Tibet: a blind musician

Ajo Namgyal

Photo courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum,
via the fascinating article of Jamyang Norbu, “The Lhasa Ripper“.

Having introduced some blind musicians in China and further afield, as well as the nangmatöshe scene in Lhasa before and since 1950, a tribute to a noted blind musician from pre-occupation Tibet is apt.

Ajo Namgyel (1894–1942) came from a poor wood-logging family in the Dakpo region of southeast Tibet. He lost his eyes after being attacked by a raven at the age of one. Becoming a talented musician like his father, he was first spotted while busking on the dramyen lute in Lhasa shortly after arriving there in 1914. One version even suggests that he was invited there after being spotted by members of the Kashag cabinet on a mission to Dakpo.

Like other folk musicians in Tibet, China, and elsewhere, Ajo Namgyel was a versatile instrumentalist. Later he was invited to join the Nangma’i skyid sdug association, of which he became the last teacher, playing piwang fiddle as well as dramyen at high-society banquets. He created the popular töshe style in Lhasa by adapting folk-songs from western Tibet. He picked up new songs from visiting lhamo opera troupes on their summer visits for the Shotön festival. And he found a wife.

Geoffrey Samuel cites an evocative vignette from Hugh Richardson, British diplomat in Tibet until 1950. As Richardson recalled, the association

was engaged to perform at parties given by the Tibetan government for the British Mission at Lhasa in the summer. The players were Namgyel with the pi-wang [fiddle]; a Ladakhi Muslim on the flute and (I think) a Chinese on the sgra-snyen [lute]. The dancers were also three, headed by a famous old woman who was the teacher of dancing and singing … The players sat on the ground with a plentiful supply of chang [Tibetan beer] and tea and a small boy to look after Namgyel’s pipe for he was the only person with an unspoken license to smoke in the presence of the Kashag [the Tibetan cabinet]. The dancing was always on a board; the women wore their Lhasa headdresses and aprons and their hands were decorously covered by the sleeves of their blouses, hanging down a good foot or more below their hands. These sleeves played a big part in the gestures that were part of the dance. The songs were accompanied by gestures of their arms and a rhythmic shuffling of their feet and slight forward kicks. That was all in slow time. When the tune broke into quick time—a sort of scherzo!—there was, so far as I remember, no singing but the dance became much more vigorous and lively and there was some stamping on the board [“quickstep” as Jamyang Norbu calls it]. One of the songs, which always caused much amusement to them and the Tibetans, was an innovation (perhaps after the visit of Sir Charles Bell or one of his successors) in which the dancers turned to one another and made a gesture of shaking hands, singing “Good morning” or something like it, in English. The whole affair was very casual and informal and the song and dance went on while the guests were chatting or drinking. The only song that was almost always heard with some attention was bkra la shis pa [“Good Fortune”] which was described as being very old and of good omen. The three instruments I have mentioned were all I ever saw played out of doors. A yangchin [Chinese dulcimer] might be added indoors.

Posthumously, through no fault of his own, one of Ajo’s melodies was adapted into the Cultural Revolution hit in praise of Chairman Mao Jingzhu Mao zhuxi wanshou wujiang 敬祝毛主席万寿无疆, which those so inclined can find on YouTube…

A Chinese post on Ajo, hagiographic but full of detail, opens with an inevitable kowtow to his contemporary the blind Chinese musician Abing (1893–1950), whom Yang Yinliu inadvertently elevated to iconic status at the expense of all the innumerable other great blind musicians all over China—and Tibet. Abing made an unlikely hero for the CCP: his life declined from performing rituals with admired Daoists in Wuxi to becoming an opium-dependent street beggar after losing his eyesight through syphilis in his 30s. Conversely, Ajo Namgyel, blind from infancy, went from itinerant begging to leading the most respected nangma-töshe group in Lhasa. [1]

[1] He has a brief entry in the New Grove dictionary under “rNam-rgyal, A-jo”. The Chinese post may be based on a 1980 article in Tibetan by the leading scholar of nangmatöshe, Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (1922–2007)—himself a former member of the association and pupil of Ajo Namgyel from the age of 13. See also here. Geoffrey Samuel’s article is “Songs of Lhasa”, Ethnomusicology 20.3 (1976).

2 thoughts on “Tibet: a blind musician

  1. Pingback: Blind musicians in China and elsewhere | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet | Stephen Jones: a blog

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