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  • Now Available: Music from the Mountains of Bhutan by Sonam Dorji

    Music from the Mountains of Bhutan features Kheng Sonam Dorji, a master of the beautiful, yet threatened, traditional music styles of Bhutan. That remote Himalayan country, which measures “Gross National Happiness” alongside standard indicators, opened its borders to tourists and outside influences in 1974. While the opening has brought improved economic conditions, traditional music has suffered according to Dorji, who founded the Music of Bhutan Research Center in order to teach, preserve, and promote the music he loves.

    Playing drangyen (Bhutanese lute) and singing both traditional music and his own compositions, Dorji was inspired to present this endangered heritage to audiences outside of Bhutan through his participation in the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Dorji also includes detailed annotations for the eight songs on Music from the Mountains of Bhutan.

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    Watch a video of Sonam Dorji at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

    Dorji grew up in the tiny farming village of Kaktong, an eleven-hour hike from the nearest dirt road through thick oak and bamboo forest. As a child, Dorji never would have imagined the life he lives today in Thimphu—the Bhutanese capital—as a musician, composer, music researcher, and archivist who passionately shares the traditional music of Bhutan, as well as his own tradition-infused songs, with audiences throughout the country and across the world.

    An innately gifted musician, the 36-year-old Dorji attributes his fluid, tranquil, soulfully embellished vocal style to his early exposure to birdsong and the gently flowing sound of local rivers, as well as to his years of dedicated study with drangyen (Bhutanese lute) masters in Thimphu. By age 13, Sonam was broadcasting folk songs on the radio and soon began composing his own songs, including his first national hit “Maju Maju” (“Don’t Go Leaving Me Behind”). He later composed the first-ever nationally broadcast song in the minority language Khengpa, his native tongue, which earned him the nickname “Kheng” Sonam Dorji.

    Dorji studied music at Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal, India, where he focused on classical vocals, esraj (a bowed string instrument), and local folk music. He then went to Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, in Gujarat, India, and completed a master of music degree. In 2008, Dorji performed at the “Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon” program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

    Dorji’s drangyen is a handsome, fretless instrument made of cypress, with seven nylon strings and hand-painted Mahayana Buddhist motifs on the neck and goatskin-covered body. Like all drangyen, the top of its neck has been carved into a chusin (sea monster) head, which is intended to drive away any invisible spirits attracted to its beautiful sound. In addition to the drangyen, Dorji plays yangchen (Bhutanese hammered dulcimer) and lim (Bhutanese flute), as well as the esraj, dotar, sitar, and tambora of India.

    Music from the Mountains of Bhutan Tracklist:

    1. Dungai Nanggo Nigma (The Orphan's Song)
    2. Atta Sonam Dorji (Brother Sonam Dorji)
    3. Gawai Nima Shar (The Song of Nature)
    4. Goenzang Gi Chogla (The Devoted Pilgrim)
    5. Jalu Kepai Maja (Indian-Born Peacock)
    6. Nam-Gunghi Englu Zhugmi (The Skies of Paradise)
    7. Ney Diney Pharla Jaytshana (The Princess and the Temple)
    8. Norbu Rigi Pangshong (The Precious Treasure of Mountains)
    Now Available: Music from the Mountains of Bhutan by Sonam Dorji | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings