LAMA GYURME & JEAN-PHILIPPE RYKIEL
'RAIN OF BLESSINGS: VAJRA CHANTS' (CDRW85)
Lama Gyurme had his name bestowed on him by a holy man. Not 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 in this case perhaps 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 emotional responses from audiences around the world. The extraordinary gutteral incantations of the Bhutan-born, France-based lama, accompanied by the blind French pianist Jean-Philippe Rykiel, are showcased 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 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 Himalayan 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. Residing in France since 1974 - and visiting Bhutan as regularly as he can - Lama Gyurme directs both the Kagyu Dzong Centre in Paris and the Vajradhara Ling Centre in Normandy, splitting his time between them.
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 Chant 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 toured extensively in Europe, North America and Asia.
Though busy teaching Buddhist philosophy in both Vajaradhara Ling in Normandy and Kagyu Dzong in Paris, , Lama Gyurme still manages to find time to join Jean-Philippe Rykiel (himself busy as arranger/producer for many African projects) for regular concerts throughout Europe.