September 2, 1999
American guitarist and soundscape artist Steve Tibbetts was in the middle of his first tour in support of the album Chö last November, and things seemed to be going pretty smoothly. Until he lost one of the Tibetan nuns.
“We were in New York, and she just didn’t go back to Nepal,” says Tibbetts, still befuddled as he recalls the event. “She just bailed out. She jumped her visa.”
Tibbetts says he got an inkling that something was going on about midway through the 1998 tour when another nun who had sung on Chö and later moved to the U.S. attended one of the concerts. “Little Sonam got very, very quiet after having a long talk with her,” says Tibbetts. I thought, ‘She’s been infected. She wants to come here, grow her hair, and wear Adidas.’”
A defected Buddhist nun is only one of the unexpected consequences from what Tibbetts had originally intended to be an “odd side project.” Chö, release in 1997, consists of quiet, often haunting, Tibetan chants framed by Tibbetts’ gentle guitar, bouzouki, and an occasional backwards sound loop. The album was recorded at Nagi Gompa, a nunnery in the foothills of the Himalayas, where Tibbetts first stumbled on the chanting nuns by chance. He was in Kathmandu as part of a study-abroad program. After a long day, he was enjoying a beer on top of the monastery with a translator friend, who idly suggested they go listen to the nuns sing.
Now, three years later, the Minneapolis-based guitarist and soundscape creator is on his second tour across North America (and, later this year, Germany and Switzerland) with a trio of the Nepalese Buddhist nuns: Sherab Palmo Lama, Nganga Chhiring Lama, and Choying Drolma. They perform Monday as part of Alternafest at the National Gallery.
“It’s very strange to walk onto a stage, plug in, look at the crowd, and then turn to see nuns sitting at a low table and Marc (Anderson) at his drums,” says Tibbetts.
For the live show, the nuns sit on cushions behind a low table with texts, drums and bells, beside Anderson’s “oddball” drum set. Tibbetts himself has his “little techno-head setup” with guitars and samplers.
Tibbetts says audiences don’t seem to mind the unusual layout and are mesmerized by the music—even when the nuns (who aren’t used to performing on stage) sometimes let their pitch wander. “Last year we played what I thought was a horrible gig, but they just formed a human scrum around Choying after the show,” says Tibbetts. They would have torn her hair our. If she’d had any hair.”