Sunday, April 20, 2014

Around China: Tibetan ballad singer has global vision

LHASA, April 17 (Xinhua) -- Sitar Doje is a typical Tibetan herder's son, but is endowed with a special talent: he can recite the world's longest epic poem for hours on end without faltering.

The 23-year-old Tibetan is the youngest known singer of "King Gesar," a ballad that tells how the half-human, half-god Tibetan king of the 11th Century conquered the devils of other tribes and sought to help ordinary people.

Now he hopes to bring the legend to a global audience.

Like other singers of the ballad, Sitar Doje claims his skills are "god taught."

Born to a poor herding family in Qamdo Prefecture of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region in 1990, he says he never read or even heard the King Gesar epic in his early days.

When he was 11, however, his fate changed with a strange dream.

"I dreamed I was taken by a group of armed soldiers to a tent on a grassland I'd never been to," he told Xinhua in an interview Thursday. "There, someone forced a huge pile of books into my mouth."

Young Sitar Doje woke up feeling sick and eager to cough up something clogged in his chest. He said that when he opened his mouth, strange words flowed freely in a sing-song tone. "I was out of control and sang for two hours."

He was then a third-grader at Sadeng Village Primary School in his home county of Banbar. His classmates all thought he was crazy, until his Tibetan teacher, Sonam Gyaltsen, realized he was singing the King Gesar ballad.

Sonam Gyaltsen, who was proficient in Tibetan poetry, burned incense according to a Tibetan ritual to purify him and recorded some of his singing.

Sitar Doje was soon recognized as the youngest singer of the epic. His teacher's recordings were played at schools across Tibet. In his spare time, he has recorded nearly 200 hours of the King Gesar legend for a government-run cultural heritage preservation society.

Today, Sitar Doje is majoring in Tibetan language and literature at Tibet University in Lhasa. He is often invited to give live performances on stage or at the local radio station.

When he half-sings and half-narrates the Homeric-style epic, he seems possessed, and his face radiates as if his mind has traveled back to King Gesar's days.

"I can see vivid war scenes: how the king and his men fought, how their knives were wielded and how the swords flew," he said. Unless interrupted, he can sing endlessly.

He can sing more than 20 episodes of the epic, but new content keeps popping up in his brain.

"I've taken down about 50,000 words of the epic in Tibetan, and I hope someday these manuscripts will be published and translated into Chinese and even English," he said.

Sitar Doje said he is working hard on studying Chinese and English. "Hopefully, I'll be able to sing the King Gesar ballad for a larger audience. I'd be very proud if people from across the globe could all appreciate Tibetan culture," he said.

Upon graduation, he said he would like to become a King Gesar specialist at a research institute, or to be a full-time ballad singer back in his hometown.

"In both cases, I'll devote myself to the King Gesar epic preservation," he said.

The 1,000-year-old epic of King Gesar, with more than 120 episodes, is considered the crowning masterpiece of Tibetan folk literature.

About 150 Gesar singers are alive today, including Tibetans, Mongolians and some from the Tu ethnic group in Qinghai Province. Most are illiterate herders or peasants from Tibet, Qinghai and Inner Mongolia.

"All claim they were suddenly able to sing the ballad after a strange dream or a serious disease," said Yungzhung Dawa, chief of the cultural heritage bureau in Qamdo Prefecture. "It remains a mystery how they actually acquired the ability."

China, in its three-decade campaign to preserve the 1-million-line epic, has made 5,000 hours of recordings of the singing and compiled 36 publications. The millennial epic has also given rise to a whole field of study referred to as "Gesarology."

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