In 2001, Seattle-based filmmaker Erik Koto took off on a 2,000-mile cycling expedition across the Aksai Chin plateau—a mountainous stretch along the disputed Sino-Indian border—to reach Mount Kailash, one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Tibetan Buddhists as well as Hindus, Jains, and practitioners of Bon, Tibet’s indigenous religion.
On his high-altitude ride to the 6,600-meter (21,654 feet) peak in southwestern Tibet, Koto pedaled through Ladakh, India. Spending time in the former Buddhist kingdom left a strong impression on the young traveler, so much so that he would return seven years later to volunteer at the Lamdon School, in Leh, the region’s largest city. While there, Koto met the school’s founder, Morup Namgyal, a Ladakhi folksinger, ethnomusicologist, and grassroots activist working to preserve his homeland’s indigenous culture in the face of rapid modernization.
The Song Collector, Koto’s first feature-length documentary, shares Namgyal’s quest to recover and uphold Ladakh’s oral history. Namgyal, who trekked hundreds of miles across the Himalayas to collect and archive more than 1,300 folk songs, has been recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama for his preservation work and has become a household name in Northern India.
Over six years, Koto and his film crew—despite frequent blizzards, floods, dust storms, and power outages—managed to capture the lives of three generations of the Namgyal family as they grated against social and economic change until finally learning to walk in tandem with it. “Change must come,” Namgyal says in the film, “but we must keep our culture alive.”
For a peek, watch these two exclusive clips, featuring everyday life inside monastic quarters plus archival footage of a 1940s dance performance from Hemis Gompa, an active 17th-century monastery and prominent spiritual center for Ladakh’s Drukpa Buddhist community.
Check out the full trailer for the film below:
The Song Collector is now available for Tricycle subscribers to watch throughout November on Tricycle’s Film Club.
Tricycle will be leading a 10-day pilgrimage to Ladakh, India from June 7-18, 2018. For the trip itinerary and registration information, click here.