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WORLD MUSIC REVIEW

`Voice of Tibet' transcends

October 02, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Yungchen Lhamo was in the right milieu Saturday night. The singer often called "the Voice of Tibet" performed in the atmospheric setting of the Silk Roads Gallery, with its stunning plethora of Buddhist-related art.

When Lhamo stepped into the small, improvised stage area, virtually surrounded by ancient sculptures, to greet listeners calmly seated on floor pillows and meditation cushions, the evening seemed primed for a rare display of performance synchronicity. Garbed in white, her long, black hair reaching her knees, she combined great reserve with a calming sense of inner focus.

Lhamo's singing further reflected those characteristics. She sang her first set of pieces a cappella. In songs drawn from traditional Tibetan themes, her voice transformed lines of great simplicity into vehicles of contemplation. Much Eastern music is experiential rather than observational -- intended to draw the listener into a participatory, meditative state of mind very different from the technical virtuosity, the rhythmic passion and the intellectualization more common to Western music. And as much as one might marvel at Lhamo's vocal control, at a range reaching from dark chest tones to astonishingly airy head sounds, at the subtle glottal-stop ornamentation that illuminated much of her phrasing, it was ultimately her capacity to create a mind-clearing immersion in her music that made the evening such a remarkable event.

In the second part of her program, Lhamo, who usually performs alone, was joined by percussionist Greg Ellis and harmonium player-singer Zat Baraka. Although this ad hoc combination was largely spontaneous, Lhamo reached out to embrace the added sounds, rhythms and vocalizations. Ellis, always a sensitive drummer, was particularly supportive with percussive sounds from large, clay pots. Baraka's singing, interweaved between Lhamo's vocals, nourished and enhanced the music's reflective aspects.

But the most engaging passages in Lhamo's performance took place during a pair of pieces in which she offered a starting note for the singing of Om, quietly encouraging the audience to more fully share the experience. No more specific than that, she simply allowed the audience's vocalizing to unfold in a series of impromptu permutations -- some dissonant, some resonating with open-fifth clarity -- as her voice soared above, around and through the collective expression. One couldn't have asked for a better example of the integrative, spiritual beauty of Lhamo's music.

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