Legend & Music Culture: The Lute of Tibet

There are some cultures in which you simply can’t take music out of its cultural context. All in all, that’s a damn good justification for ethnomusicology. Beside that, it’s something I wish more people kept in mind.  I’ve deemed this as Tibet week, so I’m delving into the music and culture of Tibet on whatever level I can.  Okay, so I should be focusing only on India this week considering my upcoming presentation, but they overlap a bit so I thought I’d tie it in.

There are a couple of ‘camps’ here in talking about the music of Tibet. The first one is with the non-musicological folks who think that Tibet is overdone. The second is where I stand with others, and it is that when I look at the Tibetan music section of any library (online or physical), I’m lucky if there’s more than one book present. If it’s there, it’s usually from the 70’s when the post-hippie movement sent folks from San Francisco on a hike through the Himalayas in search of themselves.

I’m trying to put together a bibliography of Tibetan resources. It’s more difficult than you’d think. Even the leading Tibetan music scholarly works leave much to be desired – though I’m grateful for their existence at all.

So back to this idea of legends within a music culture. Most of Asia is full of them, specifically Hindu nations where deities rule.  In Tibet and its present diaspora, it’s hard to peel off layers to find them.  They’re found in extant myths & stories, religious teachings, and most commonly via oral tradition.

I found an excellent short book by Peter Crossley-Holland called Musical Instruments in Tibetan Legend and Folklore, a piece published a monograph series in Ethnomusicology, No. 3 (1982) at UCLA.  In less than 40 pages, the text introduces the lute (vina), conch-shell trumpet (dung-dkar), thigh-bone trumpet (rkang-gling), long trumpet (dung-chen), frame drum (phyed-rnga), and hand-drum (damaru). More importantly, it puts them in context of their respective legends/stories, and thus within their cultural context.  This is a fantastic resource.

Musical references seem synchronous to Tibetan Buddhist culture. At the very beginning, an example of a story is shown (similar to one of Aesop’s fables) wherein the perfectly tightened (not too tight/too loose) strings of a lute are compared to the Buddhist concept of accordance in harmony. (pp. 2-4)

I had not yet heard of a lute as a Tibetan instrument, and in fact it has both Greek and Mongolian roots and is considered only secular (Crossley-Holland pp 3-14). It’s commonly known that Saraswati (and other Indian dieties) were/have been adopted by Tibetans. Saraswati (Indian goddess of music) can be seen pictured with a lute in some Tibetan texts, likely retrieved it from its Indian folklore.  However, what was its purpose then? I’m not entirely sure, although the text gives several story examples of the lute placed in Tibet.

More later…


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