by Chris Randle
[This essay was first presented in slightly different form at the 2011 Pop Conference.]
Several years ago, the Nova Scotia think tank GPI Atlantic took on an unusual project: helping to redesign an entire country’s economic system. But it wasn’t invited to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan by the International Monetary Fund. The Bhutanese government intended to negate the very concept of Gross Domestic Product. GPI was charged with creating a set of indicators for the alternative measurement of Gross National Happiness, the sort of financial yardstick one might see if superproducer Max Martin’s disciples went around making structural adjustments in lieu of Milton Friedman’s. The four “pillars” of GNH – sustainable development, good governance, environmental conservation and cultural preservation – were divided into seventy-two quantifiable variables. Bhutan’s Buddhist-inspired embrace of “happiness economics” is no longer unique – indeed, it seems to be the unlikely starting point of a global vogue. Nicholas Sarkozy has asked the economist Joseph Stiglitz how to acknowledge “quality of life” in France’s GDP figures, while the British Prime Minister David Cameron, always alert for fluffy-sounding trends, told his country’s National Statistics Office to prepare a quarterly “well-being index.” Earlier this month, Coca-Cola Canada celebrated its 125th anniversary by “sponsoring a comprehensive study that will examine the idea of happiness across the country.”
Bhutan’s adoption of GNH is no fad, intellectual or otherwise, but that only heightens the importance of due skepticism. Unlike welfare benefits or public housing, happiness is a slippery, subjective concept, its artistic causes the most mysterious of all. What kind of policies has “cultural preservation” entailed? The notion of “national happiness” suggests universal contentment and chilled-out anti-capitalism, but what does the Bhutanese monarchy’s vision of “authentic” national culture mean in practice? Secular pop music, local or foreign, tends to be seen as counterfeit currency in elite Bhutan. If artists are society’s radar screen, as Marshall McLuhan put it, that sonic protectionism is a leading indicator of what ails Gross National Happiness.
Bhutan lies between India and China, high in the Himalayas, though its northern border was shared with another nation not so long ago. It’s smaller than Portugal and thinly populated by no more than one million people – over 60% of the land is forested. Buddhism arrived there shortly after it did in Tibet, becoming the dominant faith by the 9th century; the Tibetan strand of that creed, primarily influenced by Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism, is still Bhutan’s state religion today. Traditional Bhutanese music owes a similar debt to its occupied northern neighbour: the boedra genre is a descendant of ancient Tibetan court music, though zhungdra, its other main folk style, emerged from the valleys of Bhutan itself. The two societies also share certain instruments, like the dranyen. Surviving works of pre-modern Bhutanese literature tend to be written in classical Tibetan rather than Dzongkha, the underused national language. Bhutan’s very name is an anglicization of the Sanskrit term “Bhotanta,” which just means “the end of Tibet.” The inherited liminality of so much Bhutanese culture both explains and complicates the nationalism bound up in GNH “preservation” metrics.
English-language accounts of this nation date back no earlier than the 1700s, about a century after it came under the control of a monkish theocracy. European reports were therefore refracted through a colonial racial lens from the beginning, but their typical tone is a wary paranoia, unlike the covetous forays into India. One early English visitor tried his hand at music criticism, writing that Bhutanese ceremonial songs were “as disagreeable as they are continuous.” When the amusing humiliation of a Victorian envoy led to a minor war, the Empire decided that annexing a topological fortress wasn’t worth their trouble and agreed to pay Bhutan annual bribes if it would return two stolen cannons, give Britain a veto over foreign policy and apologize to the offended Sir Ashley Eden. The Bhutanese suddenly got much better press back in the UK. But their own ruling elite also became remarkably anglophilic, to the point of overthrowing the monks and installing a native monarchy in 1907. That Wangchuck dynasty still rules the country today.
Despite its new administration, Bhutan remained deeply poor and unchanging for the first half of the 20th century, a quasi-feudal society where the vast majority of people were scratching out a living as subsistence farmers. The capital Thimphu consisted of two dozen single-story buildings right up until the 1960s. However, when India gained independence and succeeded Britain as the major power in the region, King Jigme Wangchuck began a jarring process of modernization. His government freed Bhutan’s serfs, inaugurated the elected though fairly toothless National Assembly and created a Five-Year Plan for further reform. But the most important development for this paper was completion of the first road between Bhutan and India in 1963, smoothing pop’s sinuous path.
