There’s a brief moment each morning, just before the city rises and begrudgingly rolls out of bed, that this corner of the world sits in near peace. Whether it’s the greatest place on earth, as licence plates and enthusiastic provincial ad campaigns like to proclaim, is up for discussion.
But somehow those moments don’t get old. The mountains, the water and the always-out-of-reach horizon stand as daily reminders of why many, whether transplants or lifelong Lower Mainlanders, live here. It’s where many go afterwards, to face the onslaught of nightmarish quotas, targets and never-ending meetings, that has a way of erasing those more serene times.
“I had that white-collar corporate job in a Toronto bank, you know, caught up in the rat race like everyone else. But I realized I was not meant to contribute to that world,” says Shenpenn Khymsar, clad in a black t-shirt and black leather vest, mohawk standing proudly.
“It was an awakening. So I gave the finger to the corporate world and went to play music.”
Khymsar was the first son in his family to be born in exile. His parents, native Tibetans with a strong Buddhist lineage, fled their home after the Tibetan uprising 52 years ago. For nearly a decade prior to their escape, Tibet had been under the control of the Communist Party of China. By 1959, tensions between the Tibetans and their occupiers erupted in a short, but violent battle. A reported 100,000 Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, fled shortly thereafter.
Khymsar’s parents landed on the outskirts of Darjeeling, India, a popular area for transplanted Tibetans. The family left behind a more-than-comfortable life, forced to trade in their estate — complete with a courtyard, horses and yaks — for a tiny, rural shack that as many as 15 members of his family, both immediate and extended, called home.
A rebellious kid, Khymsar took to music quickly. Since the 1960s, Darjeeling has boasted a lively do-it-yourself rock and roll scene. Never a stop on anyone’s tour itinerary, locals depended on homegrown bands to play the popular Western tunes of the day. And the scene flourished.
Khymsar’s musical tipping point came in the form of a bootleg cassette with the Def Leppard tune “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” The syrupy ‘80s anthem quickly steered Khymsar down a path of musical adventure, as he began gobbling up tunes from the Pet Shop Boys and Duran Duran and harder-edge bands such as Metallica and Slayer.
“We were very much influenced by Western music, but it was a different kind of thing because genres didn’t really matter to us. Not like it does here,” recalls Khymsar.
“And I think it made us into open-minded musicians. You didn’t need to be a Rastafarian to like reggae music or an anarchist to like punk. We just played for ourselves.”
Having bid farewell to the shirt-and-tie thing, Khymsar quickly got a band together and started playing shows. He paid the bills doing this and that, mainly waiting tables, but the stage was where his heart lay. Music, like it is for countless others, was his outlet. Girl troubles, family issues — you name it, he says — all solved on six strings. But music also provided Khymsar with another tool, the platform to raise awareness for his people’s struggle.
By this point in his life, Khymsar had been living away from Darjeeling for about 15 years. He split as a teenager after obtaining a tourist visa for the United States, seeing no future for himself in the Himalayan town. He landed in the New York borough of Queens, which houses the largest population of Tibetan refugees in America. But when his application for asylum was rejected four years after he arrived, Khymsar faced deportation.
Determined not to be sent back to Darjeeling, Khymsar instead looked north and crossed into Canada as a refugee. He was eventually granted permanent residency.
“Now, I had my identity and music helped give me that,” he says. “But I wanted to revisit my roots. And I could do that at that point.”
And so the film Journey of a Dream was born. About three years ago, Khymsar packed his bags, his guitar and a video camera and went back to India. He says he wanted to make a film, through his eyes, that told of the larger Tibetan immigrant experience. Yes, the film is full of riveting scenes of a teary-eyed Khymsar returning to his childhood home, remembering how his large family made do with so little. And yes, he gets plenty of screen time jamming with local musicians upon his return. But he also meets with Tibetan student associations, scholars and politicians to discuss the views, initiatives and perspectives of those working for change.
Khymsar says he is but the “common denominator” in a project that shines a spotlight on the power of heavy metal, the Darjeeling music scene and the plight of all exiled Tibetans.
“This took three years to make, and I did it all myself. I directed, narrated, produced and I was the publicist. But, to be honest, finishing this project isn’t about monetary success. Breaking even would be great,” Khymsar says, with a smile.
“This is really another way of getting the big Tibetan issue out there. I would love to see younger Tibetans follow their hearts as well. Take some risks.”
And if attention to the cause is what Khymsar desires, it appears he’s on the right track. Last month, he was in Washington D.C. attending teachings of the Dalai Lama at a Buddhist ceremony, the Kalachakra. In the evenings, he met with high-profile Buddhists Richard Gere and Jessica Biel.
The five-star hotel scene is a bit of a rush, admits Khymsar, but it isn’t the barometer by which anyone should judge achievement. You can get pats on the back until your shoulders turn blue, but having influence and telling the stories that need to be told is what amounts to success in his book. And, he says, he’s got more to tell.
“I’d love to make another documentary and maybe a dark, twisted type of film. You need to have a good sense of imagination and I can imagine forever,” he says.
“But now imagine if all the famous, rich, successful people in society spent even five per cent of their time helping the world. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Life is not a vertical thing, it’s horizontal. It’s about touching people.”
The Vancouver premiere of Journey of a Dream is scheduled for Sept. 16 and 17 at the Denman Cinemas. Showtime is 7 p.m. There will be live music, a wine bar and a Q&A with Khymsar at the event. The Denman Cinemas are located at 1779 Comox St. in Vancouver’s West End. For more information on Journey of a Dream, visit www.journeyofadreammovie.com.