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"Yungchen sings like an unearthly creature," Merchant says. "Her voice has the power to stop time and makes everything else in the world fall away. Her voice transports you."
The singer and her son emigrated to New York in late 2000. "America seemed like a monument or a flag to look up at," Lhamo says. As they did for all of us, the September 11th attacks shook her deeply. "That day, no matter how powerful you were, the sight of people falling from those buildings made everyone numb. I remember that feeling of helplessness. I think we all felt that. Then, of course, we all cried, no matter what country you were from. Now I travel the world, and when I see a city that looks like New York, it reminds me of that day." She was moved by the horrific events to compose the keening lament "9/11" for 2006's Ama (Real World), a New Age-tinted album that features the guest vocals of Annie Lennox. "This song begins and ends with chants reminiscent of a puja [Buddhist expression of honor, worship, and devotional attention] for the people who died, with prayers to ease their passage to another world," she explains. Lhamo continued to tour widely for the next few years, not releasing another album until 2013's minimalist Tayatha (Cantaloupe Music), a collaboration with Russian pianist Anton Batagov.
Lhamo's friend Merchant, a long-time Hudson Valley resident, encouraged her to move to Kingston. "She would always say, 'Yungchen, you should come up'," says Lhamo. "Natalie is a very special artist, and I'm very proud and honored that she took me in her arm[s]." After settling upstate in early 2014, she started the Yungchen Lhamo Charitable Foundation to assist Tibetans with direct relief supplies (food, clothing, shoes, artificial limbs, and medicine). In 2011, the organization launched an ongoing campaign to raise the desperately needed funds to construct an aqueduct in the Tibetan village of Nugchu (pop. 600). "The people have no place to get water there," Lhamo says. "They must walk for one hour in each direction into the mountains to get snow or ice to melt into water for their families and their animals."
Lhamo's association with Chiz's Heart Street came about one winter when she encountered a mentally ill homeless man in Uptown Kingston. "I saw he had no shoes and his feet were very bloody," she says. "I tried to talk to him and he was very angry and saying all these bad things to me—'Get away from me! I hate Asians! I will kill you!'—all of these kinds of things. But I went to him and I hugged him. I said, 'You can kill me. But only if you promise not to kill anyone else.'" The man calmed down and Lhamo walked him to her nearby apartment. There, she fed him hot tea and soup and washed his feet. "He said to me, 'No one ever did these things for me before. My mama, she did not want me.' Then he said, 'Can I call you Mama?' I told him yes, 'You can call me Mama. We are all mama for each other. We are all one.'" Lhamo offered to let the man stay overnight, but he declined. So she brought him a few blocks away to the Washington Street shelter.
"[Lhamo] is the most kind, selfless, and principled woman I have ever known," says Merchant. "She has endured great hardships in her life but holds no bitterness toward anyone and maintains a childlike innocence and wonder."
The exiled Tibetan performed on composer Johnathan Elias's 2011 album Prayer Cycle 2: Path to Zero (Across the Universe Records) and recorded some yet-to-be-released material with him and separately with producer Peter Asher (formerly of the British Invasion duo Peter and Gordon). On her own, she's planning a new album of healing Medicine Buddha mantras. "In Buddhism we know some sounds can heal the body," says Lhamo. "Yes, we must sometimes use Western medicine, still. But sometimes we think, 'I will just take this pill,' when maybe we don't need to take a pill. With these sounds, we can make ourselves and others feel better."