Chelsea Cowan


After the KINSHIP in Zanskar 2013 musical trek, Chelsea Cowan writes:

My time with the KINSHIP charity project in Zanskar, India was both memorable and life changing for me.  The idea of sharing my passion for music in a country I was in love with was such a dream to me that when the opportunity presented itself, I had to take it. Tansy and Tanzin were an absolute joy to work with and one can tell by their hard work and diligence in making this endeavor happen that their passion for music and working with children is incomparable. My colleague Hannah and I were a perfect match to collaborate as well and after a month of fundraising, promoting, and rehearsing to make sure the workshop was as fun as possible for the children, we both finally got on the plane not really knowing what to expect. I think both of us were completely taken by surprise with the unmatchable beauty of the Himalayas, the warmness and generosity of the people we met, and the incredible experiences we shared with the children we saw along the way.

Collaborating with the children of Karsha, Testa, and the Phuktal monastery was a truly eye-opening and enjoyable experience. The children were so imaginative and enthusiastic when it came to trying new things and I have no doubt that we enjoyed the session just as much as they did. It was incredibly interesting to me observing how children from the other side of the globe from my home reacted to seeing our instruments for the first time, making masks from paper and feathers, and dancing in a classroom setting for the first time as well (I’m assuming this is not a part of their curriculum…). I not only was able to share in these experiences but also in the gratification of the Karsha children singing the song we had just taught them all during their break/lunch time, the Testa children eagerly waiting outside of our tents at 7.30am to start, or the Phuktal students giggling as they tried a pair of maracas for the first time. It’s little moments like these that I think outreach musicians live for and they gave me renewed inspiration to continue more projects like this upon my return to the US.

The purpose of this idea was, of course, to bring a creative and engaging environment to children in Zanskar. However, I believe I learned just as much from the different cultural events we encountered on our journey through the mountains. Not many people can say they have been stuck behind a convoy of monks as they visited roadside villages in the Himalayas, of which we witnessed Zanskari traditional dance, singing, and costumes in their honour. We rarely stayed in hotels during our visit, instead staying at the homes of our supervisor’s relatives or at campsites. This allowed us to really see Zanskari life and get to know individuals at a deeper level. We also passed by old Buddhist temples on our trek and visited Phuktal monastery, something I never had dreamed I would experience at 23 years old. And to top off my trip, seeing the Dalai Lama pass by a few feet in front of me was a great way to end my time in Leh. However, not everything we experienced was so enjoyable… we also witnessed how corruption still plagues the state of Jammu and Kashmir with a conflict arising in the village of Padum. The dispute was between two different religious groups as well as police, resulting in riots, extreme vandalism, and a curfew being placed on the town. Luckily, we missed the violence by one day, but the family of Tanzin, our supervisor, did not and it was interesting hearing them speak of the day and how it unfortunately is not too uncommon in the state.

Reflecting on all that I had experienced over that month in Zanskar has put many things in perspective for me and has helped me to further solidify my philosophy of creative outreach and why I am a musician to begin with. It challenged me in many ways and we had to overcome many obstacles such as not speaking the children’s language, trekking in high altitude, landslides, crazy busy journeys, and constantly being in different places without a set plan. These obstacles, of course, made the trip more interesting and really pushed us musicians to use what we’ve been training most of our lives for instead of relying on things and comforts we take for granted at home. I now have hundreds of ideas for projects which I would like to implement back in my home state of Michigan, where creative outreach like this is unfortunately not as prevalent in schools as it is in the UK. My wish is that every musician could have this type of experience and be able to share it with their community, as it not only provides children with a fun and interesting way to learn and a way to creatively express themselves, but it also teaches them about a culture completely different from their own, which I believe is so important today and helps us grow into compassionate and respectful human beings. And what better way to learn about another person than through how they express themselves through the arts?


Hannah Bishop's diary of her experiences :


Karsha School, near Padum 15th-16th July 
After an epic journey to reach Zanskar (11 days since leaving London!), we were so excited to finally be meeting and working with our first group of children at Karsha School. There was time for one last rehearsal in the morning with the team which was much appreciate as Chelsea and I were a tad nervous about being able to fully follow the Gesar Epic script in Zanskari…! We headed to Karsha with Tanzin’s brother, Principal of the school, and were allocated 3 classes of children aged 7-9 years, 14 of them in total. We entered the classroom behind Tanzin, who was greeted to a very excited chorus of “Good Afternoon, Sir!” and quickly realised just how excited these children were. Chelsea and I took our instruments out of their cases to the sound of many gasps and giggles, they’d never seen anything like them before. Initially passing our instruments around the children, they were so cautious about handling them, much more so than if we’d done the same in the UK, in my opinion. It’s almost as if they had an inbuilt mechanism to take such great care over items which were not theirs and no-one had to ask them to be careful at all!

