Alo (ཨ་ལོ་) is a song found mostly in the valleys of central and eastern Bhutan. Popular among villagers, it is a purely vocal performance without the accompaniment of musical instruments. Unlike many other songs, there are no accompanying dance steps and is almost always performed solo.
Generally speaking, there are eight categories of Alo songs:
i) Lama choetoed ki lu (བླ་མ་མཆོད་བསྟོད་ཀྱི་གླུ་), songs of praise and prayers to lamas
ii) Choe dang drelwai lu (ཆོས་དང་འབྲེལ་བའི་གླུ་), religious songs
iii) Gyalpoi toed lu (རྒྱལ་པོའི་བསྟོད་གླུ་), songs in praise of kings
iv) Gyalkhap ki toed lu (རྒྱལ་ཁབ་ཀྱི་བསྟོད་གླུ་), songs in praise of the country
v) Ga lu (དགའ་གླུ་), songs of happiness
vi) Dza lu (སྐྱོ་གླུ་), songs of love
vii) Thrul lu (འཁྲུལ་གླུ་), songs of sorrow
viii) Tashi moen lu (བཀྲ་ཤིས་སྨོན་གླུ་), songs of good wishes
Alo are generally classified under thrrul lu or songs of sorrow. These folk songs are passed orally and are not associated with sacred or spiritual topics; rather, they focus more on the human condition. The types of Alo vary across Bhutan, and the locations are often reflected in their nomenclature: Kurtodpai Alo, Tshangla Alo, Yangtsepai Alo, Mangdepai Alo and Dungsampai Alo. Alo have very long tunes, like the Zhungdra (གཞུང་སྒྲ་) genre of Bhutanese music, but unlike Zhungdra, Alo do not address sacred topics.
Bhutanese sing songs according to specific social contexts and purposes, and the choice of appropriate song(s) is considered to be very important. A famous saying admonishes:
“Don't sing sad songs at celebrations; don't sing happy songs at mourning.
Don't sing war songs at marriage; don't sing love songs while subduing an enemy.
Don't sing songs at times of sickness and death.”
Alo are sentimental songs, and are usually sung after the departure of a friend, relative, or a loved one. People also often sing them while they are working alone in a field or tending the cattle. A famous Alo goes as follows:
“I don’t wish to sing Alo but my sadness and karma compel me to do so. If I sing Alo, my throat constraints me from doing so. The sun is going further away and the shadow is coming closer. It not just the sun going, but my life. It is not just the shadows coming, but my death.”
In these words, the similes of the sun and shadow are used to demonstrate the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death. The similes also show the wish to live the sunny bright life although the darkness and the shadow of death is an unavoidable part of the cycle of life.
Alo songs capture specific sentiments in Bhutanese life, whether the sadness is about the general dissatisfaction or a specific experience such as the departure of a loved one. They are commonly sung by women.
Sonam Chophel and Karma Phuntsho. Sonam Chophel was a researcher at Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research and Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.