A few months ago I received in the mail a CD called Dhamma Gita: Music of Young Practitioners Inspired by the Dhamma. It was described as a compilation album that “offers a taste of the varied, beautiful forms of Dharma-inspired music made by young practitioners.” I loved it, promised I’d review it, but then got too busy. In the meantime, though, many of the songs have been on regular rotation on my iPhone, and the time has finally come to give you my opinion.
Right off the bat, however, I confess I’m not a music critic. Like everyone, I know what I like, but I don’t necessarily have the vocabulary to describe the music or to articulate what I like or don’t like about a particular piece of music, or the knowledge of music that allows me to make sensible comparisons with other musicians you might have heard of. And Dhamma Gita is very, very varied, representing genres from Hip Hop to jazz to contemporary classical, to soul.
Title: Dhamma Gita
Publisher: More than Sound
Fortunately, the website for the CD (which is also available as a download) has samples you can listen to if you’re none the wiser after reading my review. [Update: the company no longer exists]
Overall, this is a wonderful CD. I rate each track I have in iTunes, and overall this album came out with 4/5 stars, with five of the tracks getting five stars. There was only one song I deleted from iTunes altogether. To give you an idea of how I rate my music: five stars means it’s a song I absolutely love and can listen to over and over again and love it just as much each time. Four stars means I really like the song and am fine hearing it repeatedly on a playlist, but it doesn’t rock my world like a five star song. Three stars means I don’t object to hearing it once in a while. Two stars means the song does nothing for me and I’ll delete it from my computer. I’m not sure what I’d do with a one star song — probably disinfect my ears.
So here are the tracks individually, with my amateur assessments, and with the ratings I gave each in iTunes.
***** David Smith, “White Lines.” This is a country-inspired song, with raspy vocals, sparkling guitar work, driving rhythms, and a catchy tune. David Smith has been writing, recording and performing music and practicing the dharma for 17 years, and he’s good at what he does. He says it’s “a song about pain and redemption” that represents “a full admission and recognition of the first noble truth – life is suffering.” Life may be suffering, but listening to this song isn’t. [country-rebelrecordings.com]
****** Tori Heller, “Sut Nam.” The song title suggests something eastern-inspired, but it’s actually a thoroughly western track (which would probably be classified as “adult alternative”) with Heller’s soft, breathy vocals over delicate, plucked folk guitar. It’s a beautiful, evocative, and sensitive piece of music, with lyrics about “the cleansing, quieting, and liberating power of meditation and Buddhist thought,” and with lyrics like “Watching my thoughts like a television screen / seeing how messy thoughts can be.” [toriheller.com]
**** Ravenna Michalsen, “Ki Ki So So.” Ravenna brings to this track the sensitivity of the classical trained musician she once was. The song’s in two distinct halves. In the first we have pulsing, rhythmic, multi-tracked chanting that’s meant to evoke the drumming of the Windhorse’s hooves, overlaid with singing that’s reminiscent of gregorian chant. Half-way through the song, this fades out and is replaced with a chant of “I ride on your wind,” which is more like contemporary classical music. Ravenna says, “Ki Ki So So is both a statement of simple devotion to my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and also a lament that I am not a better practitioner. The phrase ‘Ki Ki So So’ is part of a longer chant done to raise ‘lungta’ or ‘windhorse’: the energy of confidence that is utterly beyond aggression.” [ravennam.com]
***** Travis Callison, “Witness.” Witness is a hip-hop ballad with richly-textured rhythms and melodies. Travis names, or bears witness to, the pain and blessings of life, while the simple chorus “Bear witness,” adds spiritual depth, evoking how equanimity can absorb both the ups and downs of life, while still holding the desire that all beings be well and happy. [traviscallison.com].
** Michaela Lucas, “Faith.” This is the one song I deleted from my computer. It’s technically accomplished. The musicianship cannot be faulted. Michaela has a beautiful voice. But the interspersing of Sogyal Rinpoche eulogizing the Tibetan saint Milarepa, with Michaela’s soaring vocals reminded me of modern Catholic church music, and I found the effect cloying in the extreme. Of course that might just be me. Someone likes that kind of music, obviously. [dharma-art-studio.com].
