Keila Diehl. Echoes from Dharamsala: Music in the Life of a Tibetan Refugee Community

Keila Diehl. Echoes from Dharamsala: Music in the Life of a Tibetan Refugee Community. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002. Pp. xi+312, illustrations, glossary, index. $25.00 paper.

Lori Goshert
Indiana University

In Echoes from Dharamsala, anthropologist Keila Diehl presents an engaging and complex picture of Tibetan refugee life in Dharamsala, India, the site of Tibet’s government-in-exile, through the music the community listens to and produces. Diehl begins the book with a colorful description of the first few days of her fieldwork, allowing readers to share her experiences and visualize themselves in India with her. The rest of the book is just as vivid in the way she describes her interactions with the Tibetan refugee community and her role as a participant-observer in Dharamsala’s music culture while playing keyboards for the Yak Band, a Tibetan rock group.

Diehl clearly states her theoretical assumptions in the introduction, that “‘culture’ is not only reflected in, but also created by, expressive performances,” and that “traditions are selected and ever changing” (3). These viewpoints inform her conclusions throughout the book. Echoes from Dharamsala focuses on the way that Tibetans in Dharamsala perceive their identity and how these perceptions inform their decisions of what kinds of music to produce and consume. Diehl points out that, contrary to popular opinion, refugee communities are often less free than others to adopt foreign cultural practices due to the perceived need to retain the culture of one’s homeland in its purest form possible. Echoes from Dharamsala is an important contribution to the fields of anthropology and ethnomusicology because of its comprehensive treatment of the complex dynamics of cultural preservation and change in a refugee culture. It is also an important contribution to the growing field of Tibetan studies because many reports on Tibetan cultural expressions tend to focus on Buddhist rituals and ignore popular culture.

Echoes from Dharamsala is organized roughly by musical style and function. In her introduction, Diehl explains that the musical styles she discusses come to Dharamsala from four directions. To the north is Tibet, the homeland, and pre-1959 Tibetan folk music represents tradition and authenticity. To the east is China, the foe. Much of the pop music produced in post-1959 Lhasa has been influenced by Chinese aesthetics and is frowned upon by most of Dharamsala’s Tibetans. To the south is India, the temporary home in exile. To the west are Europe and the United States, the friends and symbols of freedom.

Chapter one briefly introduces Dharamsala, its history, and its inhabitants. Chapter two, “Constructing the Rich Cultural Heritage of Tibet,” elaborates on the complex relationship between Tibet and its government-in-exile. Diehl introduces us to the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts (TIPA), which was designed to preserve Tibetan musical culture by teaching it to refugee children, most of whom have never been to Tibet. TIPA teaches pre-1959 Tibetan folk music and opera, which is believed to be ‘authentic.’ Because Tibetan music in modern Tibet is believed to have been ‘corrupted’ by Chinese aesthetics, many Tibetans in Dharamsala feel that it is their duty to preserve Tibetan musical culture, and that it will be lost forever if they do not do so.

Chapter three describes the role of Hindi film songs in the refugee repertoire. Tibetans in Dharamsala have resisted assimilation into Indian society because of the desire to preserve Tibetan culture, but most of them enjoy Indian films and their songs. They are seen as superficial entertainment and as a ‘guilty pleasure’ for Tibetans. Chapter four focuses on Western music, such as rock, reggae, and the blues, in Dharamsala. This music is greatly enjoyed both for its entertainment value and for its association with independence and sociopolitical criticism.

Diehl moves on to the main focus of her research, namely the creation and performance of modern Tibetan music in Dharamsala and other parts of India, in chapters five, six, and seven. In these chapters she largely draws from her experience with Dharamsala’s Yak Band to describe the challenges faced by Tibetan refugee musicians. While many refugees support the Yak Band and other refugee bands, musicians have not historically enjoyed high status in Tibetan society, partially because Tibetan culture enjoins modesty and discourages focus on the individual. As a result, potential songwriters and musicians are reluctant to share and perform their work. Diehl notes, however, that many young Tibetan musicians in India have been inspired by the Yak Band to create and perform their own songs, and the future looks positive for modern Tibetan musicians.

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2 thoughts on “Keila Diehl. Echoes from Dharamsala: Music in the Life of a Tibetan Refugee Community

  1. Excellent article and thank you for sharing! I definitely need to check this book out — hopefully it’s available for my iPad (fingers crossed).

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