“Dharmasong” by Ravenna Michalsen

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Ravenna Michalsen Dharmasong

Ravenna Michalsen’s new CD of dharma-inspired songs is gutsy, powerful, and deeply devotional. Reviewer Sunada gives her ringing endorsement of this original and inspirational music.

(Also see Bodhipaksa’s interview with Ravenna).

From the very opening bars of Dharmasong, I was immediately captivated. The first track, “Ki Ki So So” begins with a gentle, rhythmic chant reminiscent of a trotting horse — it’s Ravenna’s multi-tracked voice in a compelling percussion loop that becomes the backdrop for her soaring a cappella vocals that follow. It immediately brought to my mind’s eye images of the wild and rugged beauty of Tibet, and a bird of prey sailing through the sky. I learned from the artist’s website that the chant originates from Tibet, and is used to rouse our windhorse energy. The windhorse is a mythic Tibetan creature that combines the strength of a horse with the swiftness of the wind, and represents a powerful and fearless energy that overcomes all obstacles.

This was my introduction to the totally original and wonderfully imaginative vocal artist, Ravenna Michalsen. Dharmasong is her second CD, a collection of eight original and ancient dharma-inspired songs. (Her first CD, Bloom, came out about two years ago.) This is definitely not the kind of namby-pamby wallpaper music you hear while getting a massage at your local spa. It’s gutsy, powerful, colorful, and as deeply devotional singing as you’ll ever hear. Think Buddhist gospel music and that’s what Ravenna does. Her pure and clear voice is skillfully combined with a lush and atmospheric soundscape, and the sparse textures help to spotlight the breadth of her emotional range.

Two of the songs, “The Contemplation Song” and “The Departing Aspiration Prayer” are original settings of ancient lyrics written by Milarepa, an 11th century Tibetan mystic. Another is an original devotional chant for Tara, the bodhisattva of compassion. On this track, Ravenna’s improvisational-style vocals expand into an aerial four-part harmony, accompanied by a background of softly ringing wind chimes. Other songs are completely original music, lyrics, and inspired performances featuring Buddhist figures such as Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava, the man who brought Buddhism to Tibet), Yeshe Tsogyal (Padmasambhava’s consort, main compiler of his teachings, and a master in her own right), Machig Labdron (one of very few female lineage holders in the Tibetan tradition, and who lived in the 11th/12th century), and Marpa Lotsawa (the great teacher and translator credited with transmitting many Buddhist teachings from India to Tibet). Each of these songs traces yet another journey through Ravenna’s many devotional moods.

Ravenna is really in a class of her own. It’s her intent to try to jumpstart an American Buddhist music movement. This is totally in keeping with Buddhist tradition. Wherever Buddhism traveled and encountered a new culture, it transformed itself by melding with the customs and aesthetic sensibilities that it met. And it’s that transformation that allowed the dharma to take hold and flower in each new place. So I think it’s a wonderful development to see this starting to happen here in America – the hopeful beginnings of a new, home-grown style of music inspired by the dharma. May her music flower and grow, inspiring others to find the dharma in their hearts!

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