**** Jay Harper, “Lu Chan Cha.” My first thought on hearing this track was “Chinese film music.” (And that’s not a put-down). Lu Chan Cha is an effective blend of far-eastern and western instrumentation and musical styles. And in fact Jay Harper turns out to have a history of composing for full songs and instrumentals for TV and film, and who has composed music for McDonald’s, The Miami Dolphins, The Miami Hurricanes, and many emerging and established artists. This track is an “interpretation of an incense prayer song that we sing at the St Dak Tong Buddhist temple where my wife Abi and I are students of Grand Master Sheng-Yen Lu.” [sunzoostudios.com]
***** Brad Gibson, “Bedtime waltz.” Bedtime Waltz is an exquisitely beautiful jazz trio, with piano, drums, and bass. It’s mellow, atmospheric, refined, and perfectly wrought — a little gem, worth of becoming a standard. Gibson’s music and practice seem deeply entwined: “Through the posture of zazen, I am allowed the chance to calm my mind and perhaps see things a little more clearly. This clarity aids my function as composer and performer. One must pay attention to the moment, working with the psychological and emotional content that often drives one’s work.” [bradgibson.com]
*** Heather Maloney, “Let it Ache.” This is song in the folk tradition, with passionate vocals and some rather fine guitar work, and with the message “If your heart is aching, let it ache.” Unfortunately this was not my cup of tea, but if you’re into contemporary folk you might well love this. [myspace.com/heathermaloneymusic]
**** Lelo Roy, “Hello Mister June Bug.” this is a quirky little number, almost like a children’s song. Appropriately, it’s about the simplicity and innocence of sitting in a tree as a child, and relating to the natural world (and especially the eponymous Mister June Bug) with fascination and imagination. As Lelo says, this song is about “the simplicity in just being, and the distractions in life that keep us from this natural state.” Actually, I had trouble deciding whether this met my three star or four star criteria. The quirkiness, depending on my mood, could either become irritating or be refreshing. So far, though, I’ve continued to enjoy the song. [myspace.com/lelaroy]
*** Duncan Ros, “Rabbit Horns.” This is a raucus, playful alternative rock song, “making fun of ego clinging because ‘I’ does not exist,” like phantom rabbit horns. I didn’t find it very satisfying, partly because the theme of the phantom self doesn’t work too well in a rock song, and partly because I thought the music lacked subtlety. [myspace.com/duncanrosinc]
**** Eva Mohn, “Matters How You Pray.” Mohn is a dancer and musician living in Germany, a fact I mention because I have trouble describing her style of music and so it’s easier to say something about her. It is alternative folk? Adult alternative? It’s certainly off-beat. The music itself, while repetitive, is richly textured and interesting, in an almost hypnotic way, and Mohn’s vocal style is reminiscent of Ani Difranco.
** Monique Rhodes, “Lama Care For Me.” This track begins with an African/spiritual sensitivity, with powerful devotional female vocals over male bass-line of Om Ah Hum. I began by thinking I was going to like the song, but once it moves into becoming a kind of romantic power ballad, worthy of Celine Dion, I found myself once again reminded of the contemporary music I’ve heard in Catholic churches. It’s interesting that two of the female Tibetan songwriters on this album have written what amount to sentimental and overwrought love songs to their gurus, and have ended up producing cloying and trite church music. [moniquerhodes.com]
***** Ladyfinger, “Yer Gonna Git You.” Ladyfinger brings us the grittiness of a soul duet along the lines of “you done me wrong and now you got it comin’ to you.” This is a song about karma, with the repeated refrain “You’ve made your bed, you gonna lie in it.” The singing is shared by Tina Antolini, a public radio producer, and Hanuman, who we learn nothing about. Both singers are accomplished vocalists, with powerful and passionate voices, and they work well together. This is a vengeful view of karma, however, with something of a punitive feel. There’s not much sense of compassion here. But the song rocks, even if the soul (at least in Antolini’s case) sounds a little more like an affectation than the real thing [tinaantolini.com]
**** Lucky Vita, “Swell.” This is the only example of electronica on Dhamma Gita, and is reminiscent of Eno’s early ambient music, although the short track length doesn’t allow for the kind of complexity that we find in Eno’s work. (It’s possible, however, that this is an abbreviated version of a longer track, shortened to fit the confines of this compilation CD). “Swell” is a literal, and rather simple, swell of synthesized sound, building to a crescendo and then fading away into the void. The composer describes is as “a sonic rendition of the feelings experienced when sinking into a place of deep stillness and simplicity.” It’s a pleasant sound.
In short, I was delighted by the variety of musical styles on Dhamma Gita, and also by the overall high quality. I’d urge you to buy the CD in order to help support the work that these young musicians are doing in forging an alchemy of modern music and Dharma practice.