From Ngesem Ngesem to Yeewongma: A revolution knocking at the door

Jigme Wangchuk

Some say that music is one of the most effective communication tools, the strongest form of magic. Plato put it thusly: “Music is powerful. As people listen to it, they can be affected. They respond.” But then, there is more to music than meets the ears. It makes us hear the silence, even the deepest core of violence. It makes us sane. It can make us insane, too.

Music is spiritual and sensual both—it has the power to soften the hearts and bring people together. In a sense so, music is true and the best ambassador of world peace and unity. If music could replace politics as it has come to be known today, there would not be animosities and wars, some argue; there wouldn’t be the rich and the poor, the espoused and the distraught. There would be just one song—the song of peace and unity.

The development of world music besides, looking inward, what is the Bhutanese music today and how far has modern Bhutan music come? More important, where is it heading? Zhungdra, Boedra, and Rigsar are the three cardinal genres of the Bhutanese music. Some so-called expert added something called the Drukdra recently, which kind of makes sense—a genre born and bred in Bhutan without any influence from abroad. But the story of modern Bhutanese music transcends all these genres and looks beyond.

As much as it is cultural and traditional, modern Bhutanese music is international.

Thanks to the advent of the social media, we have been able to give fecund grounds to the evolving genres of the Bhutanese music. The new Bhutanese music is the expression of forward-looking Bhutan. It’s the dawn of a new era, a picture of a country moving on with a conviction that it has and can give more to the world beyond. If Bhutanese diplomacy failed in building the space for and influence through soft power, the most unlikely group—the youth—got it and achieved it all—through music.

Internet and the social media played a significant role in shaping modern Bhutanese music. The change really began from 2011, the year when the Bhutanese music manifestly ceased to be part of the film industry. 

With the death of CD and cassettes came the independent music that would be known as B-Pop. It was as if we discovered our cultures and ourselves—our real being—anew. Not to forget the raw and awesome talent among the younger generation of Bhutanese who grew up listening to the western contemporary music.

Some say that for the Bhutanese music, this is the third revolution. It is hard to deny this argument when making music today takes only a good headset and microphone, from home.

“There is freedom and the market is individual-driven and, so, music-making has become very dynamic,” says, M-Studio’s Choeying Jatsho. “There is no financial gain for the music-makers. In fact, only loss. They pay for the recording. But they gain from ultimate production—the song and music that goes beyond the borders.”

Bhutanese music today is sought after in countries like Singapore, Malaysia, India, Canada, Australia, the UK, the USA, and even in the Middle Eastern countries.

 

Studios tell the story

There are more than five music studios in the country today and numerous home studios. Music-makers are young because music-listeners are young.

“With the development of music studios, there is freedom that leads to creativity,” says Choeying Jatsho. “That’s probably why film songs and music aren’t very popular today.” 

With the possibility of monetisation of music, the future of music production in Bhutan looks rosy.

An up-and-coming songwriter said: “ Even the way music is being made today has changed. There is no one to direct the song and the music. The beat comes first and the singers bring the song. Lyrically, the modern Bhutanese songs are colloquial. That’s probably why a lot of listeners can relate to and love.”

For Bhutan, though, there is only to up the ante. The social media gives the one platform—competition is serious. That means we may have begun young but we are impelled to rub shoulders with the top music-makers in the world.

Sonam Wangchen is perhaps the best internationally recognised and loved Bhutanese singer and music-maker and the trend now is that the world audience is waiting for new Bhutanese music. 

Baby Floyd is releasing a music video “Yeewongma” on Friday but the world audience is already waiting for it.

“Growth is fast because artists share one platform. Naturally, innovation comes in and quality goes up,” says Choeying Jatsho.

 

Visual: What’s beyond the sounds

“With music instruments all available in the software to create music, creating beautiful music has become by so much easier. Even the numbers of listeners have increased, as even a simple mobile phone has the facility. With platforms like Soundcloud and YouTube, the music now reaches every viewer in world with just a click. So, it is not necessary for an artist to organise a concert. Technology plays a bigger role now,” says Yeshi Lhendup of Yeshi Lhendup Films. “With the advancement in technology, there are issues of copyright, I know, but I think people now understand more about such issues. We now have many professional musicians and artists in Bhutan and youth are also coming forward. Because youth are also creating their own music, every music that comes out in the market gets all the attention.”

Because Bhutan music industry is growing fast, maintaining high level of professionalism is important, says Yeshi Lhendup. “We have a rich culture and our music has the potential to call the attention of the world. Beautiful visuals make a difference, for sure. But, honestly, good music helps us make a better video. If the music is soothing, it makes us shoot a better video. Good videos with good music are watched the most.”

The surge of new Boedra

Elegance is not elimination. Because it is fashion we are talking about, Cristóbal Balenciaga couldn’t have been more wrong.

Changtsang Gurma Metsu” is a Boedra song that is sung only amid the rising dust in archery grounds or in mad revelry in some isolated corners. When Sonam Wangchen sang it, it flew off the Bhutanese archery ranges to as far as Malaysia and the USA.

The new Bhutanese music is much more than an effort to save the national soul or identity. It’s about hitting wide and high.

Wanna hear the pulse of changing Bhutan? Listen to the young people and their urges. Zhungdra, Boedra, and Rigsar, they are all there, only with a new flavour. You can hear them in the eateries and party halls if not on the tables of the Dzongkha Development Commission.

There is a revolution that is knocking at the door. And it is called “modern Bhutanese music”.

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