THERE IS A SAYING in Tibet that a beautiful voice can make a wild animal stop dead in its tracks and listen.

Such a voice, and its pacifying potential, are the Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo’s karma. A few days after her birth, her mother presented her to a lama who named her “Goddess of Song”. For much of her life, though, singing was just an occasional luxury. Eight years ago, she fled Chinese-occupied Tibet, trekked across the Himalayas, and arrived half-dead in Dharamsala with a single-minded quest: to see his Holiness the Dalai Lama and study the dharma. Today, she has a stunning record, “Tibet, Tibet,” on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, and a blessing from His Holiness: To fulfill her Bodhisattva Vows, he told her, she must use her voice to help spread some understanding and appreciation of Tibetan culture, as China does its best to stamp it out.


Tibet's freedom singer.
Tibet’s freedom singer.

Yungchen Lhamo has followed a tortuous path to rare celebrity—no Tibetan woman has ever recorded on a major label before. Her grandmother taught her folk and religious songs in the high, curling style of eastern Tibet, the family’s homeland. Her family was poor, and when two older brothers died of malnutrition, the five-year-old girl went to work as a domestic servant. By age eleven, she lived and worked in a factory two days’ journey from home. At nineteen, back in Lhasa, a Chinese movie director spotted her walking down the street and cast her in a film called “The First Dharma King of Tibet.”

“That was the first time I realized I could not stay in Tiber, even if I had to leave my family,” she says. “I could see what the film was really showing—a Chinese history of Tibet.”

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