Over the weekend (in addition to everything else) I received a “press copy” of a new, compilation CD from a company called More than Sound (that, oddly, has something to do with George Lucas): “Dhamma Gita: music of young practitioners inspired by the Dhamma.” While the fellow who sent me the copy didn’t say so explicitly, I suspect he sent it to me under the assumption that I’d do what I am currently doing blog about it. And I do have a couple of things to say about this album. One, I fear, may be more the purview of the Angry Asian Buddhist, but I think that it’s nevertheless important to say. So, if you’re of the opinion that these are just nut-job, guilty liberal tirades, feel free to skip the later half of this post. If, on the other hand, you’ve got an open mind to alternative points of views (not to mention music), by all means, read on. But the other thing I want to say about this compilation album is actually about the music which, on the whole, is quite good, Angry Asian-esque asides notwithstanding. So, without further ado, I think I’ll start with the good news.
Dhamma Gita is a collection of fourteen tracks by fourteen different artists, some solo, some bona-fide bands. Here’s what the press kit that came with the CD says about the artists:
Few of the young artists on this album define themselves as Buddhist musicians. Yet they are musicians who practice Buddhism, and the songs on Dhamma Gita arose from insights gained in their practice. Practice uncovers wisdom, formless of itself, given voice through the work of the practitioner and conditioned by the context of this life. These songs are present manifestations of that timeless, formless wisdom, expressed with creativity and with the joy of discovery. This is today’s dharma music.
I don’t think it’s worth debating what is, obviously, a marketing statement despite the fact that I’m of the opinion that just about all art, made with sincerity, expresses something formless. But that’s beside the point. What I find interesting and what I think really makes this CD good, is the fact that these are artists who don’t necessarily define themselves as “Buddhist musicians” (though I suspect many of them do; Ravenna Michalsen makes an appearance, and to the best of my knowledge, she does define herself that way). What this translates to, musically, is music that is music first, Buddhist second. Whereas I find much contemporary American Buddhist music to be dominated by, on the one hand, folky-retro-hippy-pop or, on the other, Anglicized-“Oriental”-world-music-trance, I find Dhamma Gita a welcome departure from both those genres.
The opening track could have been written by a punked-out version of the Old 97’s, a heavy-hitting song by Dave Smith and the Country Rebels called “White Lines.” A few tracks later, Travis Callison’s got a song that’s equal parts contemporary jazz and hip-hop that manages to somehow not sound like Us3. One of my favorite tracks is “Hello Mister June Bug” by Lela Roy. My readers who are familiar with current alt-pop artists like Rilo Kiley or Feist will like this one. Lela Roy’s got a nice, lilting voice accompanied by quiet guitars that almost immediately makes you feel like you’re having a picnic with your friends under an oak tree and clear blue skies but not in an overly sentimental way.
There are some downers here, of course. I’m not particularly into Monique Rhodes’ “Lama Care for Me,” one of the more overtly Buddhist tracks. It’s got some heavy chanting that sounds like a knock-off of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s Graceland and I love Graceland so I’m not sure why this track isn’t doing it for me. It may very well come up on shuffle at some point, years from now, when I’ve have had a glass of wine late one night and my wife is out of town and I’ll be in the right mood for it and it’ll bring tears to my eyes. So, it’s that kind of track. Similarly, the last track on the album is all synthesizers and ambient noise. I get it. But it seems overpowered by the half-dozen tracks that are, if nothing else, country.
That’s right. There’s a surprising amount of country on this album. And I don’t mean twangy, my pick-up broke down and my wife left me country, I mean early Uncle Tupelo, experimenting with old factory, coal mining, and company-town songs, folk music in the truest sense of the word. To the extent that I love that shit, I have to give this album its due.
Like I said, on the whole, it’s good. And I’m happy to have received it.
The Bad News
Okay. Now for the bad news. There are fourteen tracks on this album from fourteen different acts. According to their bios in the accompanying press kit, it looks like they’re all from the U.S. And judging by a combination of their family names and little pictures, they’re predominately white.
Again, from the press kit: “The inspiration for this album arose from our personal experience with the vast creative space of meditation practice, combined with the wish to represent the unique voice of a new generation of young Buddhists.” A combination of equating “Buddhism” with “mediation practice” and a roster of artists who are mostly of Euro-American descent has created not a full, diverse picture of American Buddhist music but merely a slice of it.
If you drop the word “meditation” from your description of “Buddhism,” you become open to a much wider diversity of practice traditions which have inspired plenty of Buddhist music. Speaking from my own tradition, the Buddhist Churches of America has been in the music business since it’s inception. Every Sunday, temples across the country sing gathas set to Western-style music that is the very definition of home-grown, written right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. by American Buddhists. Yes, a lot of this music is pretty bad. It’s exceedingly churchy in the Protestant Christian sense of the word. But it’s still American Buddhist music in the fullest sense of that phrase, and it’s being continually renewed. In addition to Dhamma Gita, I also received over the weekend a CD of new Shin Buddhist gathas written within the last year or two. In other words, this, too, is “today’s dharma music.” (Watch this series of talks to learn more about the BCA’s musical heritage.)
And there’s also this. Let’s not forget these guys who are completely self-identified Buddhists making music inspired by, among other things, Buddhism, hip-hop, jazz, and 1960s-era progressive rock.
If we expand the notion of the “U.S.” to include Hawai’i, which we really should, we can also include Jake Shimabukuro. This music is a combination of his own particular Hawaiian-Buddhist-Japanese-American cultural heritage. And it’s good. Damn good.
Let me be clear: I am not bemoaning the producers of this CD, I am not calling anyone a racist, I am not making the claim that they’re all a bunch of racist bastards who we should summarily boycott until they print a retraction and put out a CD with more non-white faces in it. Far from it. I am fully aware of the fact that I am making a fairly large assumption of white hegemony here as I don’t know, for a fact, any of these artists ethnicity. Moreover, they’ve drawn acts from what’s pretty obviously a wide diversity of Buddhist practice traditions, despite using the Pali “dhamma” which would suggest merely a Theravada slant. There’s much to love about this CD. So, all I am saying is that this is not today’s dharma music it is some of today’s dharma music. This is not the end of the American Buddhist musical experience, and my hope is that we can discover even more of it.
Hopefully this is not the end of More than Sound’s attempts to bring American Buddhist music out into the limelight. Hopefully they’ll make a follow-up album, a number of follow-up albums. And hopefully, when they do, they’ll look beyond the confines of the meditation retreats and into the hundreds of churches and temples across the country to find even more musical gems. Because they’re out there. And all of them deserve their turn under the spotlight.