Not long ago, I was contacted by a musician who asked if I’d like to take a listen to her music. Sure, I said. Lord knows I tend to let musical musings get drowned out in a sea of rants against the man. Besides, Ravenna Michalsen’s music is Dharma music.
And she’s got quite a bit of talent. Mostly, her new album “Bloom” is of the folk/pop variety, and my long-time readers know that this isn’t exactly my forte. Growing up and listening to so much The The and Bauhaus ruined me to the happy stuff. (If I’d wanted something uplifting I’d put Kid A on heavy rotation.) But despite my own faults as a listener, I can tell that Ms. Michalsen’s got a lovely voice and I whole-heartedly encourage you to go and check out her music.
The fact that it’s honest-to-Buddha Dharma music makes me happy, though. There’s quite a bit of Dharma music out there in there in the world, and I guess it’s easy to find. Finding the diamond in the rough is the tricky part. The Rev. Heng Sure hooked up with a couple of his dharma-buddies a few years back to record some music. It’s a little Mamas and Papas, if you’re into that kind of thing. Finding ambient, trance, electronica artists who have co-opted various forms of Buddha, bodhisattva, and sunyata, is as easy as falling off a truck — if you’re into that kind of thing. For something real cool in this genre, though, might I suggest the album Layering Buddha made entirely of loops from the ever-popular Buddha Machine. And, of course, there’s all kinds of traditional Asian Buddhist music out there that is just plain wild. If I had the time, energy, and inclination, I’d love to use some of these chants, J-pop sounding melodies, and synthesizer harps to make some really cool mixes. But, alas, time, energy, and inclination are all things that I lack.
And of course, as some of you know, I’ve written about American Shin Buddhist music before which has a long and important history in this country. But, as much as I appreciate that history and as much respect as I have for the good folks who created that history, just like I seem to have an aversion to happy music, I have an aversion to “church music.”
There. I said it.
I’m reminded of a conversation Harry and I had (was it in a podcast? I can never remember) where we talked about the difference between devotional music in the Western and Eastern traditions. He mentioned something about European classical music being full of deep feeling, moving, etc., as compared to Eastern Buddhist music which is, well, different. I think there’s something to that, but I also think maybe there isn’t. I think it may be more accurate to say that our ears are trained to appreciate European classical music. I’m reminded now of this extremely old Chinese fellow who occasionally sits out in front of the downtown Berkeley BART station playing some kind of huqin, all high-pitched and squeaky, like a screaming cat. I love it. I mean, I wouldn’t put it on at a party or play it as background music while doing research. But I’m sure I’d feel differently if my mom had played nothing but Chinese opera instead of Simon and Garfunkel while we were growing up.
What would be really interesting, of course, would be something bringing these elements together. What would be really cool would be someone making music that brings together the best of both worlds. Which, of course, isn’t a radically new idea, and I think you could make a case for Ravenna Michalsen’s music being a representative example of just such a blending of traditions — hers is, essentially, devotional music directed toward her teacher, the Buddha, and the Dharma, but arranged in the Western musical tradition.
And of course there’s the ever-popular “Bodhisattva Vow” by the Beastie Boys. This one’s been talked about by none other than Alice of not2wo (I’ll second all those emotions). But I think it bears mentioning that on the original album, “Bodhisattva Vow” is preceded by an instrumental track called “Shambala.” Both of them feature samples of Tibetan throat singers. Regardless of your taste in music, I think this is super fascinating, and one of the reasons I keep coming back to hip-hop and turntablism in particular. It’s that mixing of once disparate sounds into new patterns, bringing together elements we think of as totally unrelated, and presenting them in new and unexpected ways that gets me every time.
Somewhat closer to home, we come back to my good friend and co-conspirator Harry. In addition to all his other wonderful qualities, Harry’s a bona fide musician. And an evil gunius. At this year’s IBS Winter Symposium, he spoke about non-representational Buddhist music. You need to watch the video of it. If for no other reason than the fact that he got a room full of a hundred Buddhist ministers to chant Ondokusan, death metal style. (It’s toward the end, at 39:20.) Brilliant.
Now that’s what I’m talking about. Bringing together the words of Shinran and the musical stylings of Scorpions. I don’t know if that’s the best of both worlds, but it’s a pretty freaking cool step in the right direction.
Your own recommendations and discoveries are, of course, highly appreciated!