Yungchen Lhamo. Courtesy: Six Degrees

Each time Yungchen Lhamo sings in public, she defies a superpower dedicated to stamping out her people. But rather than championing a political cause, she’s devoted herself to a universal mandate that can’t be contained by borders, parties or any particular ideology. 

Born in Lhasa, Tibet, during the height of Mao’s demolishing Cultural Revolution, she learned prayers and traditional melodies in secret from her grandmother, who sought to resist China’s ongoing efforts to destroy the nation’s Buddhist culture. In a rare Bay Area concert, Lhamo appears Sunday at Freight & Salvage, celebrating the release of her recent album Awakening on San Francisco’s Six Degree Records (her first new recording in a decade).

By any measure, she’s traveled an extraordinary path since fleeing Tibet as a teenager, making her way through the Himalayas to Dharamsala in northern India with her infant son strapped to her back. She’s recorded with Annie Lennox and Natalie Merchant, accompanied dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones in the Louvre, and presented her embracing music on international stages in an array of settings, including Lilith Fair and WOMAD world music festivals. 

Whether singing a cappella or accompanied by an ensemble, “she doesn’t like to use the word ‘performance,’” said guitarist Bob Bottjer, who’s collaborated widely with Lhamo over the past decade. “It’s not an us-and-them situation. I’d call it an experience of sharing. She goes and she connects with the audience. She sings and the audience sings.”

It’s a perspective that Lhamo absorbed growing up in Lhasa. Her family struggled to meet material needs and she rarely saw her father, who had been sent out to the countryside for indoctrination and labor. “But my mother has a lot of sense of humor, no matter what people did to her,” Lhamo, 56, told Berkeleyside. “She was like my grandmother. She looked at the positive side, and didn’t want to have revenge on anybody. I was lucky to learn this philosophy of unconditional love.”

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Lhamo’s kept a much lower profile in recent years, but at the turn of the century she was, aside from the Dalai Lama, the most visible Tibetan in the West. After several years singing in Dharamsala she moved to Australia in 1993 and recorded her debut album Tibetan Prayer, which won the Australian equivalent of a Grammy Award and catapulted her into prominence. The album caught the attention of Peter Gabriel, who was looking for artists for his internationally focused Real World label. 

Gabriel brought her to the U.K., where she recorded the largely a cappella 1996 album Tibet, Tibet, which introduced her to a vast new audience just as China launched a major campaign to imprison and repress Tibetan religious leaders and cultural activists. She’s been associated with Real World ever since, and will be releasing her fourth album on the label next year (and her seventh overall). 

Yungchen Lhamo. Courtesy: Six Degrees

“Peter heard my voice and signed me,” she said. “I am very grateful for Peter. He really brought me to the world’s attention and all kinds of roads opened up after he signed me.” 

Music is only one avenue through which Lhamo shares her beatific vision. In 2004 she founded the One Drop of Kindness Foundation, which champions Tibetan culture in Tibet, Nepal, India, the U.S. and beyond, “through offering multicultural educational programs, projects, lectures and workshops that integrate music, mindfulness, and art, in order to help facilitate in everyone a more positive outlook on life,” according to the website. 

She’s been living in the Hudson Valley town of Kingston since 2013, a move instigated by her close friend and musical collaborator Natalie Merchant. She had often brought her music into shelters and recovery facilities, and in Kingston she found a large and visible population of people dealing with homelessness and mental illness. As she eased off of touring and recording, she devoted more time to the Kingston shelter Chiz’s Heart Street, where she continued to develop her program You Are Beautiful, I Am Beautiful

“I decided I won’t go on tour,” she said. “They cannot buy a ticket. They cannot come to see a concert. I decide to spent my life with them, and do whatever I can help them. They are mostly older and many have schizophrenia. It’s a true family group. We’re all beautiful inside. Sometimes we’re confused. We know there’s no ‘I,’ no ‘mine,’ no ‘me.’ I’ve done this almost 10 years.” 

Awakening CD Cover featuring Lhamo with flowing hair

After the pandemic restrictions eased, Lhamo accepted an invitation to perform and record in Madrid, where she made Awakening with producer Julio Garcia. The new album is both very much in keeping with her past projects, flowing from her compassion-based spirituality, and something of a departure, featuring expanded arrangements with acoustic, Spanish and electric guitars, violin and cello, harmonium, flutes, sopranino saxophone, trumpet, bass, percussion (including tabla and thape drum), and backing vocals. On the track “Loving Kindness” she’s joined by flamenco vocal great Carmen Linares. 

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The piece highlights another departure for Lhamo in that Awakening is the first time she’s titled all of her songs in English. More powerfully symbolic is that it’s also her first album to include a song in Mandarin. While Awakening surrounds her incantatory vocals with elaborate arrangements, Sunday at the Freight she’ll be singing a cappella and with a trio featuring Kingston-area confederate Bob Bottjer on guitars and the North Bay tandem of percussionist Kendrick Freeman and keyboardist Ken Cook (who both teach in the Sonoma State jazz program and work with Brazilian guitarist Ricardo Peixoto). 

“I cannot have all the musicians come from Spain,” she said. “Over the next few days we’ll rehearse and work on some songs from Awakening and Coming Home. I’ll sing some a cappella songs, and the audience will be singing. The audience can recharge their own bodies. We do it together. In Tibet we believe that sound vibrations heal, wherever you go, you do your prayers. These songs have that vibration.”

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Whether she’s singing a bossa nova, blues, or American Songbook standard, Jackie Ryan is vocalist who squeezes every drop of emotion from a song. She celebrates the release of her gorgeous new album Recuerdos de mi Madre Friday at Freight & Salvage, a project featuring passionate Latin American standards sung in Spanish. Like on the album, she’s joined at the Freight by a Bay Area dram team including pianist/arranger Marco Diaz, bassist Saúl Sierra, guitarist Hugo Wainzinger, violinist Jeremy Cohen, and the percussion triumvirate of John Santos, Braulio Barrera, and Louie Romero. As the album’s title states, Recuerdos is a project dedicated to Ryan’s Mexican-born mother Soledad Garcia, who was raised in Acapulco. Ryan grew up in San Rafael, and classic boleros like “Perfidia” and “El Día Que Me Quieras” served as a vital link to her culture at a time when there were few other Latin Americans in the neighborhood. 

Berkeley High alumni update

Bassoon virtuoso Paul Hanson (BHS class of 1979) joins Tarik Ali Ragab and Moorea Dickason’s Raze the Maze Thursday at The Ivy Room. Best known for their work in the progressive rock band MoeTar, Ragad and Dickason are celebrating the release of the second Raze the Maze album 7am Dream, which features their intricately arranged, odd-meter songs. In addition to Hanson, the group includes guitarist Brian Sheu, drummer Terry Branam and keyboardist Colin Hogan. The triple bills also features guitarist Matthew Charles Heulitt’s instrumental power trio MCH (one of his last Bay Area gigs before moving to Pittsburgh) and bassist/producer Jonathan Herrera’s project Brunette. 

And pianist Erika Oba (BHS class of 2004) plays The Back Room Sunday afternoon with a recently formed trio featuring bassist Christian Bastian and drummer Jeremy Steinkoler. Oba and Bastian have collaborated widely over the past decade, honing a repertoire of original compositions and arrangements drawing on an array of influences, including Thelonious Monk and Okinawan sanshin music. Steinkoler is a drummer who combines joyful grooves and an acute textural palette. He’s been a regular at the venue with his own band Mo’Fone and Jenna Mammina’s band Jenna and the Charmers

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....