Her name means joyous song and she’s shared the stage with the likes of Elton John and Bob Geldof. But once upon a time, Soname Yangchen could never have dreamed she’d have the opportunity to sing in public.
Before her big break, Soname Yangchen’s singing voice could only be heard in private. While cleaning or doing the laundry, she would sing along to a cassette of Chinese love songs which belonged to the family she was employed by as a domestic servant. Born into a good family in 1973, Soname might have had a carefree childhood under the vast skies of Tibet, the so-called Roof of the World. Destiny, however, had other ideas in mind for her.
In her autobiography “Child of Tibet: the story of Soname’s flight to freedom,” written together with the journalist Vickie MacKenzie, she tells the story of her life, a story both moving and turbulent. Chinese occupying forces terrorized her family, she was called a bastard, was abused and humiliated. As a small child she was forced to watch her parents being whipped and her grandfather tortured with fire. In order to protect their daughter from random acts of cruelty, Soname was sent to live with an aunt in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.
The aunt, however, didn’t want anything to do with the six-year-old, so she was put into the care of strangers who forced her into a life of servitude for the next decade. At sixteen she escaped, travelling hundreds of kilometres on foot through the Himalayas via Nepal and on to India. She pressed on, hungry and with blistered, bleeding feet. The thought of freedom gave her strength and courage, but there were more hardships in store. On the journey, she was raped and bore a daughter. Unable to care for her, she sent the child back to her family in Tibet. Soname finally found peace and security in Delhi, working as a housekeeper for a rich Indian. There she came into contact with Europeans for the first time, in this case a Frenchman who took her to Europe.
On a trip to England she met the man who would ultimately become her husband and decided to stay. For the last few years, Soname has lived happily in the seaside town of Brighton together with her husband and daughter, and remains eternally grateful for her new life of freedom. “Everything’s fine now,” she said, “But I can’t just lie back and think to myself, I’m all right now. I want to give something back.”
Singing for peace, freedom and Tibet
What she ended up giving back came directly from the heart: Soname Yangchen sings on behalf of peace and freedom, against exploitation and, above all, about Tibet. “Singing has a spiritual meaning for me,” said Soname, “When I sing, I feel at one with the universe.” The sound of her crisp, clear voice bears that out. Meditative and melancholy, her timeless music touches the soul.
She rediscovered her childhood songs in 1998 quite by chance. As a guest at a wedding reception, she was surprised to discover no one making music and got up and gave an impromptu rendition of songs she knew from her youth. Her talent was immediately recognised by the unlikeliest of people, namely an ex-member of rowdy punk band, the Sex Pistols.
Since then, she’s never looked back and her career has gone from strength to strength. Her 2003 debut concert at London’s Royal Opera House was a far cry from the days when she booked her own concerts with the money earned as a cleaner. A year after her sold-out London show, she sang for the Dalai Lama and met him personally, an encounter that Soname, a committed Buddhist, found extremely inspirational. “He is so friendly and tolerant,” she said, “He explained to me that you can’t expect to change the world in a group, you have to start with yourself if you want to improve things and it it can all start with something as simple as a smile.”
The dranyen meets the cello
Soname has expanded her repertoire and doesn’t just sing songs from her childhood. These days she also combines her own experiences and musical concepts to create new aural ideas. The sound of the traditional Tibetan lute, the dranyen, and the gumang, a stringed instrument, meet typically Western sounds such as the clarinet and the harp to symbolise Soname’s journey between different worlds. Indian rap, electronic beats, melodic folk pop, guitar and flute are all thrown into the mix but these disparate influences are never employed at the expense of Soname’s Tibetan roots.
On her latest album, “Natural Mind”, Soname utilizes harmonic vocals. Even to listeners who don't understand the Tibetan lyrics, it is clear that her message comes from the heart.
The language of flowers
On “Bird Sad Song”, she cautions against placing value on material objects over spiritual matters, “Freedom Song” is a rallying cry to fight for liberty and “Refuge” sees her thank the Dalai Lama for his benevolence. Soname also experiments by integrating natural sounds into her music; for example on the track “Dharma King”, wind, a frog’s chorus and crashing waves can all be heard. “I pray that my next life will be spent in Tibet,” she says. But singing for Tibet isn’t Soname’s only concern these days. She also warns about the destruction of nature, as in the song “Flowers.”
The voice of Tibet?
The melodies - though unaccustomed to Western ears - can grow on the listener. Music critics have called Soname The Voice of Tibet. She modestly counters: “The voices of Tibet live in Tibet; nomads and farmers who sing while they work.” She’d rather talk about her dream which, on her current album, is as present as ever: “We all have the same dream of global peace, of freedom and humanity. We don’t just all live in the same material world, but also in the same spiritual one. And as an artist, I am deeply committed to the spiritual world and its people.”