Ngawang Choephel was born in 1966 in Tibet. He fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1968 as a two-year-old boy, when his mother Sonam Dekyi carried him on her back through the Himalayas to India.
Growing up in the Tibetan refugee settlement of Mundgod in southern India, Ngawang Choephel was enthralled by the music of the land he had left behind, and he found that traditional music was just about the only link he had to home. As a teen, he made a dranyen (a six-stringed lute) from a gourd and fishing line and taught himself to play.
In 1992, after graduating from the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts in Dharamshala, India, Choephel earned a Fulbright scholarship and spent a year studying ethnomusicology and filmmaking at Middlebury College in Vermont.
He planned to use his new training to preserve Tibetan song and dance — traditions that were endangered because Tibetan teens were more interested in pop music, and because Chinese officials were conducting a systematic campaign to obliterate Tibetan culture.
But when Choephel returned to Tibet, things began to go wrong. Barely a month after he arrived in August 1995 to begin making a documentary on traditional music and dance, he was detained by the Chinese government and held incommunicado. No official announcement of his status was made until December 1996. When he was finally brought to trial in a closed court, it found him guilty of "espionage and counter-revolutionary activities", and handed down a sentence of 18 years, one of the longest ever given to a Tibetan political prisoner.
He was released after six years on medical parole in February 2002. He now lives in New York City pursuing his filmmaking career.