BHUTAN: Music From The Mountains of Bhutan - Sonam Dorji
Updated: Feb 10
Dorji honours his great nation's musical past and delights listeners with the beauty of the delightful drangyen
Throughout this entire process of listening to albums from every nation, we have consciously tried to select a diverse range of musical styles along the way. Striking a balance between modern and traditional music is sometimes tricky, however, we like to celebrate both with equal gusto. Yet, we of course realise that as the Western perspective that we are born with is impossible to totally shake we sometimes don’t consider some of the negative implications of the proliferation of modern genres. Fortunately though, there exists people like Sonam Dorji who seek to preserve traditional music cultures from their home nations, in countries where Western cultural imperialism has totally prevailed amongst the younger generation. Dorji recognised this trend and in a bid to combat it, he formed the Music of Bhutan Research Centre in Thimpu where he is the Executive Director.
“Writing a song filled with so much emotional depth is a brave thing for any artist to do, but the vulnerability of his emotions really shine here.”
He observed that the youth in Bhutan were getting somewhat corrupted by Western musical culture and were completely ignorant to the rich musical traditions from their homeland. So Dorji decided to travel around the country finding masters of the differing music traditions by region and as such he himself went on to produce as stunning an album as Music from the Mountains of Bhutan which serves as both a beautiful piece of music but also a much-needed cultural artefact. In his youth he went on a rather amazing journey that saw him studying Hindustani classical music in India. This was because heir to the throne Prince Namgyel Wangchuck saw 11-year-old Dorji perform at his village school concert and decided to adopt him. At the royal court he studied with masters of music in his teenage years, including his guru Aku Tongmi (the composer of Bhutan’s national anthem, Druk Tsendhen), before venturing off to India to learn about the world of ragas and much more.
Despite the obvious influence that seeing greats, like Ravi Shankar, perform in the flesh may have, Dorji’s music is distinctly from the Tibetan Plateau and on-the-surface is not too heavily influenced by Hindustani classical music. He plays in a style called Zhabdro Gorgom in which simple calming vocals are utilised, amidst a backdrop of luscious instrumentation. The key instrument in all of the genre is the drangyen (a Bhutanese lute). One of the songs on the album is about the fact that to become a good drangyenist, one sould get blessings from Lhamo Yangchenma (Goddess of Music). Though the album includes various tales of mysticism, some of which might be grounded in religious doctrine, for example Goenzang gi chogla (The devoted pilgrim). One extra touch which I really like is that he sings in the Kheng dialect, which is a complete rarity. In fact, he composed the first-ever nationally broadcast song in the language which earnt him the nickname Kheng Sonam Dorji.
The most powerful song both musically and lyrically is the opening track. Dungai nanggo nigma (The orphan's song) is truly stunning. Dorji wrote the track at the tender age of fifteen, dedicating the song to his mother who he lost at the age of 9. Writing a song filled with so much emotional depth is a brave thing for any artist to do, but the vulnerability of his emotions really shine here. The simplicity and purity of his vocals alongside the drangyen is beautiful. That is not to say that the album does not feature some other wonderful instruments too. My other favourite is the fleeting inclusion of the lingm (a type of bamboo flute) featured prominently on the album cover. Flutes (or variants thereof) always seem to remind me of nature and though its inclusion is few and far between, when it is played it has this same powerful effect on me. Overall, whilst there is not much variety to this album it serves an important purpose as it is deeply rooted in traditional sounds that should be preserved. What’s more, if one is in the mood for something soft and gentle it can be certainly a deep and moving listen that I’d definitely recommend.