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Lama Tashi: The Monk Who Will Headline a Music Festival

The Grammy-nominated Buddhist sage will perform traditional chants to a rock-loving audience at the second edition of Orange Festival in Arunachal Pradesh this week

Sanjiv Valsan Dec 15, 2015
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Lama Tashi (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage for The Recording Academy) *** Local Caption ***

Lama Tashi at the Grammy Awards in 2006. Photo: Gregg DeGuire/Getty Images

 

Geshe Ngawang Tashi Bapu, better known as Lama Tashi, is something of a maverick among Buddhist chanters; his openness to modernity is as impressive as his commitment to keeping his music traditional, and he’s equally comfortable chanting Buddhist mantras in monasteries as he is at rock festivals. The ‘multi-phonic’ chanter, who likes to call himself a secular monk, also often collaborates with contemporary artists, and has performed with the likes of artists such as the veteran American singer-songwriter Patti Smith, Michael Stipe [of US rock band REM], Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and Sheryl Crow, among others. Tashi was also the first Buddhist monk to be nominated for a Grammy Award in 2006 in the ‘Best Traditional World Music Album’ category.

This week, Tashi will be performing traditional Buddhist chants to a rock audience at the Orange Festival in Dambuk, Arunachal Pradesh, between Dec 15th and 18th. In this candid interview, the jolly Arunachali monk who hails from a remote village near the Indo-Tibetan border, speaks about how and why he plans to bring secret art forms from the monasteries into the public domain.

What exactly goes into your multi-phonic chanting?
Usually, we use our normal voice while chanting, but in multiphonic chanting, you create a vibration from your deep throat. So rather than a regular voice, it’s a resounding one from the deep throat hitting different notes simultaneously. It’s more like the sound of vibrations than a human voice — closer to a musical instrument. You chant low frequency, middle and high pitch together. That’s what makes it multi-phonic. I don’t know if it’s really an appropriate analogy, but it’s like three strings of a guitar playing together in one strum.

Many Westerners think that given the shape of the vocal cord, it’s impossible for a single throat to make different sounds together. In a lab test in the US, they found two things — I was hitting all these notes together, since their mics could pick up sounds on different levels separately. They also found that my vocal cord was a bit different. Because of vibrations from my chanting, the shape[of the cord] itself had probably altered.

Is this chanting done more for the chanter or the listener?
Both. It helps the listeners as well. While chanting, we’re recite mantras composed by enlightened beings. It concentrates the practice of meditation…[through chanting] we also send vibrations to the body and its chakras. In the monastery, all our daily activities like classes, debates and prayer ceremonies begin with chanting.

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How is Buddhist monastic music conceptually different from modern music?

I have an American music therapist friend who once told me that the basic concept of modern music or whatever we choose to call it, is that it’s usually to meant to change or boost the emotion of the listener. If someone is happy, the music seeks to make him happier. If he’s sad, we may figure out how to change that or boost even that emotion, and so on. Sometimes it can also be used to make someone aggressive using sounds. So it’s mostly about affecting or controlling emotion. Monastic music is mainly to boost our inner practice, especially concentrative meditation, not any kind of emotion. Negative emotions can obviously interrupt meditation, but sometimes even too much joy can disturb it. So, to develop the mind, make it more effective to focus on the meditational object, that’s what monastic music is about.

Was joining a monastery a difficult choice for you?
Not really. I grew up in a remote village in Arunachal Pradesh. We lived traditionally, ate what we grew, and made our clothing too. The closest road was around 20 km away. Had I decided to stay, I wouldn’t have had access to education. So it really wasn’t a difficult decision. One of my interests was Buddhist philosophy. I was young and didn’t know about any other kind of life yet, so there were no contradictions involved in choosing; having grown up in that very ancient and traditional way of living, the monastery was the perfect place to continue my life. I learned philosophy and got interested in multi-phonic chanting and a form of traditional debate where you learn by arguing with your peers. I was completely focused; I came back home for my first vacation only after five years! That’s how much I was completely dissolving into the monastic way

It’s a happy coincidence I was at your village a few months ago, and even stayed at your house, and here we are!
(Laughs) Really? I didn’t know! It’s… really interesting! Now we have roads and electricity, back then we didn’t.

There’s some value in that way of life though, though. They’re talking of putting your village on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Yes, that’s on now. It is on the tentative list of villages in the World Heritage List

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How did the Grammy nomination change in 2006 things for you?
(Laughs) Well even though I was nominated, my recording was still completely Buddhist chanting, so for me it’s the same. Many people think, you know, this is monastic tradition, it shouldn’t be on the stage, or that monastery art is just for the monastery, that it somehow it doesn’t really qualify as ‘music,’ but the nomination clearly recognises them as quality art forms.

You’re probably one of the first Indian Buddhist monks to have collaborated with Western musicians…
I sang traditional chants and mantras, without modifying them. They would play their instruments to go with the chanting, so for me it wasn’t so different from regular chanting, because I was still performing my own music.

You’ll be the only monk performing to a rock music audience this week at the Orange festival in Arunachal Pradesh, your home state. How does it feel?
(Laughs) When people think that monastic music is not a part of ‘normal music’ or modern music, it excludes our art from society.What they don’t understand is that there are many people even outside monasteries who look at our music with respect, but appreciate it in a different way from the way we do. It’s their way of looking at it. So if they want us to perform, then why should we say, “No, this should be reserved for the monastery.” Monastery or modern, every form of music has its own importance. If people accept our music, then it becomes part of society. It’s good that people outside the monasteries can experience it as well.

We have a tradition of secrecy that we call ‘Sang Wa’. There are so many practices in the monastery which aren’t allowed to come out. Many of these ‘Sang Wa’ have now been lost, and now they’ve become secrets forever! And then nobody will ever get them in the end. It’s better to popularize them now, so when we need it, at least it’s still there. It’s like when you have something so important that you hide it in your home, and when you finally need it, you yourself can’t find where you hid it!

Is it challenging to perform to a rock audience as a monk?
(Laughs) Sometimes I get that feeling, yeah.

How do they react to your music when it’s suddenly so different?
(Laughs) Actually, they will get confused, right? Hahahahaha!

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