Listen to this song by Ottawa-born guitarist’s guitarist and impressionistic, socially-conscious, and very well-traveled songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Tibetan Side of Town” as taken from his 1988 album Big Circumstance, a song written after his visit to that country when historic tensions in that country with applied pressure on it from neighbouring China drawing international attention.
When Cockburn set out as a solo act by the end of the 60s, his music was largely the result of an inward looking observational style as opposed to outward and engaged involvement resulting in a songwriting process.
But, by the 1980s, he was very involved in international social concerns. And his keen observational eye served him just as well, really adding dimension to what would be a very politicized body of work.
Among other parts of the world, Cockburn traveled to Tibet himself a number of times at the end of the 80s, a country which had been culturally bullied by China since the 50s, although with a history of tension between the two cultures stretching back even further. This song was the result of what he saw while in the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu.
Despite all of the political injustice that created circumstances where destitute refugees were commonplace, this song is not the po-faced polemic it might have been in the hands of a lesser songwriter. Instead, this song is about embracing the culture in which he found himself. The song celebrates the joy of a culture otherwise under pressure. It really is about drinking!
The drink in question is tungba, which is a millet-based beverage that is served hot, with the millet fermenting at the bottom of the vessel as you drink. The longer you drink, the stronger the tungba gets. And the more fun you begin to realize you’re having.
The vital contrast in this song is between the political unrest hinted at, and what is basically a narrative about getting together with friends and getting drunk. In short, Cockburn’s written a song about an oppressed part of the world that humanizes the issues that lay behind that oppression. This is a song with a real sense of perspective as well as a social conscience. His travelogue style captures a snapshot of that time and place for us as listeners, to the point that it’s the people we see in the song, not just the issues that affect them.
For more information about Bruce Cockburn, check out BruceCockburn.com.