Bhutan's 'Idol' rocks dragon lutes, Buddhist hymns

AP News

11/4/2011 6:29:43 AM - AP News

The musician strummed his dragon-headed lute, launching a nervous young woman into a high-pitched, ululating song broadcast live across the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

The judges were unsparing. She was out of synch with the music, one said. The other consulted historical scriptures and discovered she got the lyrics wrong.

It's clear "Bhutan Star" is not just another low-budget knockoff of the "American Idol" juggernaut. This wildly popular show, which forces contestants to sing the nation's fading traditional songs, is Bhutan's most promising weapon in its fight to save its culture from being overrun by globalization.

Conservative grandparents, Buddhist monks, rebellious teens and almost everyone else with a TV gather every Saturday and Sunday to watch contestants belt out classical Buddhist compositions. Jaded youngsters have started humming folk tunes in the street.

"When young guys like us can sing this, (kids) think, 'Why not?'" said Tandin Dorji, a 24-year-old office worker and a contestant on the show.

Nestled in the high peaks between India and China, the "Land of the Thunder Dragon" long maintained an insular existence, with traditions nearly frozen in amber and no paved roads, phones or postal service until the 1960s.

Men wore the gho, a knee-length robe, with high black socks and elaborately decorated silk boots. Women wore the kira, a floor-length woven dress. They snacked on toasted rice and butter tea and listened to homegrown music. Even as young Bhutanese went abroad to study, and Bollywood movies colonized the nation's two theaters, its traditions dominated.

Then, in 1999, came TV, the Internet and what Education Minister Thakur Powdyel calls "the onslaught of global culture."

The changes to this slow-paced nation of 700,000 were lightning fast.

Kids now wear jeans and leather jackets and gel their hair into spikes. They eat Lay's potato chips, drink Pepsi and listen to infectious Korean pop songs they pass around on cassettes and thumb drives. Kinzang Dema, the granddaughter of a renowned classical singer, sees no shame in playing Justin Bieber's "Baby" from her cellphone speaker.

"We get carried away by all that stuff," said Yeshi Dem, 15, who guiltily revealed her love for the Korean soap opera "Boys Over Flowers."

Sensing that guilt, Nidup Dorji, a popular 37-year-old writer, actor, composer and singer, wondered whether Bhutanese were ready to embrace their culture again, but with a modern twist.

He recorded a classical album in 2006 and was convinced it went blockbuster by Bhutan standards _ selling 8,000 cassettes and 3,000 CDs _ because he spiced it up with modern Spanish guitar and drums.

The next year he turned to TV.

He appropriated the format of "Idol," which he had seen on satellite TV. He then used Bhutan's pop genre known as rigsar to lure kids into watching the folk music called boedra and the more complex zhungdra, classical, high-pitched religious songs composed by Buddhist lamas and reminiscent of Chinese opera.

Each week, the contestants perform one rigsar song with a modern band on one side of the stage and one song of either boedra or zhungdra with a traditional band on the other playing the dramnyen lute, the yangchen dulcimer and the fiddle-like chiwang. There are two sets of judges as well.

The series has the production quality of a junior high talent show held in a past-its-prime Vegas nightclub and broadcast on local public access television.

Some contestants start over, forget the words or sing seriously off-key. Most stand stock still, though a few slowly sway to the music.

Ugyen Tshomo's time ran out as she delivered a breathy, shaky performance and her mike was turned off. When she kept singing, it was turned back on.

The judges, while far more polite than those on "Idol," are brutal by the genteel standards of a country that measures its development by the homegrown calculation of Gross National Happiness.

One judge told a contestant she sang as if she had not had enough to eat. Another gave perplexing advice to former monk Tsheten G. Tashi, who forgot some lyrics and sang the rest far out of tune: "When two bulls fight, only one can win."

Tshering Lham sang a mournful lament in an ancient Tibetan dialect about a homesick princess who had to leave China to live with a king in Tibet.

Both judges give her six out of 10.

"You have a good voice, but you are not staying in tune," said Ugyen Tshering.

The show is run under a complex system that mixes judges' scores with cellphone text votes to whittle the 25 singers down, awards immunity to popular ones, lets judges save some voted off and throws two new "wild card" singers into the mix halfway through the season.

Though there are no weekly ratings, the show receives 70,000 to 80,000 text votes at 5 ngultrum (ten cents) a vote every week, Dorji said. It has sold thousands of cassettes and DVDs, inspired its own copycat show and been praised by the prime minister in Parliament for restoring Bhutan's dying musical heritage.

"It's the only entertainment we have in Bhutan," said 16-year-old Gyelwa Kuenzom. "We are learning from it, the traditional songs, it's really enjoyable."

Nearly all 900 monks in Tsheten Dorji's monastery watch the show.

"Wisdom is given by the words of some songs," the 29-year-old monk said.

"Bhutan Star" is only one part of an all-out scramble to protect the nation's culture.

Filmmaker Karma Tshering twisted another foreign import, the beauty pageant, to revive interest in old Bhutanese textiles. His Miss Bhutan contestants don't model swimsuits, but outfits from the 1800s borrowed from a museum as they answer questions on culture, language and traditional Buddhist manners.

The government, with its law requiring traditional dress in public widely flouted, has turned to the schools to win back the next generation, overhauling the curriculum to emphasize culture, religion and the environment, said Powdyel, the education minister.

Students now start the day with a two-minute exercise in Buddhist mindfulness, folding their hands in their laps, closing their eyes and clearing their heads of Facebook friends, Twitter messages and other distractions.

"What is modern is always more tempting and even more aggressive. It might not necessarily be more authentic and fulfilling," Powdyel said.

At Lung Tenzampa Middle Secondary School, principal Kinley Pem said it's working: Many children have traded in their Nike book bags for traditional woven ones. Those with long, gelled hair and blonde highlights acceded to haircuts that were not exactly forced on them, but were the result of intense pressure.

"We were happy that we could get them back to the culture," she said.

But Pem was ambivalent about TV. "The children, they learn a lot. They are very expressive, confident," she said, crediting foreign shows. On the other hand, "they want to be like the Koreans."

"Bhutan Star" is making at least a small dent in that, said Kheng Dema Wangchuk, 25, a contestant on an earlier season of the show who now plays in its classical band.

Audiences for his traditional gigs in local clubs have tripled as Bhutanese realize pop tunes are only popular for a month or two, while classical songs last for generations, he said.

Yet Dorji, the producer, constantly struggles with the delicate balance of bringing his audience back to its cultural roots while still keeping it entertained.

While crimson robed monks sat beside parents in traditional dress at a recent "Bhutan Star" concert at a packed amphitheater, at least half the crowd wore Western clothes as they listened to a cover version of Cee-Lo's U.S. pop hit "Forget You," playing from the speakers before the show.

And while the contestants wore traditional dress, they sang only modern rigsar music; Dorji said the crowd was in no mood for education.

"If we played classical music," he said, "this place would clear out."

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Ravi Nessman can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/ravinessman