Fifty years ago this month, the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Their half-century in exile has carried what was once a very cloistered culture into the rest of the world. One of the more unusual aspects of that culture is the throat singing practiced by Tibet's Gyuto monks. But few have heard the monks as they might have sounded in their mountain monastery - until now. Anil Mundra has more.

ANIL MUNDRA: It was 3 o'clock one morning in 1964, on the eve of the highest holiday in the Tibetan calendar. Renowned religion scholar Huston Smith awoke in a monastery in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.

Mr. HUSTON SMITH (Religion Scholar, Author of "The World's Religions"): There fell upon my ear the holiest sound I have ever heard.

(Soundbite of drums)

MUNDRA: Professor Smith is a man who knows from holy. He was raised in China by missionaries and wrote the classic textbook "The World's Religions." But despite a lifetime of research, Smith says he was shocked and exalted at this sound.

(Soundbite of throat singing)

MUNDRA: So much so that he went back to the monastery three years later with Voice of America engineers, and made a recording.

(Soundbite of throat singing)

MUNDRA: Smith had already made one, rougher tape of the monks that he had taken back to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and played it for an equally flabbergasted colleague, an ethnomusicologist.

Mr. SMITH: Why, the man just paced the floor in excitement. And at one point, he clapped his palm to his forehead and said, My God, I am hearing nine overtones!

(Soundbite of throat singing)

MUNDRA: An overtone is also called a harmonic, so hearing nine of them is kind of like hearing a nine-part harmony in a single voice. Now, most of us can't hear that many; even fewer of us can sing that many.

Mr. MICKEY HART (Former Drummer, Grateful Dead): That's a vocal miracle.

MUNDRA: And that's Mickey Hart, one of the former drummers of the Grateful Dead. He caught wind of Huston Smith's tape in San Francisco in the late 1960s, and it, well, blew his mind.

Mr. HART: My ear was filled with monks for many years.

MUNDRA: He couldn't wait to share it with his bandmates.

Mr. HART: I mean, wait until Garcia hears this. He's not going to believe it.

(Soundbite of throat singing)

MUNDRA: But even that sound that so impressed Mickey Hart was not the whole thing. Huston Smith's 1967 tape is limited by several factors. First of all, even the semipro recording gear he used couldn't capture all of the sound. And second, the number of voices. Smith only heard the remnants of the choir — the few monks that survived the perilous trek into India after the Chinese attacked their temple in 1959, and killed or imprisoned most of them. In the original Gyuto monastery, there were over a hundred monks in the choir.

Mr. HART: No one's really heard a hundred monks outside of Lhasa, you know, in many years. And we overdubbed, and now there's over a hundred-voice choir here.

(Soundbite of throat singing)

MUNDRA: To re-create the sound of a full choir for this CD, Mickey Hart recorded each monk multiple times to make 10 voices sound like a hundred.

(Soundbite of throat singing)

MUNDRA: One of the first Tibetan monks to make his name in the West as a musician was Nawang Khechog. He was nominated for a Grammy in 2001. He says these chants are among the most secret and sacred of Tibetan Buddhism. That's why they're so heavily layered and deliberately hard to understand.

Mr. NAWANG KHECHOG (Tibetan Monk): To hide the words, in the general public, it's disguised in that kind of multitonic sound.

MUNDRA: The Dalai Lama has said that it's okay for the monks to perform publicly because the chants mean things which, in his words, the ordinary eye can't perceive anyway. And it's important for the monks to go public — one of the ways the community has been able to stay alive in exile is through the patronage of enamored foreigners, or even just quizzical ones. Khechog says that when he used to live in New York, he would get funny looks when he tried to harmonize with the subway trains.

Mr. KHECHOG: I'd start the chant and then suddenly, the train is gone. I'm still chanting and the few people standing there and they think, what's going on, you know?

MUNDRA: But the curiosity of foreigners might be just what Tibetan exiles need. Proceeds from this CD go toward Tibet House, a New York-based foundation, and to build the Gyuto monastery-in-exile in India. And there's another benefit, says Professor Huston Smith. This music can help the rest of us understand our world more fully.

Mr. SMITH: There is more in heaven and earth than there is in your philosophy, as someone famous once said. This enlarged my understanding of human beings and what they are capable of.

MUNDRA: For NPR News, I'm Anil Mundra.

(Soundbite of throat singing)

MONTAGNE: Hear more sounds of the Gyuto Monks at This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of throat singing)

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