For the past few decades legendary composer Philip Glass has been a key figure in raising awareness for the Tibetan Independence Movement. Through the annual Tibet House Benefit Concert, which has been held at Carnegie Hall for the past twenty-odd years, Glass has aided in raising money and attention with the aim of salvaging the culture of a country that has been at war since 1950. The musician talked to us about his involvement with the movement, the importance of preserving Tibet, and what this year’s concert will have in store.
The first time I came in contact with the Tibetan Independence Movement was in 1967, but the uprising had taken place in 1959 after the Chinese had moved into Tibet. The Dalai Lama had fled, along with 200 thousand other people, and they ended up living in refugee camps in Northern India, which are gone now. I first saw these refugee sites in December of 1966. I wondered, “Who are these people? What are they doing here?” At the time we didn’t even know where Tibet was, and it turned out to be the beginning of a huge exodus of people. Because of the diaspora some of those people moved to America and to South America.
There’s a very well established Tibetan community here in New York City, where they have Tibetan language classes for their children and they do what people have always done who want to hold on to their culture. They go back and visit relatives, many of whom are in India. Some of them go back to Tibet. They’re not disallowed automatically; people can go back to Tibet if they’re going for personal reasons or if there’s no political connection. It’s not like North and South Korea where people are not allowed see each other.
But things have actually gotten quite a bit worse because the Chinese no longer want Tibetan to be taught in schools at all. For a while they taught Chinese and Tibetan, but now the latter is being left out. China is currently in a phase where they’re trying to assimilate the Tibetan people into what they call the Greater Family, which is the Chinese family. The response I’ve heard from the Dalai Lama, which is quite interesting, is, “Well, I’m not really angry at the Chinese. The only trouble with the Chinese is that I’m Tibetan. I’m not Chinese.” The same thing happened in Vietnam and in Mongolia. The Chinese have that problem all over borders, where they see themselves as the parent country of all these little countries, but those people don’t feel the same way.
I’ve been aware of it for more than 45 years, although we didn’t do very much about it at the time. When I came back from Northern India people like Bob Thurman were just starting to run Tibetan Human Studies, and it wasn’t until 1990 when we had the first concert. The first time we held the concert at Carnegie Hall was in 1994, but there were four concerts before that. This will be the 25th year. The very first concert was at Brooklyn Herald of Music, the second at The Beacon Theater in Manhattan, and the third and fourth concerts were at Town Hall. We stuck to Carnegie Hall as of the fifth concert.
By that time the concert had achieved a kind of personality, because I began to put them together with usually eight or nine soloists. It was a concert with an array of artists, and different kinds. We always had people who could sell tickets. We needed that. For example, Iggy Pop is again singing with us this year. Sharon Jones will be there. Gogol Bordello will be there. Twiggy [FKA Twigs] will be there. We’ve had Laurie Anderson, who was not the pop star that she is now when she sang at the concert. One of the things that has always been interesting about the concert is that these people will often do things together. Caetano Veloso did a duet with Laurie Anderson in Carnegie Hall which, if you weren’t at that particular concert, you didn’t get to hear, because we never recorded the concerts. Those were the kinds of recordings that were a little bit too expensive to do then.
Most of the money that comes from the concert goes to Tibet, but in the last ten years since Katrina a fair amount of money goes to disasters that happen in other parts of the world. The Tibetan culture is on its feet, so to speak…at least outside of Tibet, and we do help with that, but there are other humanitarian and cultural issues which we can also address. We’re very happy to help. One was a Farm Aid concert. One was a Katrina one. I think I’m slowly getting money for Kathmandu, Nepal, and the Tsunami. Every year there’s a catastrophe.
The Tibet House Concert has a very good lineage now; you would be astonished by all the people who have performed there. David Bowie was there twice. Emmylou Harris has been there twice…a lot of people came and then came back. Patti Smith was there many, many times – she is almost a regular, having done eight or nine years in a row. This is probably Iggy Pop’s third time playing with us. When he first participated in the concert it may have been his first time playing at Carnegie Hall, but a lot of these people perform in stadiums and arenas. It’s a very impressive list of people who’ve come here, and it’s a bit of a range.
At this point we all pretty much know about Tibet, but in the beginning we had to educate people. People know it has to do with culture – with faith in a culture and with remembering that part of the world and its people. Did you know something like 300 languages disappear every year? Languages are just lost, because people stop speaking them; it can happen in New York still and it can also happen in cultural institutions. What we’re trying to hold on to is the culture, and having that live through.
Artwork: Anthony Gerace for NeueJournal
The Tibet House Benefit Concert will be held on February 22nd. Purchase tickets here