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Rockers Roar

Six Tibetan youths have drawn attention of world pop music circle by creating a pop music band that combines ethnic Tibetan tradition and rock'n'roll.

Most ethnic Tibetans are pious believers of Lamaism, or the Tibetan Buddhism, that shrouds this snow-clad region on the "roof of the world."

Likewise, the band members keep an almost religious faith that a blend of Tibetan and Western music can bridge the region, along with its people, and the rest of the world.

Vajara, Sanskrit for "Heaven Pestle," is the name and logo of the modern pop music band they formed five years ago. Their debut album, which was released a year ago, caused a sensation in Lhasa.

As soon as it went on sale at Dosengge Avenue, the best-known business center in downtown Lhasa, long queues formed outside the shops, with men and women, old and young, and even Buddhist monks and nuns elbowing one another out of the way to be first in line to buy it.

Songs in the album, featuring contemporary pop ingredients from blues, rock'n'roll to rap, won favorable media coverage and were frequently aired. They are still heard in pubs, clubs and cabs, even on pastures in remote areas.

Gyaco Renbuqen, the Living Buddha of the time-honored Dengqen Monastery, said the songs tell people to perform good deeds. That, he says, falls in line with Dharma, the commandments of Buddhism.

The album's record label, the China Record Chengdu Company, has complained about the raging piracy of this album. Trial sales of the album abroad have also been successful. The band members say the album has attracted the attention of modern music artists in Britain, the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Nepal and India.

For love and care

"We hope that our songs impart our ideas about real life and life as we see it,"
said Dainzin Dawa, the drummer and the "soul" of the band. "We look into human nature and dissuade people from performing evil deeds. People like our album, perhaps because our songs, 13 altogether, give them room for thought."

As Dainzin Dawa says, their songs urge people to lend a helping hand to the needy, condemn men and women who desert their own children after divorce, and console heart-broken men refused by material-minded girls.

One of the songs, Let Me Survive, appeals for mercy to the Tibetan antelopes, a rare species that nonetheless is being hunted for its skin.

My Heart describes a young man being tortured by a yearning for love.

Girl in the Dreamland savors the sweet moment of a young man meeting "girl of his dreams."

There is also the Highland Barley Vintage Ballad that invites guests from afar to enjoy the hospitality that characterizes the Tibetan people.

"In our opinion," said Dainzin Dawa, "life is meaningful because it is permeated with love and care. We hope that our audience will see life the way we do."

The album features the lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and voices of band members and female back-up singers.

What is unique, however, is that it also features the zhanian, a traditional Tibetan plucked instrument with six strings in three pairs, which sounds by turns gruff or eerie with primitive power and charm. This ingenious mixture gives Vajara music an exotic flavor distinctively Tibetan.

Nature is the predominant theme of Vajara music, in which lyrics epitomize their love and care for all living beings on Earth.

"Our vision transcends space, time and the division of races," Dainzin Dawa said. "We can't deny that there is evil in human nature. That, we think, could be the root of all evil -- moral degradation, social chaos and war. We are duty-bound to uproot it to help make a better world."

The band members, averaging 27 in age, all have steady jobs. Drummer Dainzin Dawa, a graduate of the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing, is a vocal music teacher at Tibet University.

Lead singer Soinam Dainzin, Dainzin Dawa's schoolmate, is a dancer with the Song and Dance Troupe of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Lead guitarist Soinam Nyanzha, a German major of the Beijing Second Foreign Languages Institute, now works as a tourist guide.

Coincidentally, they all received higher education in Beijing and graduated in the same year, 1997.

It is the same passion for music and culture that has brought them together.

At the beginning, many people said their songs were not pleasant to the ear.

"But I think good music does not always have to sound pleasant," Dainzin Dawa said. "Our songs reflect the reality. If the reality is beautiful, our music is beautiful; and if the reality is ugly, how can our music be pleasant? For example, if we want to express the innermost pains of a worker who lost his job, guitar playing would surely lose its fidelity and drumbeats would present a kind of struggle."

"Rock'n'roll is a spirit, a belief or a real attitude to life," Dainzin Dawa continued. "We depict life as it is. We hide nothing ugly or painful in life and neither do we try to idealize anything."

It took a little longer than two months for the band to plan and accomplish this album. They spent all the money they had raised through hard work, in total a cost of 80,000 yuan (US$9,670).