They loved hearing chapters 1 and 2, totally gripped by what Kalsang was telling them; laughing, exclaiming and joining in (Ki Ki So So!) enthusiastically throughout. They were absolutely fantastic at singing the song we taught them, for the next 2 days we kept hearing it echoing around the school in many different keys! Such a gorgeous thing to witness. We spent the rest of the afternoon making masks and puppets with them. The lack of creative learning in their everyday life was really apparent here – they all tended to copy each other (one or two had the odd different idea) as were not so able to think up their own creative ideas as the children in London were. Very interesting to see. Another thing that we noticed throughout our time at Karsha was that the children were brilliant at sharing the resources with each other, again without any prompting. They were happy to share a paintbrush between 3, a few strokes each and pass it round. Imagine the children in the UK having such patience!!

Day 2 arrived and we finished off the masks before lunch, starting the afternoon with chapter 3. We then played animal bingo – great for them to practise writing in English we thought – but again the copying occurred and all 14 children had chosen the same answers, therefore no winners of bingo at all! By this stage, a younger class in the school were so intrigued by what we were doing that they’d joined us with their teacher, saying things such as, “When are we going to get to do this?”, “Will you come back next year so that I can make a mask?” etc. We continued the afternoon with chapter 4 followed by composition, carefully showing the children each instrument we had in their basket and how to play it. Split into two groups, we had Kalsang and Tanzin as interpreters! Considering the children had never done anything like this before, they were so excited to try that they ended up producing some very impressive music. I tried to focus mainly on the‘story’ of our Yak, so that they had a clear image in their heads of what our music was to represent. They took on board the importance of watching me and listened very attentively. I couldn’t believe their confidence within such a short space of time, all playing their given instruments to the best of their ability. “Can we do it again now? With another animal?” Unfortunately no time, but after another game of equal chance (they loved this), we had to round off for the day. The school teacher who came to watch with the younger children was very enthusiastic about the project and we felt very happy leaving the instruments with her, confident that they would get used again very soon.

Testa School, Testa Village, 19th July

Having heard that the village school teacher had decided to go on holiday and therefore Testa School would be shut, I was somewhat disheartened. I couldn’t get my head around why the teacher would do this when they knew we had travelled so far to bring their children a workshop. But from the teacher’s point-of-view, their job is so poorly paid with little benefits, who can really blame him? The saddest thing of all is the future for the children, how can they ever expect to achieve their dreams without real schooling? One child told me he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. Without sponsorship, he won’t ever get there. Breaks my heart.

Still, we rounded up the children in the village when we arrived on the 18th and explained what we were going to be doing in our make-shift school (Tanzin’s Mother’s back garden!!) the next day and introduced ourselves. They all, 15 of them, seemed very excited and we told them to come back at 10am the next day. I’ll never forget waking up on 19th July at 7.20am to the sound of children’s voices. I staggered out of my tent in my scruffy old pajamas, hair like Shirley Bassey’s on a bad day, to find 8 children lined up behind my tent shouting “Julay!!” They were so excited that they’d come really early! We had to explain that we weren’t really ready!...

Workshop was great. Considering there was no teacher present, they were remarkably well behaved, only a few cheeky monkeys! Their singing was not as strong as at Karsha, as expected, but still very enthusiastic. The composition went very well, Chelsea and I were very impressed. There was a little bit of fighting as they all were desperate to try out all the instruments and we had to explain that it was very important for them to stick with the same one during the composition process. My group created a very exciting piece about a Fox, asleep in the mountains, snoring. Suddenly he wakes and is hungry so goes on a high-speed hunt and catches his prey! We played a great game of animal statues, lots of space for running around outdoors in our garden classroom. In the afternoon, all 15 children returned and we had to squeeze them all inside the house as it was raining. Chapters 3 and 4 followed by some lovely mask making, complete silence with the concentration! Tanzin caught some lovely feedback on camera at the end of the day.