Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tian Chu and Tibetan Rock

So, I heard a piece on the radio this morning about a Tibetan rock band called Tian Chu. This name roughly translates as "heavenly club," a reference to a musical instrument used in Buddhist ceremonies to defeat evil spirits. They combine heavy metal and blues-rock on traditional Tibetan instruments, electric guitars and drums. Tian Chu was influenced by U2, Nirvana and Metallica, but struggled to appeal to the local audiences, so they tried to find similarities between rock music and the local folk music. To this end, the band uses a traditional six-string instrument popular in the city of Linju. In this city there's a music called Linju folk song, and the rhythm of the music is quite similar in rhythm to blues. They use this common point to get from folk music to rock, and to tell you the truth, it sounds very... interesting. One song begins with what sounds like a Tibetan monk chant and suddenly turns into something more reminiscent of Elvis.
The members of Tian Chu also have a fondness for Tibetan opera -and heavy metal. Heavy metal has some similarities to Tibetan opera (apparently), but they are performed on different instruments. In the opera, heavy base lines are played on traditional stringed instruments. Tian Chu takes those sounds, along with guttural throat singing, and turns them into something... well, something I've never quite heard before. But turning opera into Twisted Sister is jarring for most Tibetans, who are farmers and herdsmen and especially the senior residents, who don't like this idea of incorporating traditional music into rock 'n' roll.
Living in Tibet, the band is somewhat restricted in the themes and subjects used in their music. Sex, drugs, and violence are out, and the musicians stay away from controversial political themes, but they say that they do compose songs critical of Tibet's problems, focusing on greed and materialism. They've even written a song about the concepts of oneness with nature and respect for animals. So far, Tibetan officials have let them get away with it.
Pretty interesting stuff, and let me tell you, hearing heavy metal/Tibetan opera/blues sung in Mandarin is quite an experience.

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