Rigsar was born in the late 1960s, when a Bhutanese group covered – or ripped off – the hit Bollywood soundtrack cut “Sayonara.” Local conservatives thus despised their country’s flagship pop genre from the moment of reception, disdaining it as a rootless echo of trendy foreign music. Five years ago, the young academic Sonam Kinga published an essay-length condemnation: “Rigsar songs are mostly solos about a person, usually a lovelorn lover singing to a beloved making very blunt statements about their love…In their similarity and association with English pop songs and songs of Hindi films, rigsar songs no longer function as a repository of and a medium for transmitting social values.” Over 150 rigsar albums were released in the past decade alone – a large number for such a tiny country – and Kinga worriedly notes that a Calcutta musician was composing riddims full-time for the largest recording studio. To put it another way, in the official statistics for Gross National Happiness, rigsar represents an unhealthy economic bubble.
You should decide for yourself, though. That music video above is the recent single “Tok Tok Heel.” There’s an emphasis on rhythm and prominent use of synth horns (“prominent synth horns” may be redundant), in contrast to this zhungdra song’s complex overlapping vocals. Some of the young Bhutanese people I interviewed said that rigsar is seen as being easier to learn or perform, which only feeds the anxiety about its purported inauthenticity. Yet the genre’s mimetic, provisional qualities are themselves deeply Buddhist. Marcus Boon’s recent book In Praise of Copying notes that Tibet’s oldest temple was built as a replica of an earlier Indian one, and that reciting the same mantra one hundred thousand times, Erik Satie style, is a standard rite of Himalayan Buddhism. At the risk of sounding like an ex-Usenet hippie, why would sampling or BitTorrent mystify kids who grew up surrounded by fractal mandalas? And rampant music piracy, a factor in Bhutan as it is everywhere else, would seem to be healthy for Gross National Happiness – just not for most of those working in music, a reminder that GNH can disguise negative externalities of its own.
As Sonam Kinga’s dismissive reference to “lovelorn lovers” suggests, the content of rigsar songs can also be controversial. But even the more lascivious tracks are relatively chaste. This music video may or may not be a cover of Chamillionaire’s “Peepin’ Me.”
I don’t mean to imply that Bhutan is puritanical; tourists reliably gawk at its sacramental penises, which are painted on numerous buildings in tribute to a 15th-century religious teacher nicknamed “The Saint of 5000 Women.” He once vanquished a cannibal demon goddess by seducing her. But public expressions of sexuality are still taboo in this country, although the restraints seem to be much looser in private.
Customary modesty hasn’t prevented Bhutanese kids from seeking out foreign pop music with more explicit lyrics, not when there are so many of them – half of the population is under 25. A radio DJ told me that his most common request is for “sexy R&B.” The government barred all television broadcasts and internet service until the end of the 1990s, meaning that twentysomething people often have charmingly random memories of their first encounters with western music. Ganchu Wangchu, founder and manager of the ecumenical FM station Radio Valley, recalled a teacher leading his class through a performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.” Another young man became passionately devoted to the Irish boy band Westlife after chancing across a dusty cassette of their first album. During my research I found an Ozzy-obsessed metal band called Tragic Attack, the Mos-Def-namechecking MC Bardo and a fan of the terminally Canadian hoser rocker Gord Downie. God knows what he makes of songs about martyred hockey heroes, but perhaps the Tragically Hip’s discography has a hidden resonance there: Canada and Bhutan are both cultural runts fidgeting beneath colossi.
And we’ve both struggled mightily to compensate for it, with varying degrees of success. Some of Bhutan’s approaches are noble attempts at getting fledging industries off the ground: the country produces an unusually high number of movies per capita, for example, so keeping their ticket prices the lowest at Thimpu cinemas seems like prescient taxation policy. In other cases, however, the authorities have just been reactionary. Pelden Dorji’s 2006 film Aum Chum, the story of a hip-hop-loving stepmother, was censored by film board members who objected to its extended breakdance sequence. Their rationale was that “Bhutan is not yet ready for the culture of breakdancing.” But I think Bhutan would beg to differ:
The problem is that Gross National Happiness doesn’t recognize pidgin pop as legitimate productivity: it’s the cultural equivalent of a marijuana grow-op. The first official GNH index, published in 2008, relied on indicators like “knowledge of traditional dances,” not knowledge of Dzongkha rap singles. And although the state broadcaster’s Bhutan Star talent search drew 800 hopefuls for its previous season – several times more than the 100 000 people who tried out during the last cycle of American Idol, proportionally – producers herded contestants into one of three rigid styles. Rigsar was grudgingly added to a pair of folk categories, possibly because the monarchy’s own GNH survey showed it to be the most popular genre in Bhutan.
