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29 juillet 2006

Cool off in Tibet, then heat up here

Hindus, Buddhists and others who look to the East for spiritual sustenance believe that the spark of divinity - the profound but simple potential of godhood, as it were - resides within us all.

Alas, that spark is often little more than a faint and remote flicker. It needs a cool breath of compassion to coax the flame to kindle. It wants a melodic Tibetan zephyr from the Land of Snows to burn like a yak-butter lamp on the hearth of the heart.

The spark requires the Voice of Tibet in all its precious clarity, diamond purity and sublime humility.

Yungchen Lhamo is the Voice of Tibet, and her new CD "Ama" is uplifting and deeply moving. The disc's 10 exquisite tracks are perfect lullabies for these troubled times.

Though she now calls New York City home, Lhamo was born in a labor camp outside the holy city of Lhasa after the Chinese occupation of Tibet commenced in the 1950s. She learned Tibetan devotional singing from her grandmother. It was a dangerous undertaking - making traditional music was one of many cultural customs banned by the occupying forces.

In 1989, Lhamo's grandmother encouraged her to make the perilous trek across the Himalayas to seek refuge in Dharamsala, India, home of the Tibetan government-in-exile and its spiritual and political leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Lhamo carried little more than her miraculous voice and a desire to use it on behalf of her people.

And so she has, bouncing from India to Australia to Europe to the U.S. Along the way, her ethereal singing caught the ear of Peter Gabriel, who signed her to his Real World Records label.

"Ama" is Lhamo's third release for Real World, and it's her finest to date. On it, she melds the musical forms of her homeland to lyrics that reflect her Tibetan Buddhist faith and its central, essential tenet of compassion. Producer Jamshied Sharifi has ornamented the tunes with delicate, empathetic instrumentation that never overshadows the often otherworldly grace of Lhamo's voice.

Some songs - such as the disc-opening "Ranzen" - are somber and majestic. Some - the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hung" in the setting of a village festival tune - have an earthy liveliness and frisky joy. Other tracks - the lover's lament "Gebu Shere" - have the gleaming, pensive loveliness of a teardrop.

Lhamo's voice shimmers and soars on the CD's standout tracks. "Tara" is an ode to the female deity who represents strength, compassion and healing.

"9/11” is a spine-tingling improvisation on Lhamo's grief over the World Trade Center attacks. "Someday" pays tribute to the Dalai Lama, and the album-closing "Lhasa" is a poignant double salute to the city of her birth and her father.

Lhamo's singing might sound alien to Western ears. It's artless and heartfelt, and sometimes her voice shivers and cracks as she prolongs a phrase or nudges it to fresh heights. The lyrics are in Tibetan, but the emotion is universal.

This music is the embodiment of amaste, the Sanskrit greeting that acknowledges that precious divine spark. "Ama" is a mitzvah, a blessing, a fresh and fulfilling gift from the Land of Snows.

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