The wandering and storytelling musicians – Promoting intangible culture for Gross National Happiness (GNH) in Bhutan!

Bhutan Network (Ulrike Cokl) in co-operation with Aa-Yang Music School (Jigme Drukpa)Jigme Drukpa & Dranyen


UNESCO, Intangible Cultural Heritage, Definition:

“There are things that we regard as important to preserve for future generations. They may be significant due to their present or possible  economic value, but also because they create a certain emotion within us, or because they make us feel as though we belong to something – a country, a tradition, a way of life.

They might be objects that can be held 
and buildings that can be explored, or songs that can be sung and stories that can be told.

Whatever shape they take, these things form part of a 
heritage, and this heritage requires active effort on our part in order to safeguard it. The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” (for more info click HERE)


Gross National Happiness (GNH) in Bhutan, Domains: Community Vitality and Psychological Well-Being
Community Vitality and Psychological Well-Being are two of the nine domains of the Gross National Happiness strategy in Bhutan to measure happiness and well-being of a people. Sociality and conviviality are core-ingredients for thriving community vitality in Bhutan that find their expression during festivals and social gatherings. Music and singing constitute a major component for social events in Bhutan. The context for sociality in its many forms is hospitality.

Traditionally, Bhutanese villagers have been engaged in active exchange such as trade, across valleys in order to sustain themselves. This exchange was embedded in the so-called gnas po-system, a web of traditional hosts maintained over generations. The yearly migrations between valleys ensured the continuity of once established bonds between host families. Receptions of guests encompassed conviviality, commensality, gift-exchange, and music, including, singing and dancing together. These activities were important for re-establishing relations between the individual and the community, and between collectives of different communities. In earlier times, witty story telling by means of singing, as well as communicating sentiments by “singing dialogues” were substantial components of such encounters. It is the particular context of traditional hospitality, in which music in all of its forms, plays an important role in maintaining and enhancing community vitality and thus nurturing psychological wellbeing, collective cohesion, and solidarity.

Problems faced in contemporary Bhutan
Today, people in remote villages do not enjoy much entertainment apart from the annual tshechu (religious festival) and the occasional spontaneous gathering on auspicious occasions. Modernisation and modern infrastructure development also have reduced or removed the need for seasonal migrations and thus the gnas po system with its extensive relational networks across the country has disappeared or drastically reduced in many cases. Yearly festivals offer entertainment, however, apart from that, there is no major reason to gather for singing, and dancing and the exchange of stories and news through the medium of music. Also, in many well-connected villages nowadays, television has become a threat to the previously lively sociality amongst and beyond family bonds.

Additionally, the increasing rural exodus of young people is adding to the problem of cultural depletion when at the same time, the preservation of traditions and culture is such an important aspect of GNH. Many young people have been away from their villages for long durations due to modern schooling. They also do not see much future in staying in their villages and becoming professional farmers. The knowledge gap between them and their parent generation should not be underestimated.

Furthermore, compared to urban centres, the villages are disconnected from many cultural events. Bhutanese however, still do consider it important and a sign of social well-being to receive guests and entertain guests. Music has been the main medium for the expression and exchange of news and certain mental and emotional states and the local languages offer highly metaphorical expressions.


The importance of local knowledge and traditional practices for well-being and development
Community vitality and psychological well-being are very important when considering new economic opportunities such as farm stay tourism to generate income for villagers, as well as a means to offer more diverse prospects for young educated people. But first one needs to understand the relevance of local traditions and cultural practices for social relations. In this project the focus is on music and traditions related to musical performance in rural Bhutan.

The importance of conviviality, commensality and sociality for the psychological well-being and community vitality is often neglected. These are often expressed through the framework of hospitality and hosting events, where exchange and sharing play a fundamental role through food, drinks, news, and music. Especially music can be crucial for the happiness of a people but it is also a means to transmit important messages and express sentiments. These are fundamental aspects of a traditional way of life in Bhutan and are highly relevant for sociality and personhood in its entirety.

Music as a social connector and important bonding agent
This one-month initiative seeks to raise awareness of the richness and relevance of Bhutanese musical traditions within the context of hospitality and hosting in their entirety as well as their importance for socio-cultural and psychological well-being of people and a community as a whole. Music will be the main medium in this project embedded in a way of travelling and approaching villages that is derived from the traditional gnas po system. There is also a long tradition in Bhutan of conveying messages, news, and stories through music. Among others, hospitality events have been providing villagers with the opportunity to express their sentiments to each other using songs as the medium. These days television has become an attraction in rural households, however many messages get lost in translation or are disconnected from the local context. In addition, this medium does not support local human interaction.

With this one-month tour of a European singer- songwriter and a Bhutanese traditional musician, a point shall be made that music and conviviality are important ingredients for community vitality and the psychological well-being of villagers. Apart from music entertainment as a news medium, villagers in remote places also deserve distraction from the everyday routine, to get a chance to gather with friends (as it was the case when the gnas po system was still  widely practiced), and nowadays also the “other”, the foreigner who is unfamiliar to them only initially. Jigme Drukpa and Paul Cowlan follow the footsteps of historical local travellers within the traditional gnas po network that used to span over the kingdom and beyond. They will perform for their hosts and the village community, tell stories about their journey and lives, and thus impart on their audience that music, particularly when grass roots instruments are involved such as the guitar, harmonica and dranyen, is indeed a cross-cultural bonding agent, combined with the unique local hospitality setting and the sharing of food and drink.

This project seeks to raise awareness of the potential and strength of local traditions for truly fostering relations. It excludes the need for commodification or placing traditional Bhutanese relationships into artificial commercial hospitality categories through pricing or through training locals how to encounter foreigners. Everything is already in place; Bhutanese are excellent hosts, and they have accumulated generations of experience within the gnas po practice. However, there is a need to make this visible.

Aims of the project

  • To demonstrate the importance of traditional music as a local as well as cross-cultural bonding agent and an important means of communication in Bhutanese traditions
  • To illustrate the relevance of conviviality and hospitality for psychological well-being and community vitality by emphasizing the medium of music, singing and story-telling
  • To highlight the importance of understanding Bhutanese traditional hospitality in its entirety for socio-economic development practices (e.g. CBT development). Such traditions encompass travelling, hosting, etiquette and exchange.
  • To put East Bhutan on the map as a  particularly rich geographical region for Bhutanese musical and hosting traditions

Apart from the logistics of transport, fuel and provisions, the funds acquired will be used to enable the basic framework for interaction: the gnas-po system where the musicians will be provided with accommodation in private farm-houses wherever possible, obliged to bring a khyosm for the host (a welcome gift), and a gsol ras (a departing gift), in order to reciprocate the hospitality shown to them. The funds are meant to support and revive a tradition that is characteristic to Bhutanese culture and identity, and to benefit the rural population. The project also aims at bringing entertainment to often neglected remote places, and at initiating future engagement in such community activities.

 The Wandering & Storytelling Musicians Sept. 2014:

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Post by Bhutan Network.