Ahead of his set at WOMAD, the Tibetan talks to Julia Llewllyn Smith about mandolins, monasteries and his painful exile
By Julia Llewellyn Smith
7:00AM BST 20 Jul 2015
It’s a long way, in every sense, from the wide, rolling grasslands of Tibet to the packed, muddy fields of WOMAD, the annual festival of world music in Gloucestershire. But it’s on the WOMAD stage that Ngawang Lodup – a former Buddhist monk, turned rising musical star – will perform songs about his remote homeland, his long-lost family and his faith.
“Magic things are happening,” beams Lodup, sitting in a suit and tie, very different from the traditional dress in which he performs, in Broadcasting House in central London. It’s been an extraordinary journey for the 32-year-old, who was born into a nomadic family in the north-eastern Tibetan province of Amdo.
Ludop’s earliest memories were of his mother singing folk songs as she carried him on her back while tending their cattle, yaks and sheep. In the evenings, the family sang songs in praise of the snowy mountains and his two brothers taught him to play the mandolin and ancient Tibetan dramnyen, (a six-string lute).
As the youngest son, family tradition held that, at 14, he must enter a distant, 1000-strong monastery, where he spent long days studying Buddhist teachings, along with chanting and praying. All instruments, except those in the ritualistic Buddhist orchestra, were banned. “But I’m an artist,” says Lodup, in his good but not perfect English. “I love music, I couldn’t avoid it”.
After a trip home, he resolved to smuggle his beloved mandolin back to the monastery and hid it in his quarters. “The discipline masters were very strict and I knew if they found it they would take it away and destroy it, as well as fine me,” he says.
Despite this, he began skipping debate classes to play in secret, and soon a group of fellow novices also began sneaking away from their studies to listen. “I had monk fans!” Fear of recriminations from Tibet’s harsh Chinese dictatorship towards his family means Lodup is circumspect about many details and what happened next. But at 19, he left the monastery – and then two years later left his family – to pursue a life where he could express himself more freely.
Like hundreds of thousands of his compatriots who – since China’s invasion in 1950 – have fled Tibet, Lodup walked alone for 18 days and 250 miles across the Himalayas to Kathmandu in Nepal.
“It was absolutely dangerous and very, very difficult,” he says. “People lose arms and legs and die on the way because of the extreme weather.” With just his clothes on his back and some tsampa, a form of roasted barley that the Dalai Lama eats for breakfast, Ludong slept as little as possible, sometimes in caves but mainly on the snow.
“I was scared but I knew the main thing was to keep moving as much as possible. Sometimes I would throw some of the tsampa to the deities who live in the Holy mountains to guide me to a safe journey. And here you go! I’m here now.”
From Nepal, he then came to Britain. That was 11 years ago and he spoke little English. “It was an absolute challenge, I didn’t know anything about the system here and had no friends.”
Six months after he arrived, he attended the annual Tibetan New Year celebrations in Greenwich, south East London, where he was inspired to give an impromptu karaoke performance of Tibetan pop songs. Impressed, fellow Tibetans started lending him instruments and he began performing as a singer-songwriter all over Britain and then Europe.
The contrast between bustling London, where he now lives with his Tibetan wife and two children, and his homeland is immense. “You can’t compare,” he laughs. “When I go to Wales or Scotland, I see the countryside and animals and feel very good.”
Still a practising Buddhist, he prays and meditates daily. “It helps me calm down, to cope with daily activities. What I like about this country is you have freedom about which religion you believe in.” Lodup performs both traditional and contemporary Tibetan songs, as well as his own work, filled with swooping melodies that evoke both the harsh, open spaces of his homeland and the poignancy of exile.
To mark the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday this month, he wrote the song Thank You. “In general, Tibetans don’t celebrate birthdays, but eightieth birthdays are very important to us, since – because of the way of life and the weather – many people don’t live to that age, so if you do you can feel very satisfied. I wanted to show my gratitude to His Holiness for committing his entire life to freedom and peace.”
Another song is entitled Homesick. “It’s about how hard it is to emigrate far from your motherland, the challenge to be away from parents, which is very relevant to me and many Tibetans in Britain, who haven’t seen their families for ages,” he says.
“When I was back at home I didn’t realise how important my parents’ help was, how much love and care they gave me. I miss them very much.” He hasn’t seen his parents since leaving Tibet. He tries to keep in touch, but it’s difficult. “They move to different places every month, they have no phone, no signal. Occasionally I manage.”
Earlier this year, Radio 3 started broadcasting Lodup’s songs, as part of BBC Introducing, an initiative championing undiscovered music. “They seemed to really like my work,” he grins. “It was wonderful. When I play, I feel so excited and energetic.”
Especially meaningful was the fact that, back home, he and his brothers used to stay up late listening to their favourite native artists on AM radio. “We couldn’t get to sleep, we were so excited waiting to hear them. So to have my own music on the radio …” Words fail him.
Has his family ever heard his broadcasts? “I don’t think so. Maybe one day. They would be delighted,” he smiles. “Absolutely delighted.”
Ngawang Lodup will perform on the BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett stage at WOMAD on Sun July 26. The session will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s World on 3 and on the Cerys Matthews show on 6 Music.