Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Monk who mesmerised the world…

Prologue:

For centuries altogether, Buddhist monks and monasteries have been shrouded in secrecy. Cut away from the world, the monasteries form a world in itself; a world where humanity and the basic tenets of the human condition are still part of the lifestyle of the monks. As a religion, Buddhism is a path of practice and spiritual development leading to insight into the true nature of life. Buddhist practices like meditation are means of changing oneself in order to develop the qualities of awareness, kindness, and wisdom.

The Power of Sound

Religion is sound. This is how the high priests of Tibetan Buddhism describe the importance of music in their worship. For Tibetean monks, Buddhist chants form the path for their liberation. The life of a Tibetean monk involves practicing compassion for all people with the studying and memorization of sacred texts at the core of this practice. This memorization is carried out by constant oral repetition to a specific tune to which it is later chanted.

Tibetean Buddhist chants were first performed in front of the western world audience after Dalai Lama escaped to India following the Chinese invasion of Tibet. One of His Holiness Dalai Lama’s followers, Geshe Ngawang Tashi Bapu has mastered the unique multi-phonic chanting style and popularised it’s mysticism in the western world, to become the first monk and one of the very few Indians to be nominated for the prestigious Grammy awards. His achievement does not end here. After performing the sacred Buddhist chants with top celebrities all across the world, he has come back to the monasteries and tried to introduce some of the new technological advances in the traditional Buddhist monasteries.

A Monpa, Lama Tashi was born to Krishok and Karma Tashi of Thembang village of West Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh. His primary education begun at the age of 6 when his father enrolled him in the newly opened primary school of the village – Pangona Government school – where he studied till the eight standard. A further spell of three years of study in Government Namshu School ensued before he was initiated into the Gontse Gaden Rabgeyling monastery in Bomdila to complete the foundation course of his education. During the same time, the monastery relocated to Karnataka as the Drepung Loseling monastery, where he stayed for twenty long years to complete his higher studies. In Drepung Loseling monastery, Tahi’s major subject was ‘Philosophy in Debate system’, which is a Socratic view of Tibetan Buddhism.

It was in Drepung Loseling monastery that Tashi had his first brush with multi-phonic chanting or the one-voice chant, as it is more commonly known. Thought to arise only from the throat of a person who has realized selfless wisdom, throat or multi-phonic chanting is defined as multiple tones emanating from a single larynx. The harmonic frequencies created by the human vocal apparatus are harnessed in throat singing to select overtones by tuning the resonance in the mouth. The result of tuning allows the singer to create more than one pitch at the same time, with the capability of creating six pitches at once. “Multi-phonic chanting is in vogue in Mongolia though it is prevalent here as well. It is characterised by a deep, vibrating voice, which is produced continuously for 8-9 minutes at a stretch,” says Tashi.

The Tibetan monks believe, that in the creation of the ‘One Voice Chord’, the monks do not ‘make’ the sound. Rather, they become a vehicle through which the sacred sound may manifest. This is a basic principle contained in the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of sacred sound. Tibetan multi-phonic chanting has its own characteristic sound, which has been compared to the Australian Digeridoo or resonance of a drum.  The chants are usually metrical, in both symmetrical and anti-symmetrical measures, and the chant is produced by a close-throated, constricted style, deep in pitch. Tashi tells me, “I mastered the multi-phonic chant and was appointed as the Umzey or Head chant-master of the Drepung Loseling monastery in 1999. I served in that capacity for five years before coming back to Arunachal Pradesh in 2004”.

Tashi got the opportunity to perform the famous Buddhist chant in front of the entire world, and also with top celebrities throughout the globe. Though Tibetan chanting was first experienced by Western listeners in 1967, since then, Tashi and the monks have traveled around the world, performing in prestigious places as Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House. A number of CD’s with Tibetan chanting has also been released, thanks to Tashi’s efforts.

It was in 1992 that it all started. The compassion, wisdom and vocal abilities of Lama Tashi so impressed the teachers and spiritual leaders of the monastery that in 1991 he was chosen as one of the monks to travel the world on the Sacred Music and Dance tour of 1991-1992. For 11 months, he traveled throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada performing on the tour. “We performed our chants in more than 100 cities all over Europe. It was a great learning experience,” he says. Tashi toured North America once again in 1999 as part of another tour sponsored by the Drepung Loseling monastery and the Richard Gere foundation. In April 1999, he performed for His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Curitiba in Brazil, alongside renowned Brazilian artists like Gilberto Gil. Later the same year, he led the multi-phonic chant before His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the World Festival of Sacred Music at the Hollywood Bowl in Pasadena, California and at Central Park in New York City.

