Ethnomusicologists You Should Know: Ngawang Choephel

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For the first time in a while, I have an afternoon free. I decided to spend it reading about Ngawang Choephel. Ngawang is a Tibetan-born ethnomusicologist raised in India who studied in the U.S. (Vermont) on a Fulbright Scholarship in the early 90’s. Before he came to the U.S., he received a certificate in Tibetan music from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India.

His story leads him from the U.S. to Lhasa in an attempt to archive and preserve traditional Tibetan song. Many ethnomusicologists are on some kind of  “save-the-world” humanitarian mission, but for Ngawang it is personal. This is his culture. He was walking into the field with an etic perspective – wanting to learn the traditions he could not grow up with in a post-occupation Tibetan refugee settlement. His fieldwork was cut short when Han officials imprisoned him in 1996. You can read all about it below in the link list. I strongly recommend the ‘Melody in Prison’ link. He spent over six years (of an 18 year sentence) in a Chinese prison, accused of being a spy.

This brings up a lot of issues for ethnomusicologists. Ngawang knew the dangers he was facing as he walked around Lhasa and Tibet’s countryside on a foreign visa with a camera (and an American companion – Katherine Culley). However, he was still of Tibetan heritage – and he was on an academic fieldwork expedition.  None of this mattered to the Chinese who imprisoned him for nearly a year before making a statement to let his family know he had been captured.  Likewise, the college he did coursework at in Vermont (though he had graduated two years prior) could not do a thing to come to his aid. This is a scary thought.

Are there other cultures like this, where ethnomusicologists are at risk for their lives just to archive some folk music (as was Ngawang)?  Of course – just as there would be risks for other disciplines.

I remember being in my early high school years talking about how I wanted to do Tibetan song archival work – not really having a clue what it was all about, or even that a field called ethnomusicology existed. I was interested in Tibetan Buddhism from a very young age, and today I still struggle with wanting to complete field work in Lhasa. Now that I’m doing graduate work in the field, I’m having to pick through the planet like an apple orchard and choose where I want to land, where I want to study. Then, I’m reminded of a qualitative research course I had in New Orleans several years ago where we discussed three concepts: Do-Ability, Want-to-do-ability, and Should-do-ability.  It’s about feasibility – whether the study is safe, whether it has a purpose, and whether it’s practical. In short – whether it’s worth it for you, for your informants, for the culture, for your time, for your safety, etc. (the list goes on)…

There are plenty of people getting around this decision by studying the diaspora – Tibetans in India and other places.  I can’t blame them. There are a whole host of reasons for this, and all of them lead to strong and valid research.  Tibetan presence in India is so strong now that “authentic” (I use this term loosely) studies can be made, and have been for years. There comes a point, though, where the origin of it all will disappear, and we have to remember that one of our jobs as ethnomusicologists is that primary source archival. Not enough people are taking that action in the case of Tibet, and as Ngawang has mentioned in several articles – the first music he heard in Tibet was Chinese, not Tibetan. I’m not sure I would have the courage to walk into the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region). In fact, at this point, I know I wouldn’t.  The reason I’m highlighting Ngawang Choephel today is because he did, and continues to do so. I can’t wait to see Tibet in Song, and I hope to shake his hand one day.

His Story:

  • Melody in Prison (Ngawang Choephel): This is by far the best biographical link that I’ve found which also delves into the chronology and development of his imprisonment with notes by his travel partner, Katherine Culley.

Bio references:

    Chronological Prison References:

    Film News:

    Missing in Tibet:

    Tibet in Song:

    Other Imprisoned Tibetans:



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