Category Archives: Asia

Tashi Lhunpo Monks – ‘Dawn Till Dusk’

I suppose that in a way we have the 1960s ‘counterculture’ hippy scene to thank for the level of interest in ‘world music’ that exists in ‘the West’ these days. For example, most people know what a sitar is, even if they don’t know anything about ‘Indian music,’ and that’s entirely thanks to Ravi Shankar’s friendship with The Beatles. Along with music, there was at that time a growing interest in beliefs and traditions of other parts of the world. The Beatles had their gurus, Swami Bhaktivedanta brought ISKCON (the Hare Krishna movement) to the US and Tibetan Buddhism became fashionable too. Presumably this was for the same reasons as the growth of interest in foreign music: the search of something, like, deep and meaningful man, instead of the materialistic garbage that The Man feeds us in our heavy society that just drags you down and harshes your freedom. That might have been the reason that teenagers were interested in such things then; the upshot of all that nowadays is middle-class ladies who go to weekly ‘yoga’ classes and will happily share opinions on chakras or whatever else.

I’m not here to complain about all that. People can believe whatever helps them get through the day. What’s frustrating though is when such people think what they believe, practise or pay lip service to is genuinely representative of the ancient mystic wisdom of the East or whatever (that is of course the big irony, that people who ‘believe’ in the wisdom of such things will still couch it in Orientalist terms). While it’s irritating to hear someone think they understand an ancient philosophical system because they go to what is effectively an exercise class once a week, what’s more annoying and saddening is that people who genuinely are within those traditions subvert or dilute them in order to appeal to the Starbucks Yoga set.

Perhaps that’s not fair. Again, people can do as they like, and who am I or anyone else to proclaim that music isn’t ‘authentic’ enough. If someone from Tibet, India or wherever else wants to make an album full of acoustic guitars and electronic keyboards, good for them. But personally speaking, albums full of swooshing synths and the occasional snatch of what is supposed the sounds of monks chanting are not remotely interesting. Such superficial elements of ‘foreigness’ are the aural equivalent of ordering a chicken korma and chips in an India restaurant. What is far more interesting to listen to is the actual sound of Tibetan monks chanting. You may well presume that the sound of monks chanting in a foreign language can’t be very interesting or dynamic. Not a bit of it – church hymns it ain’t:

 

That performance is by the monks of Tashi Lhunpo, the monastery which is the traditional home of the Panchen Lama, the most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. Given the current state of Tibet (excuse that unfortunate wording), the monastery now exists in exile in the south Indian state of Karnataka. ‘Dawn till Dusk’ is their first internationally-released recording, and it provides about as good an introduction to sacred Tibetan music as you could hope for. Different monasteries have their own particular style, relating to one of four key ‘schools’: for example, the Gyüto monks, who achieved some fame in the US thanks to recording for the Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart in the 1970s, use bass tones which are so deep that it’s genuinely unbelievable. While Tashi Lhunpo don’t use notes that are quite as deep, at least not on this album, there is still the use of a ‘groaning’ style voice that seems to lead the chants, which can be quite disconcerting at first. It approaches the sound of Inner Asian overtone singing, used by bands like Huun Huur Tu, and interestingly there is some evidence that that singing style spread to Inner Asia as Buddhism did.

What really gets me about this album though is the harmonies. Many of the tracks feature boy monks singing alongside their elder counterparts, often in very large numbers, and the different tones of their voices, along with the subtly different melodies the different singers produce, is quite amazing to hear. All the chants are acappella, and the fact that only the voices control the flow of the music creates a very ordered, methodical feel that can be strangely relaxing. This is linked to the texts which are used for the chants, which include various mantras and prayers. The liner notes include excellent explanations of what each text is about; they range from prayers for the Dalai Lama’s longevity to offerings to Tantric deities to a (surprisingly short) version of the most famous Tibetan Buddhist prayer, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum.’

 

It’s difficult to find representative samples of the sound of this album on Youtube, but there’s plenty showing the monks’ visits to various parts of the world to perform educational shows which feature music, dance and discussions of their rituals. This clip also shows the sound of the dungchen, the long horns which can be three metres long and sound like angry elephants. ‘Dawn till Dusk’ includes three tracks which give a sound of the monastery’s instrumental music, which includes the dungchen, gyangling (oboe), dung-kar (conch shell trumpet) and ritual cymbals. This music is just as intriguing as the chanting. The clattering of the cymbals in particular can seem very odd at first, but it certainly never sounds dull.

Groups from Tashi Lhunpo do tour fairly frequently, and they’ve released two further albums since this one. If you want a genuinely representative sound of Tibetan ritual, this would be a good starting point – there’s not a keyboard in earshot. What you will hear is music that is about as different from Euro-American pop-rock as it’s possible to get. It’s worth acquiring a taste for: although much could be made of the relaxing (don’t say ‘meditative’, because it isn’t!) qualities of the music, those interweaving, shimmering harmonies mean that this is actually a record to pay close attention to when you’re listening. Most of the tracks are fairly short too (under two minutes), meaning that the different chants can easily be heard as individual performances. The texts might preach peacefulness, but this isn’t background music. Recorded in situ at the monastery, this record is a good balance between a sense of the monks’ everyday rituals, and a performance that’s being put on for an uninitiated listener; it’s evocative without sounding too daunting or intrusive.