The multi-phonic chant, like other aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, is also shrouded in mystery. The western world was particularly curious as to how a human being can produce multi-phonic sounds to give the impression of several singers performing together. Before leaving for the second leg of his world tour, two groups of medical experts had examined Tashi’s throat to unravel the secret behind his vocal chords, not to mention the numerous tests that Tashi had to undergo at hospitals in Canada and the United States. A bemused Tashi recounts, “Once they (doctors) even inserted a camera through my nose to look at my throat. I don’t know anything else but I felt very sleepy when my throat was being examined”.

Tashi and his group of Tibetan monks started recording the Tibetan chanting albums after coming back from the 1992 tour. Finally it was the Tibetan Master Chants that elevated Lama Tashi to international stardom. Tibetan Master Chants was nominated for the 2005 Grammy awards in the Best World Music category. The Singing Monk, Tashi was one of the nominees in the Best Traditional World Music category at the 2006 Grammy Awards.

The album, Tibetan Master Chants, is a unique collection of 12 Buddhist religious hymns rendered in Tashi’s sonorous voice, accompanied by a traditional gong and cymbals. “Vibrating my vocal chords and producing multiple overtones with deep sounds while chanting the mantras is the specialty of the album,” the monk, who loves Hindi film music and folk songs, says. The unassuming 38-year-old tribal monk says that he never in his “wildest dreams” expected to be in the running for the coveted prize when he started chanting Buddhist hymns and added, “I only wanted to spread peace and love in the world through the traditional Buddhist chants”.

Recounting the Grammy nomination, Tashi – the principal of the Central Institute of Himalayan Studies at Dahung, Arunachal Pradesh – says, “We did some dubbing so as to give the feeling that the mantras are being chanted by a huge group of people. Some journalists and musicians in America asked me if I was a rocker. I said I want people to listen to our hymns and get peace of mind. I have dedicated my life to Buddhism and the Grammy nomination is indeed recognition of our beautiful religious hymns that symbolize peace and love”.

Tashi has rubbed shoulders with the biggest names in the world entertainment industry. Hailing from a monastery and having his roots in a remote village of north eastern India, has the success had any effect on him? Tashi doesn’t feel so, “Sometimes I feel that I’ am really lucky to have met stars. But from a spiritual point of view, it is not such a big deal”. Even if the limelight didn’t affect the monk, there must have been some kind of a conflict between his monastic upbringing and way of life with the far more liberal western culture. It would be a travesty of the truth to say that Tashi was not affected by the outside world for he was instrumental in introducing modern technological gadgets inside the monasteries. He has played a major role in taking Tibetan Buddhism to the 21st century by introducing many monks of his monastery to the internet and e-mail. He says, “Exposure has a lot to offer. I began studying basic English in the monastery but it was through my travels and performances that I became fluent in the language. I remember carrying two dictionaries with me at all times and would constantly engage people in conversation in order to better my language skills. It’s only when you travel that you realize the positive aspects of other cultures and try to introduce them in your own traditional cultures”. He added, “I never wanted to change the system but just try and take in the positive aspects of the outside world inside the monastery. As head chant-master, I had thought of installing broadband connection inside the monastery to transmit to the outside world the happenings inside. We did bring in some important changes in the field of education and healthcare though”. It is also a lesser known fact that Tashi planned to preserve the Tibetan chants in digital format so as to aid in its preservation. When asked, he said, “See, I was trying to preserve the rich Buddhist traditions. As Head chant-master for four years, I tried a lot of things. However, you can say that it didn’t really meet up to my calls”.

Tashi has fond memories of his early monastic life. He grins, “I love the monastery very much. During my entire childhood, I was lost in monastic studies”. Life in a monastery is difficult with the stipulations and regulations. This is evident as Tashi recounts, “I used to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and study the whole day to go to bed only at around 2’0 clock at night. We didn’t really have good food nor the basic hostel facilities but it has made me what I am today. Coming to my question on conflict between traditionalism and modernity, Tashi grins and says, “If you live the western style of life, you will become spoilt – you won’t study, you’ll become bad. Though I wish that monastery should become more modern but at times, I also wish that people should spend at least a part of their early lives in monasteries. With so much of technology and modernity around, man tends to forget his principles”. He added, “I seriously feel that both the outside world and the monastery have a lot to learn from each other. Monasteries have its own way of living, it own world. On the other hand, western society has its own rules of conduct. Monasteries should also learn from outsiders while outsiders should also learn from monasteries”.

