MAIN STORY: It was early 1960s. Ap Tsheten Dorji had just arrived in Bhutan. With him, he brought along something really precious – 30 boedra songs from Tibet, which he shared with the Bhutanese people.
With time, boedra became the staple of Bhutanese repertoire. It was sung in every festivities and occasion. Bhutanese celebrated and sung boedra with a slight change in lyrics and tune.
After more than five decades, this traditional genre of Bhutanese music is slowly losing its charm. It is gradually being replaced by the new genre of Bhutanese music known as rigsar or lusar. What was once popular during Ap Tsheten Dorji’s time, boedra is hardly sung by the present generation.
Today, at 81, Ap Tsheten Dorji, who lives in Semtokha, recalls how boedra originated in the country.
Boedra originated from Lhodra Dzong in Tibet and then spread to Kurtoe in Lhuentse, Bumthang and other parts of the country.
“It all started from the trade between the two places, which was held annually during December. Tibetans brought meat, salt and wool, among others while Bhutanese brought rice, zaw, maize, woven clothes like mathra and sethra to exchange during the trade,” Ap Tsheten Dorji said.
During the trade, music was one of the popular ways of communication. Various singing and dancing competitions would be held, Ap Tsheten Dorji said. “The place where the trade used to take place was known as Lawog gi Tshongdu. Tibetans used to sing boezhey and Bhutanese drukzhey.”
Music of Bhutan Research Centre’s executive director, Kheng Sonam Dorji, said when they conducted a research on the origin of boedra – from the lyrics, its tune to its dance movements, they concluded that it was originated from boezhey, a style of folksong sung by Tibetans.
“Although it originated from Tibet, Bhutanese sing boedra in a more melodious tune and even the words vary in the songs. The boedra that is sung in the Tibet has an upbeat tune whereas we sing in a more melodious tune,” Kheng Sonam Dorji said.
Boedra spread to Bhutan in many ways. One major way was through the trade between Tibetan and Bhutanese, Kheng Sonam Dorji said.
“Before any trade could take place, as a tendrel, each group sang and danced. It used to last for days. Most of the trade took place in the eastern part of the country via two routes, one through Singye Dzong during summer and Khomachhu during winter,” he said. “The trade used to last for months. During that time, numerous songs and dances were exchanged.”
There is also number of other ways boedra spread in the country.
“Boedra reached in the country when Bhutanese pilgrims returned from Tibet and when Tibetans visited Bodhgaya via Bhutan, which was a route for pilgrimage back then,” Kheng Sonam Dorji said. “No doubt intermarriages between Bhutanese and Tibetans also helped reinforce boedra practice.”
It was also when Tibetan beggars (who were beggars through generations also known as relba) playing chiwang (fiddle) reportedly camped in fields throughout Bumthang, Punakha, Thimphu and Paro that also passed on boedra in these places, Kheng Sonam Dorji said.
“Bhutanese officials (also known as boegarp) serving at the royal court that travelled to Tibet and around Bhutan may also have disseminated boedra,” he said.
Today, Tibetan communities living in various parts of the country still sing boedra during festivals such as tsechu, consecration of the house and other important occasions.
Despite its rich history, like the dying voice of Zhungdra, boedra is slowly on its way of disappearing.
Although there are still a handful of people who sing boedra, it is difficult for young people to learn this genre, Ap Tsheten Dorji said. “People find it difficult to learn the lyrics since most are written in Tibetan words and there are not many to teach the song as well.”
Even the tempo and musical instruments used in a boedra song differs, which doesn’t rend interest from the young music lovers today, Ap Tsheten Dorji said. “It’s difficult to preserve these old musical genres without proper archival and documentation. It’s high time relevant agencies are working towards its preservation.”
Boedra differs entirely from boezhey since Bhutanese have modified the lyrics, melodies, tempos, choreography, costume and accompanying instruments, Kheng Sonam Dorji said. “In common speech, zhabdro gorgom are called boedra (sounds of Tibet). Gorgom are characterised by more regular rhythms, livelier tempos and shorter musical phrases. There are a significant number of gorgom that originated in Tibet.”
However, their origin can be obscured because Bhutanese have modified to make the songs their own. There are, also, many popular boedra songs (identified as Tibetan) brought to the country by the Tibetan-born composer Ap Tsheten Dorji in the 1960s, Kheng Sonam Dorji said.
“Through fieldwork at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India, we have identified more gorgom that exist in the folksong collections of Tibet and linguistic evidence supporting the theory that such songs originated in Tibet and travelled to Bhutan,” Kheng Sonam Dorji said.
Boedra contains poetic lyrics that reflect Mahayana Buddhist perspectives, with descriptive and symbolic references to the natural world and praise for the kings and religious leaders.
A veteran singer, Aum Nimchu Pem, 74, who have been singing the old genre of Bhutanese music – both zhungdra and boedra – since she was 10 years old lamented on the disappearance of these beautiful songs.
“It’s sad whenever I hear about how people don’t take an interest in these songs. It’s a great concern that this traditional music is dying out with the older generation.”