LAMA GYURME & JEAN-PHILIPPE RYKIEL
'RAIN OF BLESSINGS: VAJRA CHANTS' (CDRW85)
Lama Gyurme had his name bestowed on him by a Holy man. Not this name, the one that he was born with, but a title of honour bestowed thanks to his jaw-dropping talent. He is known as Oumze, Master of Music. Real World has always harboured the royalty of international music, but it seems as if, this time around, it has looked to the heavens as well.
Lama Gyurme ascribes to Tibetan Buddhism as a way of life. He rightly considers his voice a gift to be shared with the world, and elicits similar emotional responses from audiences in doing so. The Bhutan-born, France-based Lama Gyurme's extraordinary, guttural incantations, accompanied by the blind French pianist Jean-Philippe Rykiel, are on their Real World debut Rain of Blessings: Vajra Chants.
Vajra is the Sanskrit word for diamond; it represents the spirit's pure, sparkling essence. Taking the form of a small, spoked object, this ritual implement is used in tandem with a bell to symbolise the balance of male (vajra) and female (bell) energies necessary to enlightened living.
Performing live, Lama Gyurme sits cross-legged in his trademark saffron and bordeaux-coloured robe, surrounded by a myriad of tiny Tibetan oil lamps. His eyes are often closed. Though fluent in French, he rarely speaks in between the mantras. "These performances are like quiet moments amidst the bustle of the city," says Vajra Chants producer Jean-Michel Reusser. He adds that, occasionally, the Lama would perform at the end of 2,000 strong French raves ("we call them 'afters'"), aiming to provide much needed serenity to crowds fresh from hours of frenetic, often substance-enhanced, dancing. Despite the allegedly spiritual bent of many of these events, the Lama doesn't appear at them anymore. "Most people weren't of the right, ah, mental state, to appreciate where the Lama was coming from," Reusser wryly observes.
Born in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan in 1948, Lama Gyurme was attracted to monastic life from an early age, and it was in these monasteries that his love of sacred music was revealed. At the age of 20 he was deemed a Master of Music, an honour he integrated into his religious training as a teacher of the Kagyupa (meaning "transmitted word") Buddhist tradition, Tibet's third largest monastic order. Resident in France since 1974 - he visits Bhutan as regularly as he can - Lama Gyurme directs both the Kagyu Dzong Centre in Paris and the Vajradhara Ling Centre in Normandy. He spends two weeks of the month in each.
Rain of Blessings: Vajra Chants is Jean-Philippe Rykiel's second collaboration with the Lama. The first, 1994's The Lama's Chant (Sony Classical) went gold in Spain and received brilliant reviews everywhere else. "The Lama has his gold record in a small display case inside the monastery," smiles Reusser, who also produced their debut. The two came together through a female disciple of Lama Gyurme, who was also a close friend of Rykiel's. Rykiel, a Theolonious Monk-influenced composer and arranger for the likes of Salif Keita, Papa Wemba, Youssou N'Dour, Leonard Cohen and Jon Hassell, is drawn to those with musical gifts. On hearing that the Lama was a 'Master of Music', he expressed his desire to meet.
The two had a musical getting-to-know-you session over a cup of tea. "When he gave me
the tape of that session," says Reusser, "I was astounded. My first reaction was 'people must hear this'."
What helped make things unique was the way both collaborators maintained distinct musical paths. "They simply listened to one another," Reusser continues. "There was a lot of respect for backgrounds, but this was really beyond cultures. It was like two human beings coming together on parallel lines." The slow-burning success of The Lama's Chants got Reusser thinking about further collaborations. But Rykiel was reluctant. "The first one was magic at every level," says Reusser. "I've produced a lot of albums, and this was a very rare experience. We were caught in something that was beyond our control. Jean-Philippe wasn't sure he could still respectfully put Tibetan prayers with arrangements and do any better."
There was, he admits, a lot of dithering. Ideas were mooted ("We thought we'd do it with a full orchestra, but this proved impossible"), then dropped. It wasn't until Reusser visited Real World (to co-produce an album with Hector Zazou) that a conversation with Peter Gabriel renewed his enthusiasm. "Peter said he might be interested, so I came back to Paris and told Jean-Philippe that we should move our arses!" Reusser sent over some live tapes. Duly impressed, Real World snapped up the duo, and then gave them the creative freedom to do what they liked. So began a whole series of creative crises for Rykiel. "And a lot of mental sweat for the producer," grins Reusser. "Jean-Philippe just kept on saying, 'I can't possibly do it.' But luckily, the more he said this, the more beautiful the material became."
Rain of Blessings: Vajra Chants is a wondrous creation, excelling musically while keeping the transcendental aspects of the chants to the fore. Here are blessings intended to heal, purify, protect and liberate; making space for the listener to contemplate qualities all too often overlooked in Western culture. One of the Offering Chants, for example, is intended to broaden the spirit until the practitioner is open to 'the dimensions of the infinite'; another is a dedication for peace. If you concentrate hard enough during the fantastically monikered Six Syllable Mantra of the White Lotus Lord, you might just see Chenrezi, or compassion in its celestial form, holding a crystal rosary in one hand and a white lotus in the other as he chants Tibetan Buddhism's ubiquitous mantra, om mane padme hung.
All of this is delivered with sparse beauty through lovingly crafted arrangements. "We had a whole list of musicians we wanted to use," says Reusser, "but in the end we just kept one violin player (Florin Niculescu) on one track, and one kora player (Yakuba Sissokoh) on another. In that way it didn't become a celebrity diary and we kept the prayers in front because, basically, that's the idea. Everybody involved should be so proud with the result."
Following the release of Rain Of Blessings, Lama Gyurme and Jean-Philippe Rykiel have toured extensively in Europe, the Unites Sates Of America and in Asia, until 2003 when Jean-Philippe Rykiel released his second solo album, Under The Tree.
In order to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Songs of Awakening/The Lama's Chant (their first collaboration in 1994) a double album entitled The Lama's Chant was released in 2004 by the French label Last Call. This special edition was presented in a beautiful package and included a re-mastered version of the first album and a CD of the splendid live performances recorded during the tours in 1995/96 & 2000/2001. The latter titled, Road To Blessings included pieces from both Songs Of Awakening and Rain Of Blessings.
Though busy teaching Buddhist philosophy in both Vajaradhara Ling (located in Normandy) and Kagyu Dzong (located in Paris) the two religious congregations of which he is the Spiritual Director, Lama Gyurme still manages to find time to join Jean-Philippe Rykiel (himself busy as arranger/producer for many African projects) for regular concerts. In recent years, they toured in France, Belgium, Spain and Bulgaria.
Their third studio collaboration chants For Peace was released in 2010. All profits from this last album are going to the Temple For Peace project, a temple to be built on the grounds of Vajradhara Ling blessed by His Holiness the Dalaï Lama in August 2008.