Spending almost one-third of his life inside the closed environs of the traditional monasteries and then suddenly encountering the whole, bad, wide world must have been difficult for Tashi. It would be completely natural to expect that the outside life must have worked a bit of its charm on the monk. He disagrees though. “As a monk, I took the four roots vows – shall not kill, shall not lie, shall remain a celibate and shall not steal. Of course, we took a lot of other vows like being sincere, staying away from intoxicants, etc. It becomes very difficult to practice those vows in modern society. Everywhere you go, everyone is trying to cheat you, trying to take your belongings away. But if you can practice those vows, that is what makes you a truly great man”. He adds, “Where is the world going? Everyone wants to be rich, to be famous. And to reach that ambition, people resort to stealing, to lying and working with terrorists. That is the most upsetting part of living in the modern world – seeing the basic principles of mankind disintegrate before your eyes”.

The sun had long descended from the skies and the monks who were waiting beside us were slowly starting to make their way out of the room we were sitting in. I realized it was time for me to bid adieu to the celebrity monk. When you are in the presence of Lama Tashi, you are in the presence of compassion itself. I realized it was time for me now to experience that aura of peace and compassion itself as Lama Tashi said his goodbyes and sat down with the monks to rehearse the globally acclaimed ‘multi-phonic chant’. It was only then I realized the power of sound that captured the entire essence of those moments, moments I will forever cherish in my heart.

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Embracing Roots!

N.B.: This article is based on an article carried in the popular Manipuri e-portal http://www.e-pao.net (http://e-pao.net/yellout/rewben/index.html). Several parts of this article have been reprinted from the mentioned article. While I would seek apology for including the parts without their written permission, I hope it is negated in the wake of promoting Rewben’s music.

What is it about Blues music that keeps drawing me closer towards it? What is so special about its earthy authenticity that keeps me up all night, when I probably should not be, listening to the plethora of emotions that its practitioners let loose? I guess it’s probably the inspiration. Anyone who has ever listened to the ‘Blues’ will know that it is more than just music; it is, but, an inspiration, the unfolding of emotions that we all feel. Right from influential Blues legends like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and many others to more contemporary Blues artists such as Robert Cray, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Blues has always been and will continue to be part of out musical heritage.

I am sure that most of us have at least heard the names, even if it might be in passing, of these legendary Blues exponents. But how many of us are even aware of the existence of a musician in our midst who has given rise to an entirely new genre of Blues with his experimental brand of tribal music, at the same time, paving the way for the preservation and propagation of the rich traditions of his tribe? Meet Guru Reuben Mashangva — a wandering minstrel from the hills of Manipur who is popularly known as the father of the modern Naga Folk Blues! The principal exponent of ‘Hao Music’, this crusader has not only rediscovered and reinvented the variegated rich folk traditions of the Tangkhul Nagas, but he has also refashioned tribal musical instruments to suit the Western tonal scale. Though he might not have ‘toured the world’ as the word is understood in the current music ‘industry’ idiom, his assumed apostolic mission of popularizing his brand of music, singing of joy and travails and also reviving age-old traditional folk culture will not just evaporate without a trace. It will definitely have a cyclic impact on many generations to come.

One of the hallmarks in Reuben’s illustrious career was his painstaking efforts in the amplification and customization of the Tingtelia, a fiddle like traditional stringed instrument. Reuben had to experiment for almost a decade with the original Tingtelia in order to create a distinct sound that goes harmoniously smooth with the modern acoustic and electric guitar and harmonica. The other instruments which accompany his ‘Hao Music’ include Yankahui, a long bamboo flute, and a yak horn played with a mallet apart from an assortment of modern and traditional percussions.

Reuben Mashangva was born to Shangphai and Lasengla Mashangva in remote Choithar village of Ukrul district in Manipur. Though he did not enjoy a musical environment at home during his childhood, save for the sound of the Talla (a bamboo folk instrument) that his father occasionally played, Reuben’s love for his ancestral traditions was so deep that it continuously edged him to know more about his roots. A self-taught musician, Reuben’s first real brush with music occurred when he brought his first guitar at the age of 15, from a trader who ferried it on his shoulder across the border from what was then Burma. Made of Burma teak, these guitars were a much cheaper alternative to costly Indian guitars but at the same time, they were highly unpredictable. As Reuben, whose English still remains broken, says, “Sometimes they sound good, sometimes bad.” He started singing in church but his sole teacher was the radio, where he used to listen to western music programmes — his sole link with the western world and its music.

