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Friday, Nov. 20, 2009

Tibet to Tokyo: alan takes flight


Special to The Japan Times

"First of all, I am a Tibetan, 100 percent," says singer Alan Dawa Zhuoma, more commonly known by her stage name alan. "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."

News photo
Crash course: Rising J-Pop star alan mastered Japanese in just two years and you can judge the results on her new album "my life."

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."

The singer'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.

Born in Kangding, in a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, a region where her ethnic Khampa parents had temporarily been living and working, alan 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."

She 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.

Her 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. She 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."

A big breakthrough came for alan 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."

The singer'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."

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

In just two years, alan has mastered Japanese, 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.

The 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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