is an ashtray the shape of the mythological Snow Lion, the national emblem of Tibet.

Jigme has just returned from the preliminary voting to nominate candidates for the post of Kalon Tripa, the leader of the Cabinet of the Central Tibetan Administration, and members of parliament. The main elections are due in March next year. Since this morning, hundreds of exiled Tibetans have cast their votes in the courtyard of  Tsuglag Khang (the Main Tibetan Temple). The 2011 general elections are of strategic importance in respect of the China-Tibet conflict, as they will decide the successor to the incumbent Kalon Tripa, marking the first democratic transfer of executive power in the history of Tibet.

The question of a world without the Dalai Lama looms over the hill-town, as both Tibetans and the spiritual leader himself, who turned 75 this year, ponder what will become of the independence movement after he dies. China hopes it will naturally lose steam. The more the Chinese officials and the Dalai Lama’s representatives bargain over the conditions of autonomy, the farther they seem from a breakthrough.

The exiled community has been demanding a young and vibrant political leadership to replace the current rulers, many of whom accompanied the Dalai Lama into India in 1959. “We need someone dynamic, modern, and definitely not from the religious community to lead the community in exile,” said Serta Tsultrim, editor of the McLeod Ganj-based Tibet Express newspaper, to the Guardian at the time of the Tibetan spiritual leader’s 75th birthday celebrations in July.

Jigme won’t say who he voted for, though he is very concerned about the future of the community. While a Tibetan homecoming remains the ultimate desire, most exiles just long for citizenship. Anywhere. Newly-arrived Tibetans in McLeod Ganj are no longer able to legally obtain residence permits, at one time given to Tibetan refugees “as a matter of course,” according to a representative of the International Campaign for Tibet quoted on UNHCR’s website. Legally obtained Indian residence permits are now only automatically available to children of Tibetans who arrived in India before 1979. Refugees who have permits must renew them every year, the renewal entirely at the discretion of the Indian government. India’s official position towards Tibetan refugees is not at all straightforward. While it has supported the demand for Tibetan independence for decades, having hosted some 110,000 Tibetan refugees as of late 2001, the government reversed its stand between 2003 and 2006 in exchange for China’s acceptance of Sikkim as part of India. “I want to go back to Lhasa, but only to a free Lhasa,” says Jigme, his voice suddenly heavy.

The JJI brothers perform at their café. {{name}}

Cultural activities in this society are often used as a potent means to fight the Chinese influence in Tibet and to pre-empt the drift of exiled Tibetans fading away into their host societies, says Keila Diehl in her book Echoes from Dharamsala. A cultural anthropologist who spent years in McLeod Ganj studying the power of music in the re-creation of Tibetan culture in exile, Diehl explores the popularity of Western rock and roll among Tibetan youth, and the emergence of a new genre of modern Tibetan music.

“Earlier, Tibetan songs were too poetic. No one understood them. We wanted to create music that the Tibetan youth identified with. Everyone understands our music,” says Jigme. JJI Exile Brothers’ music draws generously from three musical streams: traditional Tibetan, contemporary Hindi and Western music of the 1940s and 50s. I ask him how their songs came to be so political and nationalistic. “We grew up hearing stories of the Chinese atrocities on our people from our parents, teachers, textbooks. The cause is not something we took up consciously. Freedom is in our blood.”

They released their first album in 2002, on the Dalai Lama’s birthday. The album did well locally and the brothers became a rage among the exiled youth. The nine tracks on the self-titled album are a mix of traditional songs, rock, blues, country, and poetic ballads, most lyrics in Tibetan. The band refuses to slot their music under any category, and it is difficult to define their sound. A local fan calls it “Tibetan blues.”

The theme running through the songs is the frustration and anxiety of the exiled Tibetans, except in ‘I asked her,’ in which a guy, well, asks a girl out, and in ‘Hey Mom,’ dedicated to their mother, in which a guy complains to his mother about his meagre pocket money.

