A Tibetan Singer Helps Mentally Ill Patients Find Their Voice

Tibetan musician and performing artist Yungchen Lhamo, who rose to prominence in the 1990s as the first Tibetan artist to win a mainstream music industry prize, is currently writing a new solo album while she volunteers with a charity working with mental health and homeless issues in Kingston, New York. Yungchen Lhamo

Yungchen Lhamo's voice is an instrument that needs no adornment, a rich soprano of impossibly clear tone, with a light touch that belies a potent flow of energy. It can skip, low and unhurried, down impressionistic pathways that nod to the Buddhist mantras of her native Tibet; it can surge, swift and quavering, into pious cries bordering on wails. Most often delivered a cappella, it has entertained the Dalai Lama and Bono; dueted with Natalie Merchant, Annie Lennox and Billy Corgan; and won a landmark international music award.

On a sunny June afternoon in Kingston, New York, a sleepy, sun-bleached town about two hours north of Manhattan, this voice fills a small, 15th-century Dutch church. It's part of a musical play called You Are Beautiful, I Am Beautiful, and Lhamo is sharing this stage with 13 residents of Chiz's Heart Street, a local homeless shelter for the mentally ill, most of them schizophrenic. Almost all of her actors are dressed in drag: The men wear long sundresses and shiny acrylic wigs; the women sport dark suits and smudged, drawn-on mustaches. They chant a song Lhamo wrote for them—a simple, pious, keening tune, also called "You Are Beautiful, I Am Beautiful"—and pace the narrow central aisle of the church, through their 100-person audience, grasping hands and beaming up at the vibrant red and yellow streamers draped for the occasion.

"When I grow up in Tibet, we don't hear so much [of the phrase] 'mental illness,' but here they say, 'Mental illness: Danger, don't go near them.' But really, what is mental illness—aren't we all sick in different ways?" Lhamo says after the play, in her gentle and occasionally halting English. She stands outside the church, praising each actor who passes by and affectionately adjusting their gender-bending outfits. "In Tibet, we believe once we become older, we become like child again. So today, I thought we could all play."

Lhamo has the beatific air of someone well versed in Buddhist stillness. She is "a living mandala," says Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo. Born in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, with a name that augured beauty (her namesake is the Hindu/Buddhist deity Sarasvati, goddess of music and knowledge), Lhamo fled her country in 1989 to escape the violence of the Chinese occupation. Crossing the Himalayas on foot with her infant son on her back, she rebuilt her life in India, then Australia. (She is reluctant to talk about this exodus. Her son, Tenzin Shaydrup, a former employee of a labor rights nongovernmental organization, is now 25, lives in Kingston and shrugs off the escape as "normal for that age and at that time.")

In Australia, she released her debut album, Tibetan Prayer (1995), which merged folkloric rhythms with melismatic Buddhist devotionals. It won an ARIA Award (Australia's equivalent of a Grammy) for best folk/world/traditional music album and made her the first Tibetan musician to ever win a high-profile mainstream music industry prize. Peter Gabriel signed her to his Real World Records, and she began enjoying rarified air: performances at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Louvre in Paris; inclusion on the Hollywood soundtrack to Seven Years in Tibet; pairing with Annie Lennox on Lhamo's disc Ama and Natalie Merchant on that singer's 1998 album Ophelia. Those efforts earned her reviews with words such as "exquisite" in The Guardian and "brilliant" in The New Yorker.

"Yungchen sings like an unearthly creature," Merchant tells Newsweek. "Her voice has the power to stop time and makes everything else in the world fall away. Her voice transports you."

Lhamo brushes off such praise. "I don't believe so much in myself as a singer. For me, this is about medicine, using your energy to make the world an offering," she says. Now in her mid-40s, she resides in Kingston to be near the Manhattan world music venues she headlines.

"Normally, people think Tibet means monks, chanting," she says, chuckling. "So when [I won the ARIA], this opened many people eyes. So this is good for Tibet as a country."

Lhamo's modest musical play was the product of her charity work at Chiz's Heart Street, and a visibly daunting experience for its actors. Many at Heart Street have struggled to interact with society; some languished, comatose, in psychiatric wards, and another spent time in prison for murder. While they flanked Lhamo before the church's ornate pulpit, their expressions shifted gradually from bashful to assertive as they acted out a playful arc about a family reunion. Then they shifted to autobiographical tales about their lives, the most turbulent anecdotes mumbled with downcast eyes: stories of broken families, drug addiction and physical disabilities. Throughout these performances, Lhamo embraced her actors maternally, light rippling over her sequined lilac chuba (a traditional Tibetan robe) and the peacock-shaped rhinestone clip pushing back her knee-length black hair.

Lhamo began volunteering seven months ago at Chiz's Heart Street, a pretty trio of converted Victorian homes near downtown Kingston. The boarding house generally houses 45 to 50 residents and is run with precision by Mary "Chiz" Chisholm, a former engineer and Vietnam War veteran with close-shorn white hair who monitors meals and medicine intake with empathetic vigor. Her work has been honored by the New York Senate.

On Lhamo's first visit to Heart Street, she sang to a timid, unresponsive audience. She returned unprompted the following week and has visited almost every Wednesday since. In those months, Lhamo's interactions with the residents bloomed from quiet conversation to dancing and singing—and, ultimately, putting on the play that would give the patients' newfound identities a real-world stage.

"She touched people that never let anybody touch them; she would hold them and let them cry. Without a doubt, she is holy," says Chisholm, 64, after the play, tears forming in her eyes. "She touches that piece of them that brings out who they are as human beings. They felt beautiful today."

Linda Jessat, an actor in You Are Beautiful, I Am Beautiful, is one of several residents at Chiz's Heart Street diagnosed with late-onset schizophrenia. Before that struck her, she worked as a registered nurse at Benedictine Hospital, Kingston's main psychiatric facility. "The people that I worked with for eight years were taking care of me. For a whole year, I was extremely depressed; I didn't smile. I thought the world was ending," Jessat, 66, says. "Chiz took me in, and then Yungchen came into our lives with unconditional love and made us smile again and feel worthy."

Jessat admits she was hesitant to join the play's cast, but is glad she did. "Today everyone is really, really happy and proud."

In the past decade, Kingston's community of mentally ill homeless individuals has surged. Gallo says Benedictine Hospital counts over 2,500 behavioral patients—more than one-tenth of the town's population, according to the last census report, and a byproduct of New York state shutting down many psychiatric facilities over the past decade, a move related to the $5 billion in cuts made to mental health services nationwide.

The mayor calls his town a "dumping ground of deinstitutionalized patients" and says many of them end up on the streets or in unethical shelters. Across the country, diagnosed schizophrenics and other people with severe mental illnesses are often treated entirely with heavy regimens of antipsychotic medications that pack myriad adverse side effects. "You take into account how we're treating these patients now—it's like, 'Here's your meds, go stare off into space or look at the TV.' There's something barbaric and inhuman about that," says Gallo.

He and Lhamo have discussed creating a business proposal that would expand her performance-as-outreach program beyond Kingston. "Her work has had such an impact on these people's lives. Her model is a very compassionate paradigm that could have quite a benefit to the mentally disabled population in our country.... A nexus of Western and Eastern could be very productive."

Lhamo is writing her next solo album while working with the residents of Chiz's Heart Street, many of whom are asking her to begin preparations for their second play, next year. As she ponders that, she points to the peacock ornament in her hair. "There are many animals that are beautiful, that do not dress up, are born like that," she says softly. "So I compare that with human beings. All human beings are very beautiful. We need things—medicine, technology—but most, we need unconditional love."