Peter Hulm writes from the Swiss Alpine town of Leuk in the Valais.
Loten Namling, star of the documentary Tibetan Warrior (Netflix), saw the mountains and plateaux of the upper Valais this week and said: “This is just like Tibet!”
The exiled singer-activist for the Himalayan country’s freedom from Chinese control noted another similarity between the Valais and his homeland: “There’s a place in Tibet that’s famous for its apricots [Ladakh’s Nubra Valley]. I’m told there are 108 varieties of apricots in the Valais, right?” Namling was talking in Leuk in a stopover on his way from a concert in Zurich to another in Geneva with his group Porok Karpo (white crow).
Porok Karpo bills itself as an “alternative Swiss-Tibetan pop-rock band”. The music’s not as strange as the label sounds. In fact, many of the numbers would be surefire audience pop singalongs in any other language but Tibetan. In Leuk Porok Karpo closed ForumWallis 2016, the annual international contemporary music festival in the historic town’s even more historic castle on a day devoted to political musicians.
Namling, born in India in 1963 to exiled Tibetan parents, became alarmed at the number of Tibetans setting themselves on fire in despair at the apparent failure of nearly 60 years of non-violent struggle against China’s takeover of the country.
In 2012 this led him to pull a coffin on wheels and painted with the slogan “Free Tibet” from the Swiss federal capital Berne — his home since 1989 — to the United Nations in Geneva. Every 35 minutes he prostrated himself in memory of the 35 people in Tibet who committed suicide by self-immolation during the previous year.
From there he went to India, talking to politicians, experts and young radicals in the search for an answer to the self-destructive actions and met the Dalai Llama there. This became the inspiration for Tibetan Warrior by Dodo Hunziker.
Namling, who is a cartoonist as well as a musician, is a powerful figure on stage, like Richie Havens at Woodstock without the searing anger. He is helped by Mik Keusen on piano, who can sound as lyrical as Tori Amos anytime he wants, Philipp Moll who plays an unusually melodic electric bass, and precise, sensitive drumming from Muso Stamm. The songs are all put together by Valaisan guitarist Patrick Lerjen into orchestrated fusions that Peter Gabriel would surely approve. For one song Loten Namling even played a traditional Tibetan lute to show how closely the group keeps to traditional sounds.
Namling told the enthusiastic audience in Leuk how the group got started. He met the 14th Dalai Lama by chance in Oslo during a photo-op. Namling spontaneously told the Tibetan exile leader he thought the country’s traditional and political songs — which people in Tibet were being imprisoned for singing — needed to be brought to a wider public. The Dalai Lama said “do it”, Namling recalled.
Shortly after, in 2014, he met the guitarist/producer Lerjen on the street in Berne and told him of the encounter. Lerjen responded enthusiastically, saying he needed something new to inspire him and began work on orchestrating the songs.
When Namling heard the first results, “within 15 seconds — no within five seconds — I knew this was the way to go,” he said. Namling appealed to his audience before closing: “Spread the word that there’s a terrific Tibetan-Swiss rock group.” Which is what I am doing now.
In ancient Tibetan a white crow is a creator but a Google search says it is also someone who has not received a Tibetan education. After the concert Namling visited the Church of St. Stephen in Leuk where thousands of human skulls are stacked in the crypt and can be visited. “Reminder of impermanence!” he notes. “I did some prayers for the dead ones.”
Peter Hulm is a journalist and writer living in Switzerland.
You can hear Porok Karpo at http://porok-karpo.com/music/
Namling’s Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/loten.namling