The first song, ‘If,’ a rock number, is about what life would have been like for their people if the Chinese never invaded Tibet. Loosely translated, the lyrics are, “If there is no Chinese/if no one is killing Buddhists/I don’t have to sing this freedom song.” ‘Kharakri,’ a deep-voiced traditional

Tibetan song played with the dranyen, a kind of Tibetan guitar, is about the Dalai Lama’s escape to India.

IN 2008, JJI exile brothers toured the US and Europe, playing various concerts routinely organised to raise awareness of the Tibet issue and celebrate Tibetan culture—the Himalaya Film Festival, Amsterdam, February; The Inner Voice of Freedom, Vienna, June; and Playing for Change Foundation, Denver, November; the last one being a milestone for the band.

Mark Johnson, an accomplished music producer, film director and the founder of the Playing for Change Foundation, a Santa Monica-based organisation dedicated to connecting the world through music, discovered the band on his trip to Delhi’s Tibetan refugee centre, Majnu ka Tila, in 2006. He was working on a documentary, Peace Through Music, which began in Los Angles and moved through New Orleans, European cities, South African townships and Kathmandu. Johnson had come to India with his crew to cover the last leg of his film. A friend of Johnson’s in India, William Aura, recommended the JJI Exile Brothers. Soon he was in McLeod Ganj with his team, heading to JJI Exile Brothers Café. He was blown away upon hearing the music. “I was a very happy man that day, I was surprised to find traditional Tibetan laced with a keen Western influence,” he said in a interview to Rolling Stone India soon after. “It was like Crosby, Stills and Nash happening [all] over [again].” During their two weeks travelling with the foundation in the US, the Exile Brothers also recorded some songs in Bob Dylan’s former studio, Shangri-la Studios in Malibu, California.

The brothers have just one vivid memory of the entire visit. “I was smoking a bidi outside the Bob Dylan studio, and this man comes and asks me what is it that I am smoking. I later learnt he was the owner of the studio. I told him it’s like a cigar. He asked me if he could try one too and I gave him a bidi. He loved the taste. That night he dimmed the lights in the studio, lit three candles, and lay on the floor smoking bidis as we recorded,” says Jamyang, the oldest of the brothers, before breaking into a guffaw. Jamyang is a slightly plump man with a round face, long, curly hair that fall to his shoulders and a big laugh.

Nyima and Jamyang sing along as Ingsel opens the show at the café. {{name}}

SUNDAYS AT THE JJI EXILE CAFÉ mean a performance by the brothers. This particular Sunday is also the day a discourse by the Dalai Lama starts at the Main Temple. Around 5,000 Buddhist followers from 57 countries have thronged the small town. The JJI Exile Café buzzes with preparations for the evening. By 7 pm, the instruments and amps have created a small stage space in the back of the restaurant. The 100-rupee tickets are sold out and the seating room for 25 is packed, most of it occupied by foreign tourists. The youngest brother, Ingsel, starts the show with his signature traditional songs and the other two soon join him on stage to perform popular songs from the album as well as some new ones. An hour into the show, people in the street are glued to the café’s glass door and those inside are dancing. The brothers are quite a sight—tossing their heads and flirting with the girls in the audience.

It has been seven years since their first album. The brothers have been unusually laidback about their future plans for a while. “We have worked on some songs but have mostly not done any big shows or recording for the last two years. There are some phases like that, you know,” says Jamyang.

Since the violent Chinese repression of Tibetan protests in March 2008 that led to killings and the imprisonment of hundreds of Tibetans, there has been a moratorium in McLeod on any public Tibetan entertainment.

Jigme, though, has been writing some songs. “The lyrics look inward. We keep blaming other people for all our problems. This time I am criticising the Tibetan community for its certain aspects.” He won’t give any details as “it’s not for the outsiders to know.” But he goes on to say that one of the songs is about monks who roll their prayer beads through their fingers, circumambulating the temple, while gossiping about other people. “I might have to wear a helmet after the next album is out.”