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Bhutan Star

November 30, 2011

A wildly successful talent show in Bhutan is bringing traditional music with a twist to television screens across the tiny mountain kingdom in an effort to revive its fading popularity.

Bhutan Star logo
Bhutan Star has got the whole country singing traditional tunesImage: Kate Hairsine

Dressed in a traditional Bhutanese gho robe, Karma Lhendup stands on stage, belting out a plaintive, wailing song about the symbiotic relationship that is shared between the sky, wild animals and the forest.

The camera zooms in for a close up, sending Lhendup's anguished face live across the remote Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, which is tucked in the Himalayas between India and China.

The judges nod their heads and sing along before handing down their verdict in a very respectful way - Lhendup's pitch and his timing is off they tell him, whereas American Idol host Simon Cowell would probably have insulted him.

The 33-year old statistician is one of the contestants vying for first prize in Bhutan Star, an American Idol-type talent show with a twist. As well as modern hits, contestants have to perform classical and folk songs, known as Boedra and Zhungdra.

Contestants vie for top place on Bhutan Star
Contestants vie for top place on Bhutan StarImage: Kate Hairsine

The idea is to promote the country's traditional music, which many Bhutanese fear is rapidly losing ground in the globalized world despite the country's policy of relative isolation. Bhutan didn't allow television and Internet until 1999 and still tightly restricts the number of tourists allowed to enter the country.

"The young generation all like modern music and Indian music like crazy," said musician and Bhutan Star organizer, Nidup Dorji.

"To be frank, if we don't preserve our culture, within five to 10 years, it will be the same as elsewhere," he added.

Culture vital to happiness

Culture in Bhutan is taken extremely seriously, so much so that its promotion and preservation is one of the four pillars of the kingdom's unique guiding principle of Gross National Happiness.

Back in 2008, Dorji decided a home-grown talent show could help keep Bhutan's music culture alive. And the idea seems to be working.

Now in its third series, Bhutan Star is the most popular program in the country despite its lack of gloss and glamour compared to other Idol versions. Performing on a simple raised platform with a colorful backdrop and a couple of flashing lights, the traditionally-dressed contestants often look heart-rendingly nervous as they sing primly into the microphone accompanied by a lute and a Bhutanese dulcimer.

Bhutan Star attracts around 30,000 text messages an episode, which is significant for a nation of 700,000 inhabitants, many of whom live in remote areas without mobile reception.

The countryside is Bhutan Star heartland and according to Dorji, during the six hours of weekly broadcasts (three hours on Friday and three on Sunday), crowds gather around communal television sets to sing along and vote for their favorite contestants.

Getting better all the time

Young participants of Bhutan Star
Bhutan Star has also struck a chord with the young populationImage: Kate Hairsine

The judges say the aspiring singers have improved remarkably in their performances of traditional songs over the past three years, while several of the contestants admit they have even come to appreciate such music.

"When I was young, I didn't listen (to traditional songs) because I thought they were too boring!" said 20-year-old Yoezer Chamo covering her mouth while she giggled. "Now I don't think they are boring, they are very good to sing."

As for contestant Karma Lhendrup, he's addicted to Bollywood hits. But now he's been forced to learn some Bhutanese Boedra and Zhungdra, he finds the songs with their religious or philosophical themes "meditative, like a mantra."

"It is quite vibrating and it really heals sometimes when you have stress," he said.

In this Buddhist country where prayer flags flutter on every hillside and saffron-robed monks are a common sight, religion permeates every part of society – even, it seems, a talent show.

Traditional trendies

Bhutanese prayer flags
Prayer flags are also part of the showImage: Kate Hairsine

Later in the evening, the wailing notes of Bhutanese pop music spill out of the open doors of several stores on main street of the capital Thimphu. Groups of teenagers and 20-somethings stroll, chat and flirt.

Most of them have shunned the traditional gho robe or kira long skirt and jacket that are obligatory dress for students and civil servants during the day. The South Korean look, replete with faux hawks, skinny-legged pants and Converse All Stars is in. Surprisingly though, even the fashionable youth here are into Bhutan Star.

"I like it because we hear all these old songs that we have never heard before and we (can learn) these songs," said Dorji Dema. "Their lyrics tell us the story of our culture and our ancestors and the sounds are very beautiful."

Nineteen-year-old Karma Tenzin flicks his feathered fringe out of his eyes as he says that the traditional music is sometimes dull because it is way too slow "but it is good that they have it and that we can show that we are preserving our culture."

Author: Kate Hairsine
Editor: Anne Thomas