Encouraged and nourished by their biggest fan and first manager, mother Nyima, the JJI Exile Brothers dedicated their first album to her. More than a decade later, they have just hired a childhood friend, Phuntsok Choepel, to take over the manager role. Phuntsok faces a daunting challenge - to further the career of a band which has already played concerts in North America, Europe and India, featured in countless music magazines, including Rolling Stone, and recorded a session in the studio of one of their greatest heroes, Bob Dylan.
Despite their Asian roots, The JJI Exile Brothers share a musical style with the Western protest singers of the '60s and '70s, whose songs of freedom and equality spurred political activism for a whole generation. Today, many young, freedom-yearning Tibetans also find reassurance and inspiration in the songs of the JJI Exile Brothers. Anyone who has seen them in concert or heard their CD will have no doubt that their main message is to free Tibet.
Reporter and musician, Cornelius Lundsgaard, from The Tibet Post International (TPI), recently sat down at the band's family restaurant with the band's middle-man and unofficial spokesperson, 31-year-old Tenzin Jigme, for a chat about the band and what it's like to be an exiled musician:
TPI: When did you start playing music with your brothers?
JJI JIGME: From childhood we used to play together as a band - strange instruments like flutes and things like that. Then after high school I went to college, but after three months I thought, no, the college thing is not for me. My brothers had already dropped out from school and, well, my younger brother [Ingsel] is a professional Tibetan traditional musician, and my older brother is also playing guitar and was making songs like that and so I thought, okay let's do something different. Now, as a Buddhist, this human life is very precious for us. We should use it in the best way to reach Nirvana. If I get to Nirvana, I thought, maybe I can do something for my country. But also for selfish reasons - I like music, you know! So then I came back and I started playing music with my brothers and we decided to make a small show for family and friends. But Mama said, "No, you should have a concert in a huge place," and like that we had a concert. A couple of thousand people came. We recorded the concert and the next day we heard it and we said, "Is that us? Is that us? Wow, that's sounding nice! Let's keep on!". Then it happened naturally.
TPI: How many songs have you written so far?
JIGME: I killed so many songs, so I don't know how many songs I have made, but at the moment I can say at least there is altogether maybe around 70-something. But a lot of these songs I have, what do you call it, murdered or killed. Because you make it and then the next day you find it so strange or whatever. You know what I mean, since you are a musician yourself?
TPI: I know what you mean. In fact, I just killed a song the other day! With that many songs, how many albums have you released?
JIGME: As a band, just one, but we have recorded a couple of songs with Playing for Change - that's an organization from America. This guy called Matt Johnson, who won a Grammy award for sound engineering, he did a couple of really amazing jobs recording musicians from all around the world that we never met, but we still played on the same track. Then we met in the United States and we had a show there. We got a chance to record at Bob Dylan's studio. I used to listen to Bob Dylan when I was in school and everyone was listening to Abba and all these other pop star things, and my friends used to tease me - "Why are you listening to this stuff?" But then, you know, I kind of like it. My father introduced it to me, and some of my friends now, they have become poets or whatever, and now they say, "Hey, Jigme, thanks for introducing Bob Dylan to us."
TPI: That's quite a feat!
JIGME: Yeah, but then we had a problem with some recording company. We didn't know much about the music business because we don't have any music industry among us - we are still refugees. So we signed a couple of contracts with... I don't want to name this company, but we had big troubles with them. They wanted to make us like pop stars. I mean, if you make a song, if somebody then puts something on your song like an extra saxophone, an extra guitar or whatever, would you like that, without even being asked? These guys were doing that and we didn't like that, so we said "No, Charlie! Bye-bye!" Then we found out we had to wait till the contract is finished! So it's like, now we are free! It's been one and a half years, so we are happy for that.
TPI: You have quite a few songs in English. Why is that?
JIGME: Because... Let me ask you - what is your mother tongue?
TPI: I speak Danish.
JIGME: So, why do you speak English to me? It's communication, yeah? The whole world speaks English. In some ways, I think English is the best medium for spreading [the message of] Free Tibet. We sing for a free Tibet, especially for the people who are in prison, still suffering.
TPI: Can you name some of your favorite Tibetan musicians?
JIGME: Dhungkar La - I think he is the oldest guy - a Tibetan guitar player, maybe the first Tibetan to do busking in England. I like the way he sings because he has this traditional touch you know - no brush. And the late Jampa Tsering - he was the first Tibetan guy to sing a song directly to the Chinese government inside Tibet, which is really brave, and gradually the Chinese murdered him. They blinded him, and now he's dead but his songs are still alive - they are in our hearts. And then I like to listen to Tibetan opera, and I listen to Techung - a traditional Tibetan music player I really like. My younger brother likes him a lot.
TPI: Okay, let's talk a little bit about Tibet. Why are in exile?
JIGME: Me? Because the Chinese would put a gun to my head, and therefore I'm in exile. I don't want to live under them. Even animals, farm animals, when you beat them, they will not stay with you - they will run away. They are treating us like animals. We are not part of China - we never were. Tibet belongs to Tibetans, from different literature, different history, everything. So when somebody puts a gun to your head, would you like to stay behind it?
TPI: Why do you think your music cannot be played inside Tibet?
JIGME: Because, since we are born as refugees, we talk about a free Tibet. The Chinese call us "splittist". They call the Dalai Lama a terrorist - the devil with two horns. But we are not that. We just want our country back.
TPI: Do you have an audience in Tibet?
JIGME: Yes, I think a lot - we are getting a lot of mails from Tibet. Not with their own name but with fake names - some Chinese name or some strange names - foreigners' names. They really appreciate us. We love that and thank you for supporting us! But they cannot contact us directly. Once they are found out by the Chinese government, they are gone.
TPI: What is your biggest dream for the band?
JIGME: To play in front of the Potala Palace when Tibet is free. That's where I want to perform. No more freedom songs. I'm tired of it, but what to do... Still, we have to it - it's our duty. And then I would like to have the best sound in the world you know. You know what I mean? The sound...
TPI: Can you make a living from playing music?
JIGME: Well, I think yes, but it's very difficult as we don't have any music industry. How you say? Money follows fame, fame follows money - whatever. But we have been famous, we are famous, and still there is no money coming in, because there is no music business. And really, the stuff that we're doing is for a free Tibet. So, money was never the issue through music. By the grace of our mama in this family restaurant, I get food and I get pocket money, which I am happy about.
TPI: Do you have a message for our the readers around the world?
JIGME: I would like to tell all the people who are reading this - all the people in the world - I think we are all the same basically. Since we are born, we are the same. We need our mother's compassion - everybody needs that. And I just want to clear up that Tibet was never a part of China and Tibet belongs to Tibetans! Please study [this issue]. Go thoroughly through what happened. Because the world is a village - we all have to live in harmony together. And if one country doesn't have that, I think it will affect the whole world. So, that is my humble request to all the people in the world. We need all your support for a free Tibet. That's all I can say.The JJI Exile Brothers and friends perform every Sunday evening at their restaurant on Bhagsu Rd, McLeodgand, Dharamsala, India. For details of their upcoming tour of Himachal Pradesh, visit www.jjiexilebrothers.com.