MAIN SOTRY: It was 1968. A group of veteran Bhutanese singers and instrumentalists boarded a plane for the first time. They were to make a gramophone recording upon the command of the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.
It was the peak of summer in Calcutta, India. They travelled to the Dum Dum Studio and started recording. Among the group were Aup Dawpey and Aum Thinlem. They made two trips that year, each lasting for about 20 days.
Aup Dawpey was 37 and played both lim and drangyen (Bhutanese lute). While Aum Thinlem, then just 20, sang her heart out.
The group recorded 15 tracks. Most of the numbers were Zhungdra. The songs recorded at the studio were released on a long-playing vinyl record, which were distributed to Bhutanese royals and officials.
Dasho Drupon, who played drangyen, led the group with Drimpon Sonam Dorji, a respected dance instructor and vocalist. In addition to Drimpon Sonam Dorji, male vocalists included Bumtap Tawla, Nija Kado and Goen Tawchu. Female vocalists included Tshewang Lham, Aum Thinlem, Changzam Dagom and Ani Lham.
The group also included instrumentalists Khetu who played chiwang, Dawpay who played drangyen and flute, Tango Pem Namgay who played drangyen and Gyelwa Karamapas Drapa played flute.
The records slowly disappeared into oblivion until it was rediscovered by the Music of Bhutan Research Centre (MBRC), after more than four decades.
MBRC obtained a copy of the records, identified as 33PIX.1017, from a close attendant of the Third King, Dasho Sangay Tenzin.
The 1968’s Gramophone Recordings was launched in Thimphu last week, which brought fresh memories to Aup Dawpey and Aum Thinlem. They relived those days, once more, through the songs.
“I felt like I was brought to life from the death when I heard those songs again. I remember every moment and I have nothing but good memories,” Aum Thinlem said.
Aup Dawpay lamented about how Zhungdra has lost its charm over the years.
“Zhungdra was popular when I was growing up. It was sacred and a precious opportunity if one got a chance to perform in front of a crowd,” Aup Dawpay said. “Today, I feel sad that this traditional music is dying out with the older generation.”
Zhungdra is the oldest style of traditional Bhutanese folk music. It is distinguished by the way it is sung using extended vocal tones in complex patterns.
Singers and dancers form a long line and hold hands when they sing the song. They move in a slow, synchronised order, following the lyrics of the music. Dancers always face towards lama.
MBRC’s executive director, Kheng Sonam Dorji, said that Zhungdras were composed by spiritual leaders and contain spiritual messages.
“Zhungdra is considered as a sacred song (jinlab chen gi zhabdra),” Kheng Sonam Dorji said. “True Zhungdra consists of 13 songs, performed only once during the Punakha dromchoe along with the masked dances.”
It was first performed in the 17th century to commemorate the victories over the Tibetans. It was performed as a gesture of appreciation to the protective deities Yeshey Gonpo and Pelden Lhamo.
“Zhungdra is performed as a Lui Choepa, an offering of the body and soul, to the protective deities,” he said. “Out of the 13 songs, the shortest Zhungdra is the Drubai Puna Dechen.”
However, people fail to identify the real Zhungdra and consider any lengthy song as a Zhungdra, Kheng Sonam Dorji said.
“Zhungdra became popular from the time of Second King’s, but it was allowed to be performed only during the Punakha dromchoe. However, during the Third King’s time, the rules were relaxed and Zhungdra was performed during other occasions as well,” he said.
Kheng Sonam Dorji said that if people are interested to learn Zhungdra, there are people who can teach. “But I fear it’s too late. We already lost the opportunity and the time to relive these musical genre, which was so fiercely guarded by our elders.”
A veteran singer and musician, Jigme Drukpa, said with changing times, music genre like Zhungdra is lost.
“Like dzongs, which we can’t replicate today, we can’t grasp or keep a hold on Zhungdra. Zhungdra is an ancient tradition, only to change with changing times,” Jigme Drukpa said.
Today, there are only about five real Zhungdra singers left in the country.
“With digitalisation, the taste in music is also changing. There are only a few audiences who like to Zhungdra today. Change is inevitable,” he said. “Zhungdra is dying without a patronage, market, appeal and presence to the present generation.”
The slow death of Zhungdra is both positive and negative, Jigme Drukpa said. “We can’t play Zhungdra in the streets and bars. It’s a devotional song composed by trulkus and lamas. It has a direct impact on spiritual being.”
Learning Zhungdra takes a lot of time because one has to understand the meaning of every word, which many are not able to do so. Lyrics are complicated and words unreadable, Kheng Sonam Dorji said.
“Today we are living in a fast-paced world with fast-paced music. Many hardly have time to sit and listen to a slow song such like Zhungdra and understand the lyrics,” Kheng Sonam Dorji said. “The true essence of Zhungdra is lost in the midst of oral transmissions. It changes with the change in dance movements, songs and lyrics.”
It’s difficult to preserve Zhungdra without proper archival and documentation. Zhungdra is not meant for entertainment purposes and has thus lost its value among the commercially-driven music industry.
“Today, music is only meant for entertainment purposes and thus Zhungdra has lost its authentic, aesthetical and traditional value,” said Kheng Sonam Dorji.