The turning point, however, came when a friend came over, bearing cassettes of Bob Dylan. The friend played Blowing in the Wind, and explained to Reuben the lyrics — line by line, word after word. And it was love at first instance. It might have been foreign music, to be sure, but how deeply it resonated with his landscape, he had thought. ‘“So relevant to our area,” he remembered thinking. “No drum, nothing, just guitar. Paddy field. Cows. Looking at the buffalo. So matching our area.” Voice of America Radio then acquainted Reuben with the Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival and later, Bob Marley. However, even after sampling so many different genres, he ultimately decided the Blues was what came closest to his people, except that the Blues, as he likes to say, began only 150 years ago. “Our folk is a thousand years old.” Though it is true that he has had early influences, over the years, Reuben has managed to carve a unique place for himself in the world on music and these so-called influences hardly matter much now. His musical journey, as well as that of his entire life, is best summed up in the song, My land and people, where he sings, Here I am, Here I am. Oh! The son of this land.

Having dropped out of school after his tenth standards (matriculation examination), Reuben ventured out of the protective environment of his family to try his hand at menial jobs around his ancestral abode. His love for his traditions and nature, however, did not ensure a secure livelihood and his family anticipated a dreary future for him. His first cousin, after much prodding, finally managed to make him go to Imphal and join an investment company — a place where he worked for five years. His job ensured that he didn’t have to worry about a living and he spent most of his time practicing his music. Incidentally, he conceived his first composition — a love song — during this very period. This was the time when he met Stephen Angkang, the president of the Thangkhul Naga Long and an authority in folklores, who introduced young Reuben with the beauty and immense artistic potentialities of their rich tribal folk traditions. Together with Angkang, he began playing the guitar and practicing folk songs, which used to be aired in the local radio station. Today, as Reuben erects milestones with his experimental brand of music, he cannot forget the umpteen visits he made to Ukhrul district and how he burrowed through the hills and dales looking for enlightening interactions with the gradually vanishing traditional folk crooners of his tribe. Each of these interactions had given him immense folk wisdom which would have otherwise been hidden or extinct. At the same time, he also embarked on several fact-seeking trips to the interiors where he learned about these folk arts and instruments. Some of the folk experts which guided him and whom he remembers today are Akhothing of Phungyar Village, Shamphang of Nungshang and Shimeingam Shinglei, who had all imparted rich insights on different folk art forms and the use of indigenous musical instruments to him.

Reuben, however, is not a mere practitioner or researcher of folk traditions. Besides unravelling the richness of his tribal heritage, Reuben has also managed to revive passion and interest in age-old tribal traditions by creating an innovative space for himself. Unlike many others who believe in just showcasing their skills, Reuben’s mission involves making others aware of the twine that binds all forms of sounds with life; the fact that innovation is a continuous process and also the possibilities of man-made sounds enjoying a harmonious relationship with nature. If he has received high accolades for his experimental folk music from the critics, he should also be credited for showing the way and inspiring many young artists towards innovative ways to preserve and develop folk music.

It was highly improbable that Reuben’s love for his folk traditions would supplement his fascination for western music, and at one point of time, a clash ensued between both. This clash can be said to have sown the seeds for the creation of his own brand of music — the Naga Folk Blues. Another factor was his deep desire for reviving the passion of his people for their rich tribal traditions. “Our folk music is boring,” he says. “Today, children do not go to paddy field. They do not go to village. They go to school, they travel in cars. We have to refine our folk music if we want them to be interested.” And to refine the folk traditions, Reuben chose the Blues, which is all about transmitting emotions. As he says, “When I started listening to music, I heard the story of the Blues. It is very similar to our folk. But it has proper structure. When I first heard the Blues, I realized that all music is ultimately the same; only instruments might be different.” Similarly, if one is to define it, the Naga Folk Blues is just a creative fusion of sounds deeply rooted in the many folk traditions of his tribe.

Talking about Reuben’s brand of Hao music, I was simply left awestruck once I saw him handling his acoustic guitar. The tribal folk musicologist so expertly wrenched notes from his guitar that it sent shivers up my spine. Using typical blues guitar techniques, and a whole lot of emotions, Reuben created a slow blues, absolutely heart wrenching versions of some popular as well as tribal songs, which was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was so raw, real and authentic that I was immediately blown away. Moreover, when it comes to music, instead of technical expertise over an instrument, I tend to be impressed more by the manner in which a musician coveys the emotions of the song, adds to them and enhances the overall mood. Anyone can learn to play blindingly fast with a million notes, but when someone can make their soul speak through the instrument, that’s what music is really all about. Judging from that aspect, Reuben is truly a gifted musician.

