LIANE HANSEN, host:
Tibetans are about halfway through their celebration of Lhosar, the Tibetan New Year. Among the voices providing the soundtrack to the celebration is Ani Choying Drolma. Listening to her sing the ancient songs of Tibetan Buddhism is like drinking a strong cup of peppermint tea. Her music cleanses the mind, fortifies the spirit.
For more than a decade, this most unlikely of rock stars has shared Buddhism's sacred chants with a growing number of fans worldwide. But she found this path almost by accident.
Megan Drennan Meline has more about the woman who wasnt always such a saint.
(Soundbite of a Buddhist song)
Ms. ANI CHOYING DROLMA: (Singing)
MEGAN DRENNAN MELINE: Ani Choying Drolma cant remember when she started singing, but her formal training began at 13 when she joined the Nagi Gompa monastery near Kathmandu. Soon after her arrival, the Rinpoche or head lama, recognized her talent. He and his wife began teaching her sacred chants, following a tradition that has been passed down from teacher to student for generations in the Himalayas.
Ms. DROLMA: They often made me sing in whatever occasion that took place. I used to be entertainer for everyone. But somehow my teacher and his wife, both were really, really enthusiastic about my singing. So, those days, I just used to enjoy it, but without having any ideas or thoughts about what they're up to. But now, I really, really see it clearly that they really knew it, you know, what my future was.
MELINE: So far, she has recorded 10 albums, including her latest, "Inner Peace II." While some monks have made it big with their chanting, few, if any, nuns have. Ani's music combines Tibetan melodies with traditional and contemporary instruments, like singing bowls and synthesizers.
(Soundbite of song "Feast")
Ms. DROLMA: (Singing)
MELINE: Her may voice may sound like a mountain stream, but underneath, her passions are like a storm on top of Everest. Her vocal power comes from a complicated mixture of devotion, confidence and anger. She confesses that she didnt become a nun out of faith, but rather to escape from her father, who beat her almost every day.
Ms. DROLMA: At the very beginning stage of my entry and my time at the monastery, I was still very wild and a lot of negativity was in my heart, in my mind. So I was always ready to protect myself. And that means the first thing that comes out in my mind is to be angry or to fight. But that slowly, slowly, slowly transformed and my teacher's blessing, his love, his kindness was so, so healing.
And once when my mother visited, my mother asked him: So how is she doing? This monk said to my mom: Oh, Ami-La. Ami-La means, eh, mother. You know? She is now like a Bodhisattva. Before she was like a devil.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MELINE: Ani Choyings journey to the world stage started in 1994 when musician Steve Tibbetts first heard her sing. Amazed by her voice, he taped her and sent the recording to Joe Boyd, music producer of groups like Pink Floyd. Boyd gave her a thumbs up, and Tibbetts returned to Nepal in 1997 to collaborate on their first album together.
A year later, he brought Ani and two other nuns to the U.S. Their first concert at the Iron Horse Saloon in Amherst, Massachusetts had its share of technical difficulties.
Mr. STEVE TIBBETTS (Musician): The nuns, the anis, were not used to monitor speakers, lights, or people watching them. For the first show, a lot of our songs started with the band playing and ended with the nuns singing solo. I guess, personally, I thought it was not exactly a disaster, but difficult. The crowd didnt think so. They formed a human scrum around Choying after the show.
MELINE: That scrum has grown larger ever since. Now, Ani tours six months a year in countries like Brazil, China, Singapore, Russia and France.
But it wasnt always a love fest. When she began singing these songs publicly, other Buddhists criticized her a lot. So she turned to her teacher, the meditation master, Tulku Urgyen, for his advice.
Ms. DROLMA: I asked him with the motive that if he says its not good to do it, then I would not done it. But then he was so positive and he said: Well, these are all great powerful, beneficial spiritual songs, it doesnt matter whoever -whether they are believers or non-believers - whoever gets to hear it, they will be benefited. So it's a good idea, he said. And that was very strong enough for me in my heart to go forward.
MELINE: When Ani Choying was a teenager, foreigners often visited the Nagi Gompa monastery to study with her famous teacher. They gave her the nick name Ani Chewing Gum, taught her some English, and introduced her to the blues.
Ms. DROLMA: Long ago, when very, very first time when I had a tape recorder and I wanted to have some Western music to listen to - I only could buy Hindi songs or Nepali songs - but no Western songs. So I asked someone, a Western disciple of my teacher, can you help me to get the Western music? And that person gave me a Bonnie Raitt cassette.
MELINE: Years later, after performing in San Francisco, Ani saw a red-headed woman approaching her.
Ms. DROLMA: And then when I saw this lady coming up to me, and I said, Oh, my God. And she walked up to me and she said: Hi, my name is Bonnie Raitt and I am one of your greatest fans. And I said are you kidding? Actually, I'm your fan. She was quite surprised to know that I knew her. And she called her friends, the band, and say: Hey, guys listen to this. Isnt it great? She knows me.
MELINE: In Kathmandu, everyone knows Ani Choying Drolma. When she is in town, it is nearly impossible to see her. She supports more than a dozen charities through her Nuns Welfare Foundation, shes building a new kidney hospital, and she runs a boarding school for girls.
Judith Amsitz, an old friend, believes Ani has helped to bring nuns out of the shadows.
Ms. JUDITH AMSITZ: Shes a very visible nun and maybe shes making other nuns visible, too. I mean even the fact that for many years shes driven her own car. I mean when she started driving around, there werent even that many women driving, let alone that, you know, nuns driving. So shes not afraid at all to break convention.
MELINE: Ani-La, as her junior nuns call her, makes it a point to break convention. She sees her music, and its profits, as a vehicle to make opportunities for women and girls. In 2000, she founded The Arya Tara School, the first school in Nepal to offer both Western and traditional Tibetan studies to nuns.
Nuns like Choying Sombo who graduated two years ago. She wears pink high tops and her cell phone looks like a pocket-size shrine to teen heartthrob Justin Bieber. She manages Ani-Las Facebook page, juggles her tour schedule, and keeps an eye on the school, which is now home to 70 girls who range in age from seven to 23.
Ms. SOMBO: They all have their own stories. They all had some kind of difficulties. Some were forced to marry in a young age and some were attacked by Maoists. And some were, like they came from Tibet and there were no place to stay here.
MELINE: Ani Choying Drolma believes anyone can benefit from listening to her music. You dont need to understand Tibetan. Find a quiet place, close your eyes and use headphones to feel the full effect of her positive vibrations.
(Soundbite of song)
For NPR News, this is Megan Drennan Meline in Kathmandu, Nepal.
HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.