When Yungchen Llamo, a singer now marketed as the ‘voice of Tibet’, was first introduced to Western audiences, her controllers fudged the political issues surrounding her appearance. There were doubts as to the young singer’s credentials as an agent free of Chinese influences. That was then. Cleverer biographers now make clear Yungchen’s impeccable credentials: she is a Tibetan refugee who, after stopping off at Dharamsala and receiving the blessing of the Dalai Lama, eventually made her way to New York. There, Yungchen has established herself as a musician in demand by colleagues who value her strong and ethereal voice. Something of this glamour rubs off in the dramatis personae of Ama (‘mother’): Annie Lennox and Joy Askew are guest vocalists; members of Laurie Anderson’s band and Norway’s Supersilent join the carefully orchestrated throng of musicians and producers who have made this a classy and accessible album. That’s not to say Yungchen is the musical equivalent of a Conran catalogue. ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, Buddhism’s traditional mantra, is delivered with a jaunty gusto, twangy strings, flutes, a bit of overtone chanting and a robust chorus.

This is also a devout album, one in which prayers and invocations to the deities and the lamas are made openly. Consequently, Ama treads a careful path between secular and sacred use. The dexterity with which Yungchen succeeds is epitomized by ‘9/11’, a hymn to those who died in the attacks. The singer, who witnessed that awful event, delivers a mostly unaccompanied song, gently multi-tracked, and her voices flutter as if a bird is ascending.

mag cover This article is from the July 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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