Today marks 20 years since ‘Last Train to Lhasa’ was originally released by Planet Dog Records, so it seems only fitting to release the anniversary edition on the same day. …
2015 sees the 20th anniversary of the classic album ‘Last Train to Lhasa’. As part of our ongoing celebrations I was interviewed by Free Tibet and I talked about what was behind the album and my thoughts on the situation in Tibet, past and present.
What triggered your interest in Tibet?
I spent a lot of my teens and early 20s reading endlessly about spirituality, religion, philosophy, occultism, mysticism… anything that offered more depth and meaning that the empty consumer society I was growing up in. I kept coming across references to Tibet which described a magical land of spiritual purity and mystery, high in the mountains and almost inaccessible, written by various early western visitors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Coupled with books on Tibetan Buddhism, this gave me an image of a unique land and culture that I found absolutely fascinating, and for some reason felt very drawn to.It was some years later that I found out about the Chinese invasion, which saddened me very deeply. I had held a glamorised view of Tibet for sure, but no matter how exaggerated and inaccurate my version of it was, Tibet was a real place where real people lived and maintained some unique traditions, and a living spirituality still permeated the society, which was a rare thing by the late 20th century. For that to be under threat seemed to be a huge loss for the whole of humanity.
‘Last train to Lhasa’ includes a wide range of global musical themes. Why did you decide to focus on Tibet with the title and cover?
I suppose it was not so long before I wrote that album that I found out about the current realities in Tibet, and it was an issue and a cause about which I felt particularly strongly at the time. There were many other issues important to me – the environment, the destructiveness of unrestrained capitalism and globalisation, for example – but the Tibetan issue seemed the most pressing and somehow the most human. Tackling an economic ideology or global environmental crisis seemed such huge tasks whereas opposing Chinese oppression in Tibet seemed more immediate, more personal. It also wasn’t getting as much coverage as the more global issues and I wanted to lend my voice to the calls for justice and freedom for the Tibetan people before it was too late.
One of the privileges of being a musician on any level is that people pay attention to you, even if it is only for a brief period. I grew up with vinyl albums and used to love studying the cover artwork, the sleeve notes, whatever had been chosen to accompany the music, and I knew that other people pay attention to that too. I didn’t want to write political songs or chant slogans but I thought the album cover would give me a chance to spread awareness and use the attention the album would get for a good cause. I was in the privileged position of having the attention of quite a large number of people so I wanted to point their attention to something that I felt was really important, and just might help the Tibetans’ cause a little.
Recently, Tibetan culture has come under attack from the Chinese state. At least 10 popular Tibetan musicians are in jail because China has objected to songs celebrating Tibetan culture and challenging its rule. What’s your response as a musician to that?
As a musician in Western Europe at this time I enjoy the freedom to express myself with very little limitation imposed from outside. If I want to criticise the government or complain about injustice then I can do that. The principle of free speech is hugely important to me and so of course I support the Tibetan musicians’ right to express their views and feelings through their music. But this is true as a human being, not just a musician, and whilst I may identify more closely with the Tibetan musicians I also support the right to free speech and to oppose oppression for all Tibetans.As I mentioned before, musicians can potentially communicate their ideas with large numbers of people and that of course is what the Chinese authorities are afraid of. But they also want to see Tibetan traditions disappear and to weaken the Tibetan identity, and songs and music are a powerful way of maintaining those traditions and sense of identity, so silencing Tibetan music and musicians has to be integral to their plans for control.
China’s influence in the world has increased significantly since 1995 and some public figures seem more reluctant to support Tibet. What message would you give to your fans about Tibet today?
The message hasn’t really changed, sadly. I believe the Tibetan people have the right to live according to their traditional values and to follow their traditional religion if they want to. I believe they should have sovereignty over their own land and that the Chinese do not have the right to impose their ideology or economic will on the Tibetans. I believe the Chinese authorities should stop using brutality and force to dominate and control the Tibetan people, and the Tibetan population’s human rights should be respected and the will of the Tibetan people complied with.
And finally, I would like to say that it is important that those of us who can speak up for justice, do so. It may come at a price – I don’t suppose I’ll be getting any invitations to perform in China any time soon – but if we put self interest and personal reward ahead of the basic principles of justice and human rights then we contribute to the decline of our own society, and the human race as a whole. Don’t be afraid to speak up for what you believe in, there are many in Tibet and elsewhere who have had that right taken away from them and we should make our support for them loud and clear.
More information on the situation in Tibet can be found at Freetibet.org.