Friday, November 21, 2008
US singer has key part in Tibet independence movement
Phil Void: Dharma Bums leader who sings of Tibetan freedom
Photograph: The Irish Times
Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama, attracts westerners of every colour, writes Clifford Coonan
SINGER-SONGWRITER Phil Void's rock music career began with instructions from the Dalai Lama himself to continue performing his songs about Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan freedom, and the New Yorker has spent nearly 35 years doing just that.
Formerly Philip Hemley from Woodstock, Void has been coming to Dharamsala every year since 1975, when he first formed the Dharma Bums, named after the Jack Kerouac book of the same name. Dharamsala is home to a host of westerners, some of them original hippies chasing the mysticism of the Himalayan town, others shaven-headed Tibetan Buddhist monks from Europe or the US attending the town's temples. Yet others are tech-savvy students working for the Tibetan independence movement.
This week they share the narrow, steep roads of this small town with Tibetan exiles meeting to discuss the way forward for the Tibetan movement following the collapse of talks with China over autonomy for the region.
In 1989, Void found himself facing a quandary in his beloved Dharamsala.
He was studying Tibetan religion and philosophy at Columbia University but had to decide whether to pursue his studies under Prof Robert Thurman, a Tibetologist (and father of actress Uma Thurman), or to keep playing his music. "I said that when I went back to the US I had to decide what to do. I presented him with the original version of my notes for Rangzen, and he looked at me with a funny smile and a look that bore right through me. His holiness said: 'You have a special talent for these songs.' I knew what decision I had to make," said Void.
Dharamsala has a population of 20,000, of which a few hundred residents are foreigners. With his distinctive bushy beard, booming laugh and twinkling eyes, Phil Void is probably the most recognisable of Dharamsala's foreign residents.
In 1989, he wrote the signature Dharma Bums tune Rangzen, which translates as "Free Tibet", while on the train to Dharamsala. The song's lyrics call for a return to harmony and are a clear call for independence, but, as he points out, this was long before there was any tension between the idea of a "Middle Way" and of autonomy.
Dharamsala was established as a garrison town in the 1850s under British rule, but plans to expand its role were shelved after an earthquake in 1905 in which 20,000 people died.
It remained a sleepy spot in the Himalayas until 1959, when the Dalai Lama and his followers moved there after fleeing Tibet in the wake of a failed uprising against the Chinese, who had entered Lhasa in 1950
It was relatively easy to gain an audience with the Dalai Lama in the town, so hundreds of pilgrims from all over the world began to visit, among them Phil Void.
Other Dharma Bums collaborators include Maura Moynihan, a journalist, activist and singer-songwriter who first jammed with the group in 1989. She is the daughter of US Democratic Senator Dan Moynihan, who was US ambassador to India under two administrations and was instrumental in forming Washington's policy in Tibet over the years. In a travel shop, two Tibetan Buddhist monks warmly embrace Void and say they are delighted at the way foreigners are helping them. "They play a very important role in the independence movement.
We know him from Voice of America and we love his performance," said Rigzin Paldup, from the International Buddhist School of Dialectics in the town.
His fellow monk Thupten Gunsang is keen to talk about the continuing special meeting of exiles in Dharamsala, which some have speculated could lead to a more aggressive approach to securing more autonomy, or even independence, than the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way".
"I think we should stick to the Middle Way, it's a first step," said Gunsang.
Void lists off the various festivals his group has played at, including the Miss Tibet beauty pageant, and, in 2005, at New York's Madison Square Garden after a Dalai Lama teaching.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times