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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibet to Tokyo: Alan takes flight

November 22, 2009

By Robert Michael Poole
Special to The Japan Times
November 20, 2009

'First of all, I am a Tibetan, 100 percent," says
singer Alan Dawa Zhuoma. "I'll never forget the
many Chinese teachers and friends who gave me
knowledge and encouraged me while I studied in
Chengdu and Beijing, but wherever I go, I am Tibetan and I always remember it."

Preparing for this month's release of her
sophomore album, "my life," the 22-year-old Alan
says she has discovered herself after living in Tokyo for two years.

"There were many [ballads] on my debut ('Voice of
Earth' released in March)," she says. "But these
[new] songs are true to this life of mine — 50
percent from personal experience and 50 percent from my imagination."

Her Tibetan roots have been accentuated by her
use of the Tibetan wail -- a high-pitched soaring
vocal sound. alan is focused on spreading Tibetan
culture by way of song rather than being drawn into a discussion on politics.

"I've always been singing songs about love and
peace because receiving friendship, no matter
which ethnicity you are, will always make you
happy," she says. "I'd like to restrain myself on
other questions concerning Tibet. We all live on one Earth like a big family."

Alan's Japanese fans don't seem to mind her lack
of politics. Her ninth single, "Kuon no Kawa"
[River of Eternity], hit No. 3 in April 2009,
which was the highest chart placement ever for a Chinese artist in Japan.

Alan was born in Kangding, in a Tibetan
Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, a region where
her ethnic Khampa parents had temporarily been
living and working. She grew up in her family's
ancestral hometown of Danba, speaking her native tongue of Kham Ke.

"I have so many relatives," she says. "My father
has 10 siblings, but two of them died due to the
hardships of life there. And my mother has eight
siblings but one of them died too. When I went
home for New Year's I still met relatives for the first time!"

Tibetan culture doesn't traditionally use family
names. Newborns have their names bestowed upon
them by a lama, or Buddhist teacher.

"It is a custom for good luck," she explains. "A
virtuous Buddhist monk [chose] Dawa Zhuoma,
meaning 'a heavenly maiden of the moon.' I am the
moon, and my one brother is the sun."

Later on, Alan decided that having a family name
would be useful, but her full name was just too
long. "I combined my father's name and my
mother's name to Atu-Lantai, but Atu-Lantai Dawa
Zhuoma was too long for a passport so I made it
simpler" she says. "So I put them together and
made a surname: A-Lan. It's very rare and special, I think."

Alan first got into music as a punishment from
her mother for her tomboy behavior as a child.
Her parents made her learn the erhu (a
traditional Chinese two-stringed violin) to try to instill good behavior.

Alan's aunt lived in Chengdu, Sichuan's capital
city, and Alan's mother stopped working to move
with her there, and watch her daughter progress
on the erhu at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music.

Alan moved on to the Art Academy in Beijing,
considered one of the top music schools in the
country, but this time her family could no longer stay by her side.

"It is very dangerous for a young girl to live
[in Beijing] by herself and my parents were
really concerned. They were glad to discover that
the school belonged to the PLA (People's
Liberation Army) and it was so strict that we
usually couldn't go out or play at all!"

Living in a dormitory, alan discovered pop music
from Hong Kong, such as Faye Wong and the
so-called Four Heavenly Kings: Andy Lau, Leon
Lai, Aaron Kwok and Jacky Cheung. As part of her
study, she got the chance to record her voice for
the first time, despite having no background in
singing until entering university.

"I recorded 13 songs and I could get some money
to reduce the burden of my parents," she says.
"But it is not so good when I listen to it now."

With further practice Alan soon developed her
skills in the Tibetan wail. After that she excelled in auditions.

"I didn't learn it, it was an instinctive thing
for me." she says. "Just as Okinawan people have
their folk songs or Mongolians have that deep,
low voice, each tribe has a special way to sing
and only they can do it naturally."

Alan's big breakthrough came in an audition for
Japanese record label Avex, which auditioned
thousands of participants in China in 2006. Avex
asked her to move to Tokyo, which she was initially hesitant about.

"I didn't want to, but now I think I was lucky to
come to Japan because it's a world-famous
flourishing industry and I'm glad to be here."

Cultural differences immediately made a big
impact on alan when she moved to Tokyo at age 20
in September 2007. "I was puzzled when Japanese
people like senior Avex executives talked to me
wearing damaged jeans and sneakers, because it is
so different from China. At university all the
professors wore military uniforms and they are
very strict so the atmosphere was tense."

Alan's workload increased immensely. But the long
hours may have influenced her music.

"In Japan I work tirelessly all day long, so when
I return to the bare silence of my apartment
feeling exhausted, it makes me feel very lonely,"
she says. "So I wrote half of the songs when I
felt blue at two or three in the morning."

Alan's hard schedule derives from Avex's hopes
that she can simultaneously scale the Japanese and Chinese markets.

Alan has mastered Japanese in just two years,
something she credits to being proactive and
always carrying a Japanese notebook with her.
She'll be able to test her ability in January
when she holds her first series of concerts. She
will sing in both Japanese and Tibetan.

Alan's new album "my life" is out Nov. 25. She
will play Zepp Nagoya on Jan. 14, (052) 320-9100;
Tokyo's Hitomi Memorial Hall on Jan. 24, (0570)
00-3337; and Osaka's Sankei Hall Breeze on Jan.
31 (06) 6341-3525. Tickets for all shows cost ¥5,000.
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