"I like all 13 songs on the album," Dainzin Dawa said. "They are just like our 13 children or the fruits of our painstaking efforts all these years."

Studio time

Meanwhile, Dainzin Dawa admitted they could only give a "passable mark" to their work in the studio.

"We do have regrets because those vivid images originally created in our minds are not very-well presented in our album. Recording inside a studio is quite different from dress rehearsals or real performances."

Moreover, Dainzin Dawa added, none of the studios in Chengdu of Southwest China's Sichuan Province had worked with a band before Vajara came, and it was the first time the band had ever worked in a studio.

Despite all that, the job was done with flying colors. According to bass player Zhaxi Puncog, much of the credit should go to Soinam Dainzin, the lead singer, whose voice has a "strong touch of metal quality, and is high-pitched while husky."

Said Zhaxi Puncog: "A husky voice is best suited for expressing pain, sorrow, wrath and rage."

In their debut album, Vajara members have had some novel ideas. Two Tibetan folk songs have been rearranged. One of them, the "Auspicious Tibetan Lunar New Year," was adapted into a waltz rock to increase the festival mood of the production.

Dainzin Dawa conceded that the band is reluctant to deliberately imitate the kind of rock'n'roll seen in the West. At the same time, he admitted that foreign rock musicians have had a strong influence on them.

Meanwhile, he said, Cui Jian, known as the "Godfather of Chinese Rock'n'Roll," has also influenced him significantly.

The story goes back to 1989, when Dainzin Dawa who was born in Lhasa was 15. His mother is a dancer. "A friend brought me a tape from Beijing," he recalled. "I heard his song Nothing To My Name (Yiwu Suoyou) and was fascinated. My passions flared though this was the first time I encountered Cui Jian's music. In fact, I like music of all genres, but I like rock'n'roll best, which is succinct with simplicity and directness in expression."

Inspired, Dainzin Dawa began writing poems and songs, mostly about things that stirred up his feelings. Then he decided to take music his lifelong career. The following year, he was admitted to the Tibetan Art School in Lhasa. As time went by, he became increasingly resolved to develop a sort of music both Tibetan and modern, something that bridges Tibet and the rest of the world.

As he sees it, art music developed by professional musicians is a bit too refined, too distant from real life, while folk music is too localized. "In between the two genres, there is a vacuum that needs to be filled," he said.

In 1993, Dainzin Dawa went to Beijing in pursuit of his pop music dream. During his four-year study as a vocal music major at the university, Dainzin Dawa was able to watch Cui Jian's rehearsals five or six times, in the auditorium of the Central Nationalities Song and Dance Troupe that happens to be based at the school.

He entered the Beijing MIDI School of Music, established in 1993, which is China's first modern music school. At the MIDI, he studied artistic and humanistic theories of modern music and advanced musical techniques.

Back in Lhasa, Dainzin Dawa's mind still seemed to go with rock'n'roll while working as a vocal music teacher at Tibet University.

He was to have several "firsts" in Tibet to his credit -- the first music bar and the first musical instruments store, and he also helped found the region's first music school.

With the lead singer and lead guitarist, he founded Vajara, the first rock'n'roll band on the roof of the world.

Dainzin opened his Unplugged Bar in early 1998. Before long, the music bar became young music lovers' favorite.

It was there that he got acquainted with Soinam Dainzin, now the lead singer of Vajara. "Soinam Dainzin came to sing very often," he said. "His metallic voice took my fancy."

It was also in this bar that he got to know Soinam Nyanzha, the lead guitarist.

"Lots of Tibetans are born with a music gift, and many youths frequent the bar for rock'n'roll," Dainzin Dawa said. "I began to think seriously of setting up a pop music band with my new friends and all of them readily agreed."

No ceremony was held for the birth of the band on September 9, 1999. After the decision was made, they walked around the famous Barkhor Bazaar, trying to find an ornament with distinguished Tibetan features. They discovered a shaft-shaped ornament -- Heaven Pestle, called Tianchu in mandarin.

"Definitely it was what we wanted," Dainzin Dawa said.

In Tibetan legend, he explained, the Magic Dragon ejects pestles when it is producing thunder and lightning to kill monsters and demons on the Earth, and many Tibetans believe that pestles can ward off evil spirits.

Dainzin Dawa thinks it unwise for them to fix an orientation to follow. "We don't want to be confined to one style, such as heavy metal or pop rock. We don't want to express ourselves in a monotone way."

(China Daily December 21, 2004)

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