A yak herder & a yak song
When the yak song was first sung, people wept.
It became the conversation in villages from Soe Jangothang to Lingshi to Laya. Its story was told & re-told with every singer worth their salt imitating the song & wrenching as many tears from as many listeners.
Today, half a century later, it still retains the power to move & haunt listeners. Composed in the high mountains, “Yak Legpai Lhadar Gawo” tells the story of the tragic parting between a yak herder & his yak, Legpai Lhadar Gawo (the h&some & magnificent yak) who was to be taken on orders from a powerful lord & killed for meat. The parting is described by the doomed yak in the song.
It tells of Yak Legpai Lhadar Gawo’s youth- how h&some & magnificent he was- his home amid the lush high meadows & snow-capped mountains, his bonding with the yak herder. He was a happy yak. That was until his turn came to be slaughtered. “& I, the unfortunate Lhadar. It is I, Lhadar who feel sad. A heavy comm& of a powerful lord came. A man with a sword fastened at his waist. Came to take me, Lhadar.” (a CBS translation)
The composer of the song Ap Chuni Dorji, a Jop (yak herder) now 81 years old & largely forgotten in his village Soe Jangothang, a three- day walk north of Drugyal Dzong, was hardly a man given to sentimental emotions. He was rather the type with a weakness for beautiful women & prone to singing praises of them. Chuni Dorji had the gift of the gab & more significantly was gifted at Lozey. Lozey is the battle of wits & words through poetry & verse between opponents on subjects of love & challenge, or difference of opinion, where the parties involved use metaphors & symbols to outdo one another until a winner or a draw is declared. It was a form of entertainment celebrated, admired & respected greatly & widely in Bhutan.
It was in this art, Chuni, an ordinary Jop, excelled. That he was neither a scholar, monk or a lama with whom the art lozey was credited added to Chuni’s appeal.
He was the toast of villages & girls gasped & hung on his every verse. His presence heightened the excitement of being in religious, marriage & other social gatherings.
In a duel of lozey, people would hold their breath when it was Chuni’s turn to deliver the lines. It is also said that he could mint a song or cook up clever verses, usually of ridicule, on the spot about a person just by one glance. An enraged man once threw himself on Chuni for tormenting him.
Strutting around like a cockerel with h&s on waist, he struck dread into other lozey delivers who were mainly men. Men used to bribe him with doma just so that he would not embarrass them in a gathering by challenging them for a duel in lozey. Villagers were generally careful not to anger Chuni for fear that he might immortalise them albeit into a villain in his songs.
He was much liked by those who knew him well because he improved their mood with his wit & humour.
Chuni Dorji’s popularity, however, did not extend beyond his Jop families & villages & remained confined in the northern wilderness.
It was the late Soe Gup Limchu, a flamboyant & renowned singer himself who was at that time serving under Bhutan’s third King, who made Chuni’s yak song famous. People though still mistake Limchu as the original composer.
Chuni Dorji said that His Late Majesty who had heard of him & his song had summoned him. He chanced on His Late Majesty in Phajoding, above Thimphu valley, during a hunt & was immediately comm&ed to sing. He gave his best ever. “When I sang in front of my King, it was the happiest moment of my life,” Ap Chuni Dorji says who was then in his mid 20s. He then served mainly as a royal hunter & singer & composer for about 15 years until 1972 when His Late Majesty passed away.
Over the years, “Yak Legpai Lhadar Gawo” has been garbled & shortened from its original & various singers have focused only on the romantic theme leaving out the many interesting elements of the song. According to Ap Chuni’s contemporaries, the actual song ran for more than one hour. Ap Chuni said that the song was a tribute to the yak – a celebration to a Jop’s true friend in the mountains.
At 81, Ap Chuni Dorji does not comm& the audience & attention that he used to in his heyday, but he nevertheless has tour guides prodding him to entertain tourists for a cup of coffee or a tin of fish. With rigsar (modern Bhutanese songs) dominating youths in villages, he hardly has listeners. It’s been ages since he last participated in a lozey.
In the flickering light of a kerosene lamp, his weathered face & h&s ravaged by time, Ap Chuni looks very much a relic of a bygone era, just as the lozey.
These days he spends his time gardening & guarding his old house in Jangothang, near the Chomolhari mountain, forgotten by time. Perhaps a consolation could be that his composition is a theme song in Dzongsar Khyentse Rimpoche’s recent movie (Travellers & Magicians) which has travelled the world over.
“It was really the melody that was haunting,” says the old man of Yak Legpai Lhadar Gawo, & then proves his point, with a bewitching, only slightly quavery, rendition of the song.