Saturday, May 6, 2017

The monk Rockstar

As Buddhist chants and prayers echoed through the Nepalese hilltop monastery where Ani Choying Drolma lived, the 19-year-old nun was listening to, and losing herself in, Bonnie Raitt's Something to Talk About.

She rewound and replayed the American blues singer's uplifting anthem over and over on her cassette player - "Luck of the Draw", the album featuring Raitt's big hit, was the first Western music Drolma had owned.

Fourteen years later, Raitt went to see Drolma play live in San Francisco, in the United States. The teenage fan had become the rock star nun.

"Hi, I'm Bonnie Raitt, and I'm one of your biggest fans," giggles Drolma, re-enacting her treasured meeting with the flame-haired singer she'd first seen on that cassette cover.

"She said 'Cho' was one of her favourite albums."

People like to put you in a box. I always disappoint them, and I always wanted to disappoint them.
Drolma's debut album is the perfect introduction to her music, with her haunting melodies and ancient Buddhist mantras set to the guitar riffs of American Steve Tibbetts. The Philadelphia Inquirer describes hearing the nun chant as "like being present at the creation of something fragile and miraculous".

American singers Tina Turner and Tracy Chapman are fans and Drolma has recently collaborated with Oscar-winning Indian composer A.R. Rahman. For years, however, despite her fame elsewhere, Drolma would remain unknown in the hills of Nepal.

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DROLMA'S SONGS STEM FROM a dark past, a disturbing beginning rife with violence.

She was born and brought up during the 1970s in Boudha, a Kathmandu neighbourhood which she refers to as "a mini-Tibet in exile", in her 2009 autobiography Singing for Freedom. Originally written in French (an interview in French Elle inspired the book, so it was first published in that language), the work has since been translated into 11 languages, including English. In it, Drolma writes extensively about a tormented childhood at the hands of an abusive father.

Watch: Ani Choying Drolma on how she became a singer

"My back was always covered in bruises, I was always bent over, but he seldom drew blood," she writes.

She still carries the scars, mentally and physically - a faint gash on her face is a reminder of one particularly merciless beating. It was the fear of being forced to "marry a man who could become my father" that inspired the 13-year-old Drolma to join the Nagi Gompa nunnery, which is attached to Kathmandu's Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery.

"My experience of abuse made me make a choice not to have it anymore," she says. "Becoming a nun and going to the monastery was like going to heaven from hell."

Today, Drolma is a calm, composed character - a charismatic woman with an infectious smile. Ani, meaning "nun" in Tibetan, cracks jokes about her age (she's 43) and the miraculous effects anti-wrinkle cream has on her skin - not that her clear, smooth complexion appears to need it. Self-deprecatingly, she shares a story about substituting Whitney Houston lyrics with Buddhist chants when she couldn't remember the words to I Will Always Love You while singing at the monastery.

"Being a nun, I never had the ambition to become a famous singer," Drolma says. "[I didn't want] to become a rock star or a pop star or become No1."

Tibbetts first heard Drolma sing in 1994, when he visited Nagi Gompa. He proposed a collaboration and, Drolma says, she agreed instantly.

In 1997, "Cho" was released, but in one of her early interviews, on National Public Radio (NPR), in the US, Drolma said she disliked hearing the centuries-old hymns mixed with guitar and percussion.

"Originally, [this ancient music was] not that way," she said.

With time, her perception changed.

"The important thing is the original tune and the words," Drolma told NPR a year later. "We never changed that. The music Steve Tibbetts does

With more than a dozen albums and thousands of record sales under her belt, Drolma has refined her musical philosophy further.
"I've never sung these songs [the way] we imagine them to be," says the singer, who recently collaborated with Rahman and Jordanian singer Farah Siraj for an MTV Coke Studio live-music television show. "It's a part of our spiritual and meditational practice. The only difference [with the albums] is that the packaging and presentation has changed."After the success of "Cho" - it was sold in HMV and Virgin Megastores around the world - Drolma and Tibbetts embarked on a US tour. As the positive reviews poured in, Drolma actively pursued a professional singing career
.From her first international concert, at the Walker Art Centre, in Minneapolis, in 1998, to one of her biggest performances, before an audience of 14,000 people at Hong Kong's AsiaWorld-Expo to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the handover, Drolma's voice has been heard around the world.
Drolma's formal education ended abruptly after fourth grade, when she joined the nunnery, where she was immersed in Buddhist studies. But she was determined to learn, and read and re-read every book she could find. In the monastery, she asked foreigners to help her learn English. The teenager watched English television shows and listened to Western songs to perfect her command of the language. "Education really helps people to think," Drolma says, in accented English. "Education enlightens you."  DROLMA HAD PERFORMED IN more than 50 US cities, mesmerised party-goers at a Singapore nightclub in 2001 with a Tibetan version of Amazing Grace and rubbed shoulders with American celebrities, but still her music had not caught on in her home country
.In 2004, Phool Ko Aankha Ma, a single from her album "Moments of Bliss", connected with the Nepalese public and turned the Buddhist nun into an overnight phenomenon.
"It was a song that touched everyone's heart," says Mandira Dhungel, presenter and producer at Nepalese radio station Hits FM. "The entire country was singing that song."
That year, at the Hits FM Music Awards, Drolma was shortlisted for the song of the year and best female vocal performance prizes, while "Moments of Bliss" picked up record of the year and best composition went to Phool Ko Aankha Ma.
Drolma had become a household name - an unlikely pop star had landed on Nepal's music scene with songs that extolled the goodness of the human spirit.
Nhyoo Bajracharya has known Drolma for a decade and composed more than 100 songs for her, including those on "Moments of Bliss".
IN THE REMOTE HEARTLAND of Nepal, the education of girls is not a priority and women are routinely discriminated against. Despite significant progress in female school enrolment, archaic traditions such as early marriage, the seclusion of women during menstruation and the burden of household chores still hinder their advancement.
Her charity work started in a rented four-storey house in Kathmandu that served as the base for the Nuns' Welfare Foundation, a non-profit organisation Drolma founded. In 2000, she set up the Arya Tara School in the capital, to educate other nuns in subjects such as English, maths and Nepali.
Drolma started touring to raise funds to expand her school. In 2005, on a small hilltop in Pharping, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, a new Arya Tara facility was inaugurated. Today it is home to 80 nuns.     In 2009, Drolma established a kidney hospital in Kathmandu to help those who cannot afford treatment abroad.
"My belief in the goodness of human potential drives my philanthropic work," says Drolma, who idolises Mother Teresa, the late missionary sister who once tended to the poor of Calcutta, in India.
"Everyone is selfish in this world," she says, stretching her legs from the living room chair she has been sitting on for the past few hours. "I don't believe there's a 100 per cent selfless act. The only difference is there's a positive way of being selfish or a negative way. Positive in the sense people do things for the well-being of others. When I do something for others, it gives me immense pleasure and that inspires me to continue doing what I'm doing."
Drolma has faced criticism for her feminist beliefs and "luxurious" lifestyle; she lives in one of Kathmandu's expensive high-rise apartments, drives a car and dines out in fancy restaurants. At Nagi Gompa, some have called her a "business nun".
While women in Nepal are climbing the social ladder - they are now represented in parliament, business and the media, in jobs once reserved for men - patriarchal principles are still entrenched in Nepalese society. Drolma has challenged those traditions by joining figureheads such as anti-human trafficking crusader Anuradha Koirala and Shanta Chaudhary, who rose from being a bonded labourer to become a parliamentarian fighting against modern-day slavery, in giving greater visibility to women. Drolma especially campaigns on the behalf of nuns, who are expected to stick to their monastic rituals and not embark on independent careers.

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