Ngawang Choephel: For Love of Music
Ngawang Choephel – a Tibetan musician, ethnomusicologist and filmmaker, was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment by the Chinese authorities. He was released in February 2002, after six years in prison.
International Campaign for Tibet: Press and background
Article from Time Magazine (Sept. 2001)
Article from Songlines (Dec. 2000)
TIBETAN MUSICOLOGIST IMPRISONED
By Kim Burton
Although few of us give much thought to it, music and politics often share their worlds. There have always been musicians who have used their art to comment directly on the political scene – Woody Guthrie famously inscribed on his guitar “this machine kills fascists” (although there are no reliably documented instances of it ever having done so). Sometimes the engagement is unintended and comic – witness the plummeting of John Redwood`s career as Secretary of State for Wales after television cameras caught his writhing failure to recall the words of the Welsh National Anthem.
Ngawang Choephel is a 34-year-old musician and ethnomusicologist born in Tibet but brought up in India. He was educated in India and the United States, specialising in Tibetan music and dance, and in 1994 began planning a film project that would take him back to Tibet to document traditional music and its background. In1995 he arrived in the capital, Lhasa, on a scouting expedition to lay the groundwork for that project. It was the first time he had returned to Tibet, and he was expecting to stay there for at least four months, making video tapes of dances, collecting and transcribing songs, and interviewing performers. He was quite clear about the purpose of the film and his activities – a former girlfriend has said, “He was so passionate for the music. He felt that if he didn´t go back there and record these elders, a whole generation of tradition would be lost”.
And this is where the politics begin to bite. In 1950 the forces of the People´s Republic of China occupied Tibet, incorporating it under the title of “Tibet Autonomous Region”, and since then have undertaken a series of activities intended to “protect the unity and security of the whole of China”. These activities have included killings, mass arrests, beatings and violent suppression of protests.
The Chinese view of Tibetan culture is just as passionate as Ngawang Choephel´s- but instead of an asset to be preserved, they see it as a threat, a potential rallying-point for resistance which, if it can´t be controlled, must be stamped out. To them, if a “whole generation of tradition” is lost in the process, then so much the better.
Ngawang Choephel was well aware of the risk, and scrupulously avoided any political activities while in Tibet, but despite this he was arrested in September 1995 and held incommunicado and without trial for over 14 months. There are indications that he was beaten or otherwise ill-treated during this period. He was finally brought to trial in late-1996 and sentenced to 18 years in prison for “espionage and counter-revolutionary activities”. Since then he has been in jail. His trial was held in secret, and the Chinese authorities have failed to produce proof that the charges against him have any foundation whatsoever.
In august 2000 his mother, Sonam Dekyi, was at least given permission to visit her son. She found him ill, weak and frail, “just skin and bones”. Amnesty International has adopted Ngawang Chophel as a prisoner of conscience and has called for his immediate and unconditional release.
It is hard to believe that Ngawang Choephel owes his sentence to anything other than his work and passion for his people´s music. A more eloquent tribute to the importance of art and a more damning indictment of those who wish to control it could hardly be found.
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