Bhutanese songs and music may not have reached the Grammy or the Oscars and it is definitely not a “Rock and Roll” country. But this does not mean that the Himalayan Kingdom is bereft of music. Instead, music is an integral part of its culture, playing significant roles in transmitting social values and entertaining people during festivals, both secular and religious. Music is also an integral part of archery in Bhutan, known for lyrics that range from literary and sublime to provocative and burlesque.
There are several indigenous instruments used in both traditional and modern genres of Bhutanese music. Some of them are the Lingm (six-holed flute), the Chiwang (two-stringed fiddle), and the Dramnyen (similar to a large three-stringed rebec). Others include Thangthang Namburong (four-holed bamboo bass flute), Kongkha (bamboo mouth harp), Gombu (bull or buffalo horn), and Yangchen (dulcimer).
Traditional Bhutanese music includes a spectrum of sub-genres, ranging from folk to religious song and music. The popular subgenres include zhungdra and boedra. There are minor varieties such as zhey and zhem, yuedra, tsangmo, alo, khorey, and ausa.
Developed in the 17th century, Zhungdra is one of the two dominant forms of Bhutanese folk music. It is associated with the folk music of the central valleys of Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha, the heart of Western Bhutan. Though lyrics of this music are secular, few narrate Buddhist allegories, such as the Yak Legbi Lhadar, in which the singer tells of his former life as a yak slaughtered in connection with a non-Buddhist ritual in the Gasa District.
Zhungdra is characterized by the use of extended vocal tones in complex patterns which slowly decorate a relatively simple instrumental melody. Untrained singers, even those with natural singing ability, typically find it challenging to sing zhungdra. This has reduced the popularity of zhungdra compared with rigsar, the fast-paced pop Bhutanese music style based on electronic synthesizers.
Boedra is the second of the two dominant forms of Bhutanese folk music. Instrumentation for boedra often includes the chiwang, which symbolizes a horse. In contrast to Zhungdra, Boedra evolved out of Tibetan court music.
Tsangmo, also considered a literary genre, are very popular in Bhutan. They consist of sung couplets, the first of which describes a relevant scenario, followed by the second couplet, which conveys a point such as love, hate, abuse, or ridicule. Tsangmo may be sung in a call-and-reply fashion, and may be a means of competition.
Lozey, literally translated as “ornaments of speech,” refer to two distinct vocal traditions. The first is a short exchange lines, while the second is a collection of ballads that vary from region to region. They all concern traditional customs, dress, and literature. Rich in metaphor, they are known and recited by ordinary people in modern language. Like Tsangmo, Lozey may be sung in a call-and-reply fashion, and may be a means of competition. Certain Lozey are sung in vernacular language.
This is a new form of music that rose with the country’s development. A fusion of music from across the world with Bhutanese lyrics characterizes this form of music.