Tibet has suffered Chinese occupation for some forty-one years and seems no closer to independence than when the Dalai Lama escaped to India years ago. But the spiritual leader works tirelessly to promote Tibetan culture, with the concrete belief that Tibet will again enjoy independence. That spirit infused the performances at Saturday night’s Tibet House Benefit Concert, at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
The evening’s first performer, Canadian violinist Ashley MacIsaac, showed his Celtic-punk credentials, first swaying through “Slow Airs” before segueing into a stomping, swinging “Reels,” barely needing the help of David Byrne, who accompanied him on acoustic guitar.
The evening held many more pleasures: Brazilian singer Virginia Rodrigues wowed with her beautifully rounded mezzo, especially on “Manha de Carnavalle,” a selection from her U.S. debut album Sol Negro. Tibetan instrumentalist Nawang Kechog and Navajo-Ute flutist R. Carlos Naki teamed up for two pieces, appropriately called “Universal Peace” and “Meeting Place.” AngFlique Kidjo, from Benin, injected fun energy with her performance of “Senie” (on which she invited the audience to sing along) and “Tourner la Page,” a piece co-written by French pianist Phillippe Saisse, who accompanied her.
Rufus Wainwright charmed, his bumbling persona adding a bit of whimsy to a serious cause. “I’m a huge fan of classical music,” Wainwright nervously declared. He overcame his awe to pay tribute to singer and humanitarian Paul Robeson, with a touching rendition of “Deep River,” on which Rodrigues took the second verse.
The kids were in attendance for Trey Anastasio, his second year participating in the benefit. The Phish head disappointed no one with his acoustic renditions of “Farmhouse” and “The In-law Josie Wales,” a newly written acoustic-guitar instrumental.
Patti Smith, the queen of punk and a regular at these benefit concerts, recited an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” recalling the Beat poet’s punk spirit by spitting onstage after her passionate recitation. But Smith’s reading was the only direct reference to New World defiance; the concert wasn’t about musical milestones as much as raising awareness of Tibet’s plight, as well as funds to help preserve Tibetan history.
Although the performances were heartfelt, they lacked vigor, as if the artists saw raucousness as disrespectful in the face of real suffering.
After the Gomang Monks of Drepung Monastery (outside Lhasa, Tibet) performed the closing invocation, Smith took to the stage for a rendition of “People Have the Power.” A call to awareness and action she wrote in the post-Watergate Seventies, “People” rang relevant and true — a fitting end to a night of good music and better intentions.