I first met Ap Dawpel in 1986 when I was a student. As I began learning from him, I discovered how much there was to learn about the wonderful tradition of Bhutanese music.

Ap Dawpel, the ‘father of Bhutanese music’, is now 72 years old. Dawpel, short for his name Daw Peljor (moon wealth), comes from Talo in Punakha, the former capital and residence of the old Dharma Rajas (priestly Kings) where a particularly fine tradition of music was preserved.

Ap Dawpel became the Queen Mother’s painter and musician in 1945. Also know as Ge-te (ex-monk) and Lhadrip (painter), he was the Chammpon (mask dance master) for several years in Talo monastery. For the past five decades, Ap Dawpel has taught and influenced many young musicians and dancers. Had it not been for his zeal to share his knowledge with many young musicians, the Bhutanese dramnyen (a lute with six and a half strings) and its music would have long became a forgotten tradition.

Ap Dawpel’s professional life saw its peak in 1999 when he was awarded the Thugsey (son of Bhutan) medal for his outstanding musical services by His Majesty the King.

An Oral Tradition

Like all musicians of his time, Apa never had formal music training. He learnt the songs and dances in the ‘teacher-pupil’ tradition. Barely nine years old, he became a monk and lived in Punakha Dzong until he was twenty-three. During those years, he learnt some popular songs like Dramnyen Ludra and Bermo Bermo, from Sewla Pem Dorji, a renowned dramnyen player.

Repertoire and Traditions

Apa’s music repertoire consists mainly of Zhungdra, or classical music, and Boedra, or court music. Some of the first songs he learned, such as Choki Tsawa Mitsu, Dramnyen Ludra and Bermo Bermo, are popular even today. He learned some of the songs from Aku Tongmi (now 95 years old), the first person in Bhutan to have trained in brass band music.

Gur (devotional songs), Drunglu (epic songs), Tshonglu (propitious songs), Mani (Buddhist mantras), Tsangmo (reciprocal songs), Lozey (ornaments of speech, only recited), and Chham (mask dances) make up Apa’s repertoire, musically classified as Zhungdra and Boedra.


Zhungdra‘ is made up of two words, ‘Zhung‘ and ‘dra‘, (Zhung = main and dra = sound). Musically speaking, Zhungdra songs are characterized by the use of very long notes with no definite rhythm. Sung in a meditative style, Zhungdra is the classical music of Bhutan.

Ap Dawpel explains that the Zhungdra tradition had evolved locally under the patronage of the government, Zhung. “People from around the country regarded the capital as the seat of government and, therefore, the form of music it promoted developed into what is known today as the original music of the country,” he explains. Zhungdra songs were generally composed by great lamas and scholars, and, therefore, had a religious theme.


Boedra‘ is also formed from two words, ‘Boe‘, which means Court, and ‘dra‘ which means sound or music. There are two different explanations for its etymology. The first is that Boedra music is influenced by Tibetan folk music. The second is that Boedra is music performed by ‘Boegarps‘, court attendants in medieval Bhutan.

Ap Dawpel believes that Boedra music became popular only in the late 1950s with the arrival of more Tibetans in Bhutan after the Chinese annexation of their homeland. Boedra music is now fully absorbed into local traditions with Dzongkha replacing the Tibetan words.

Regional Music

Ap Dawpel has also identified several songs in the local dialects, although he never learnt them. I refer to such songs as ‘luedra‘, literally meaning ‘local music’. Normally sung in Tshanglo, Khengkha, Bumthangkha and other dialects, the songs are also classified as Zhungdra and Boedra.

Regional celebration songs and dances like Zhay and Zhaym are traditions known by the area of their origin. Examples of some of the surviving traditions that Ap Dawpel loves include Gasa Goenzhay, Trongsa Nub Zhay, Thimphu Wang Zhay, and Paro Wochupai Zhay.

Apa’s Musical Instruments

Apa plays an amazing variety of musical instruments. His favourite is his family’s five generations old dramnyen which he learnt on his own. He also plays the lim (flute made of bamboo), piwang (two-stringed fiddle), pili/pipi (tiny reed flute), dung (long trumpet-like horns), jali (oboe-like reed instruments), roelm (cymbals), nga (double-sided drums), drib tangti (hand bells and hand drums), dungkar (conch shell), and kangdu (human thigh-bone trumpet).

New Influences

As a mentor to many musicians today, Ap Dawpel is concerned that the inevitable change and modernization taking place in Bhutan is making an irreversible impact on the culture and lives of the people, particularly on music.

Apa feels the popularity of ‘Rigsarlu’ (modern songs), with catchy tunes taking advantage of the electronic musical instruments, is already replacing traditional music and instruments. He points out the need for efforts to balance the development of traditional and modern music forms.

Activities have been initiated to preserve and promote Bhutanese folk music and musical instruments. The Royal Academy of Performing Arts is documenting traditional songs and the Institute of Language and Cultural Studies has begun an inventory on Bhutan’s performing art traditions. Formal music training and research have improved, and song and dance competitions keep the musical art alive.

“I have been thinking and praying for the future of Bhutanese music,” says Apa Dawpel as he takes his daily walk up and down the hill, his head and body bent as if listening to the music of bygone days. “I pray that it continues to bring greater harmony, joy and happiness in the lives of our people.”

By Jigme Dukpa, the Vice-Principal of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts.