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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Finding The Rhythm of Family

December 24, 2009

By Kendall Hunter |

Wednesday, December 23, 2009 10:48 AM ET

Karen McDiarmid describes her entrance into the Tara Café in Dharamsala,
India "like falling through the rabbit hole." It's an apt description of
what happened to her, when in 2005 she was introduced to all kinds of
life-changing people and events.

The café is a place where Tibetan refugees meet to play music and to
talk, and it now also serves as the backdrop of an uplifting music and
film project that sheds light on a resilient Tibetan culture, and how
the people deal with life while split apart from family members in
exile. And it was in the café four years ago where McDiarmid was
introduced to musicians from the Amdo region of Tibet who would be
instrumental in communicating the story.

Her film, Shining Spirit, is a film that documents the production of a
music CD by Tibetan family members split apart, with tracks produced in
Tibet and Canada. Music is an essential part of Tibetan culture and in
this film, it serves as a binding force keeping the families connected
despite political and geographical obstacles.

According to McDiarmid the CD project was never intended to evolve into
a film. As something of an after-thought, she decided to hold a video
camera as the story unfolded, and fortunately for us we're able to
glimpse into the lives of those in exile and the families left behind.

The 'Rabbit Hole'

But let's back up a bit, to McDiarmid's "rabbit hole" and the café where
friendships were forged. At the time McDiarmid learned of the Tara Café,
she was a volunteer mental health worker. Traveling from the resort town
of Banff in the Canadian Rockies, she arrived on a very cold day in
March, feeling more than a little disoriented but was soon befriended by
a woman from Wales who had been teaching English to a Tibetan. She was
about to leave India and was hoping to find another teacher to take her
place. Although McDiarmid already had a full plate working at the
clinic, she signed up for the job without giving it a second thought.
The Tibetan student turned out to be Gompo Kyab, the owner of the Tara
Café. Through him, she became immersed in the world of the Amdo
musicians and the whole Tibetan music scene in Dharamsala.

McDiarmid became completely absorbed ? some friends would say she was
"obsessed" ? with the music. As she told a Canadian radio station: "It
reminds us of something here in the West that we don't quite understand.
We know it's something we recognize but also recognize that we've lost
something ? it's almost like our aboriginal music. It touches something
that is so deep and is largely forgotten."

Uniting Musicians

Upon her return to Canada, McDiarmid continued to talk about the
incredible Tibetan musicians she'd met in India. Through a connection
she had at the Banff Centre, two of these talented musicians, Jamyang
Yeshi and Gompo Dhundup, were invited to perform in Canada at the
Centre's Cultures at Risk Summit.

Jamyang, a former monk, fled Tibet after spending a harrowing month-long
journey through the Himalayas and finally settling in Dharamsala. He
held many performances and released several CDs in India before meeting
McDiarmid but without a passport or even refugee status in India
prospects for his future were limited. The invitation to Canada was to
alter his life forever. Once in Canada, he and Gompo decided to make the
country their new home and they applied for refugee status.

It wasn't long before Jamyang was able to connect with brother Tsundue
who had also escaped Tibet but had made the US his home. Around this
time, Jamyang began speaking to friends in Canada about his family back
home, particularly his father who was so instrumental in his musical
upbringing. Hearing stories about the sorrow in their land and in their
own hearts caused by the separation from family, the idea of the CD that
would unite them began to take hold.

Tsundue joined Jamyang in Banff and the pair recorded 12 songs in a
state-of-the-art facility at the Banff Centre. McDiarmid and musician
friend, Mark Unrau stored the tracks on a laptop and with the help of an
anonymous philanthropist in Banff, carried them off to the hills of the
Amdo region of Tibet, to record music in the land of the nomads. Jamyang
and Tsundue, now exiled, remained behind in Canada.

The Rhythm of Family

As McDiarmid and Unrau "settled into the rhythm" of the family,
introducing them to musical equipment and getting to know them over a
period of three weeks, a story of depth evolved. They had to utilize a
makeshift studio in the family's winter home. There, mattresses were
arranged for better acoustics and colorful Tibetan scarves were wrapped
around microphones. When they finally settled in to record Jamyang and
Tsundue's family, Unrau cracked open the laptop and released the long
lost but familiar voice of the brothers as accompaniment.

"Mark and I were kind of taken by surprise and we hadn't really thought
about what it would be like for the family to listen to Jamyang's voice
come through the laptop computer after 10 years of not hearing him,"
McDiarmid said. "It was an extremely emotional experience. There were a
lot of tears."

Jamyang's father, whose sole wish is to see his sons again before he
dies, had not sung in years, not since the death of his wife. Despite
being foreigners, McDiarmid and Unrau with all their technological
contraptions were recognized as good friends of his absent sons and he
soon lent his inspirational voice to the CD.

"It was the first time I really realized what it was like for people in
exile to be separated. It really hit me ? not just something I read
about or felt badly about, but first-hand seeing the pain of that
family," said McDiarmid.

Tara is a Buddhist goddess, known as a protector and remover of
obstacles. Undeniably, it's a fitting name for the café in Dharamsala
that Karen McDiarmid just happened to fall into.

Shining Spirit was a finalist at the Banff Mountain Film Festival which
took place in early November. The Tara Café Project has also initiated a
children's education Project in Amdo, Tibet. They fund the education of
20 nomadic children as well as the salary of a Tibetan teacher plus the
college education of a young nomad woman.
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