Having been listening to some of Reuben’s compositions for almost a month now, I found that all his songs manage to strike a chord with the listener — even people like me who do not understand a word of his dialect. Commenting on his experimental music, Reuben says that once anyone masters the given traditional folk musical roots, it is easy to fit in those elements into western music or add western elements to the folk. Most of Reuben’s compositions have the guitar sounds replaced by sound of folk instruments or folk instruments’ sound supporting and supplementing other sounds produced by modern instruments. But the one thing which remain constant is the emotions — pure, unbridled emotions having the capacity to bring the listener on the verge of sadness or unrivaled ecstasy. “Whenever I travel for my performance, my Tingtelia and bamboo flute always accompany me. Even when I get a chance to tour the world, it will be with this bamboo instrument and I am sure my audience and fans will love it,” he says, picking up his bamboo flute. He has so far released two seminal albums called, Naga Folk Blues and Creation.

And for someone whose love for his folk instruments and traditions is so deep, it is unlikely that the socio-cultural and political milieu in which he grew up would escape his compositions. Most of Reuben’s songs reflect his uncanny understanding of human life and its relationship with Mother Nature. Beauty of the feminine body as well as the grace of Nature’s abundant bounty is something which this wandering minstrel exploits with trademark finesse. Perhaps, it is his uncanny knack of understanding the relation between music and nature that has made his mission so vibrant and arresting. Alongside his journey, he has also gained copious amount of knowledge on human being’s harmonious as well as destructive relations with the land, forests and animals and the associative values attached to these very relations. Right from his first music album produced by the Naga Cultural Development Society in 1999, his passion and love for ecology has been unmistakably evident. Even while just enjoying Reuben’s kind of music, no one can do away with the intrinsic politics of poetics that is ubiquitous in all his songs, lyrics and the sound.

In an eventful career, Reuben has been sharing experiences with other pioneering musicians of Northeast India, like Rudy Wallang of Soulmate, master percussionist Momocha Laishram and Mangang, the famous Pena (indigenous folk fiddle) artist of Manipur. Having participated in several folk fusion projects, he has interacted and shared performing space with several international artistes. Reuben is also the founder of the Folk Art and Cultural Guild (FACG), Manipur and has taken part in many kaleidoscopic cultural shows and festivals in the State. He is married to Happy Mashangva, whose moral support had been unwavering and encouraged him in all his endeavors. They have raised three daughters and a son and are now settled at Nagaram, Imphal.

For a person who has dedicated his entire life towards finding his roots, the present trend of music in the region, which is more inclined towards western rock, bothers him a bit. But did not he begin his musical career after being influenced by western rock musicians? Over a lunch of rice, khar and fish curry, Reuben clarifies, “Different faces, different thoughts. I appreciate rock. But the question is about relevance. Can you relate to its lyrics? Here rock musicians are only imitating noise.” “It is noise music,” he adds with his characteristic warm smile. “Rock and folk are two different things; wherever I go, I take my culture with me. But is it the same about rock? How many of our young musicians know the roots of rock? But still they play rock. This type of music has no chance,” he says, in a bid to explain the futility of a life without having knowledge of one’s roots.

Dwelling further on the importance of roots, he says, “The current crop of young musicians in our region think that to be a successful musician, modern western music is the only option. I choose to differ. Our talented youth can become complete musicians only when they learn about their roots. Just as you can not ignore your parents even if they are blind or maimed, you can not ignore our age-old folk roots.” The idea becomes reassuring whenever one sees his little son, Saka Mashangva, accompanying him on numerous performances as a regular percussionist and ad hoc backing vocalist. In most concerts, the father and son duo not only sounds harmonious, but also looks breathtakingly adorable with their traditional attire and their traditional hairdo, Haokuirat.

A recipient of a National Folklore Support Centre fellowship, Reuben is presently working on his third album. This would be his first album of English compositions. One of the tracks in the to-be-released compilation that gives an overview of its entire essence is the one titled, Hornbill. The track is basically one of self-inspiration and it draws an allegory with the Hornbill bird, which he uses to represent the Northeast. “The Hornbill is a very powerful and expressive bird. Through this song, I want to break the fear psyche that has pervaded into the mentality of the people of the region.”

Some artists never received the recognition they truly deserve but if an artist can inspire others, than that is the biggest of all success. Beyond that, there is very little that really matters. For Reuben Mashangva, love for his traditions still reigns supreme in his mind, body and soul. The same is evident as he says, “I love music and I love my culture. I’ll do music till my last breath.” And the ecstasy of this man with an apostolic mission would know no limits, if some of his passion and enthusiasm passes on to some of the new generations of musicians as well. As he exhorts, “Go ahead! Don’t turn back. Without music, there is no fun. And without knowing your roots, your life has no meaning!”

Take a flight,

Reach out for your dreams.

Take a chance,

Spread your wings of hope.

Like the hornbills,

Your flight is your song.

(Reuben Mashangva in Hornbill)