Himalayan rockism is a secondary issue, however, compared to Bhutan’s most shameful act of “cultural preservation.” Nepali Bhutanese have lived in the country’s southern districts since the 1860s, when the British Raj began sending Nepalis to nearby Darjeeling for tea-plantation labour and for Machiavellian imperial purposes. They are also known as Lhotshampa. As in other societies from Kenya to Quebec, post-war modernization heightened the Bhutanese population’s ethnic consciousness, and though the government fitfully gestured toward assimilation or multiculturalism – at one point it was actually paying members of the Drukpa majority to marry Lhotshampas – its posture ultimately hardened. Michael Hutt’s study Unbecoming Citizens documents what happened next: citizenship laws were tightened throughout the 1980s, with the addition of requirements like “good knowledge of Bhutanese culture.” Hutt notes that GNH discussions of “cultural preservation” were accompanied by a national dress code and a crackdown on Lhotshampa using illicit satellite connections to watch Hindi music videos or Bollywood movies. Finally, in 1989 and 1990, tens of thousands of Nepali Bhutanese were stripped of their citizenships and driven from the country amidst growing unrest. Most of them are still awaiting return or resettlement in border refugee camps.
This story is complicated by the fact that, according to Hutt’s book, many of the refugees disdain “genuine” Bhutanese culture in turn, seeing it as insular and backwards. Some try to beat back the cosmopolitan influences that reach even UN camps now. It’s a small but striking piece of evidence for the Michael Hardt/Antonio Negri thesis that patterns of power are fragmenting, becoming less binary and more diffuse. Whether musical, political or both, there is thrilling potential in that process and the unruly hybrids it produces. But the radical disruptions can cause real anguish. Hutt quotes the poignant lament of a conservative refugee: “Am I the only person who cannot recognize himself? Everything is old: the sun and moon are the same old sun and moon, the days, weeks, months, seasons and years are the same, so how is it that the times have been transformed into modernity?”
The great failure of Gross National Happiness is its attempt to objectively quantify these subjective tastes. It replaces GDP’s economic inequities with exploitation via cultural capital. In certain areas, like environmental conservation, GNH provides a valuable alternative perspective, but its effect on Bhutanese music has been mere chauvinism. The Bhutanese intellectual Karma Ura once worried that this nature-preserve approach would make his country known for nothing more than “a penchant for picturesque attire and the capacity to ingest vast quantities of chillies.” And the very fixation on “happiness” denies any value or purpose to art that makes you feel angry, or shocked, or weepy: If the U.S. converted to GNH tomorrow, would “Morrissey fan” become the rhetorical replacement for “welfare queen”? Though hardly totalitarian, Bhutan’s current emphasis on nationalistic revivalism, in songcraft and everything else, sometimes echoes North Korean state music – that disturbing zone where poptimism meets Stalinism. But what’s the alternative for a country in its culturally vulnerable, economically impoverished position?
In his book Development and Freedom, the Indian economist Amartya Sen argued: “it is sensible enough to take note of happiness, but we do not necessarily want to be happy slaves or delirious vassals.” He proposed a different framework based on capability: creating conditions where underprivileged people not only have the abstract right to choose a career or an aesthetic but the resources and social space to realize them. For music, this might entail pluralistic suspensions of judgment. Why can’t Nepalis be Bhutanese too? And why would it somehow be “inauthentic” if a Rihanna cover won Bhutan Star? The Buddha would probably have a few philosophical differences with your average Ke$ha video, but I was struck by a Youtube clip where some Thimphu girls danced to “Tik Tok,” their moves mimicking those many-armed statues of him. Which culture does that spectacle belong to? Bhutanese iconoclasts don’t need to look westwards for their radicalism. Many centuries ago, a Chinese Buddhist teacher named Linji told his students to spurn the orthodoxy of settled doctrine; emancipated from uncritical veneration, they would find enlightenment. He illustrated this belief with a famous maxim: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Very punk, no?