Ravenna Michalsen

Dhamma Gita: Music of Young Practitioners Inspired by the Dhamma

Dhamma Gita: Music of Young Practitioners Inspired by the Dhamma

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
Artist: Various
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.

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Ravenna Michalsen: Jumpstarting Buddhist music in America

Ravenna Michalsen Dharmasong

Ravenna Michalsen is a Dharma songstress with ambitions to start an “American Buddhist music movement.” Her second CD of Buddhist-inspired songs, appropriately named Dharmasong, has just been released. We talked to Ravenna about her message, her music, and the challenge of remaining egoless in the spotlight.

Also see Sunada’s review of Dharmasong.


Wildmind: You’ve said that you want to “jumpstart the American Buddhist music movement.” That sounds very ambitious!

Ravenna: Yes! America has such a long, diverse, and wonderful musical tradition. Our society is very music-oriented. It is very hard to go anywhere without hearing music, which is one of the reasons retreat centers can feel so peaceful. Much of the constant music in our world can be mentally tiring, chock full of thoughts, emotions, and conceptual chitter-chatter.

Dharma-inspired music can both play into our society’s deep love and obsession with music and shift its aural orientation from something often deeply klesha-based* to something less harmful. Both “Dharmasong” and “Bloom,” my first album, are devotional albums that feature songs about various figures from ancient Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. My hope is that these songs turn the listener’s mind toward the teachings of the Buddha, which is essentially anything that holds us back from unskillful action.

(*Editor’s Note: Kleshas are negative mental states that cloud the mind’s nature and manifest in various forms as unskillful actions of body, speech, and mind.)

W: So how would you define the “American Buddhist music movement”?

R: Hm, well, that is a bit complicated. I like the term “American Buddhist” because I find it a bit more culturally accurate than “Tibetan Buddhist” or “Burmese Buddhist,” etc., if the practitioner is actually an American…

So, while traditional Buddhist cultures all have their own musical traditions, which then have informed their Buddhist musical traditions, the United States doesn’t quite quite have that yet. People tend to assume that because I write Buddhist-inspired music, my music must sound “eastern” or something. I would like to change that assumption! I would like people to be comfortable owning the fact that the United States at this point has a deep and wonderful Buddhist tradition and that thus Buddhist-inspired music written here in the west has permission to sound “American”! Does that make sense?

W: It makes perfect sense. When I listen to Alison Krauss singing “Down to the River to Pray” I find myself yearning for Buddhist spirituals!

R: Completely. When I listen to Aretha Franklin sing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” I feel the exact same way!

W: So, with apologies for the clichéd question, what would you say are the main influences on your music?

R: Well, I love love love to listen to Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, Mariah Carey, Mirah, Amy Winehouse — all singers who really put so much heart into their singing. But I don’t really sound like any of them, sadly! People often say I sound a bit Celtic, but that is totally unintentional. It’s a hard question to answer! I listen to a lot of music, but I can’t really say I try to sound like anyone.

W: What got you started in Dharma practice?

R: Well, through my mom who did some searching herself and finally stumbled upon Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chodron and so she introduced me to them as well…

W: I guess I was meaning something more like what was your personal motivation in taking up Dharma practice.

R: I guess feeling sad and wanting to explore my mind. Meditation and the Dharma can feel really good when you do a bunch of it — I got into it, really into the whole thing, on retreat, so right away I associated feeling good with practicing a lot. After that first month retreat that faded though — of course! Since then it’s been much more up and down, cycles of “good” and cycles of “not-so-good” practice.

It makes me feel more aware of being alive, more in touch with reality I guess. But it was sadness that really brought me to practice, rather than casual interest.

W: And when did you start consciously bringing together your music and your practice?

R: I was on a retreat in 2002 with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (of the Shambhala community) and he heard me sing a song called “The Contemplation Song” (originally by Milarepa, but adapted and set to music by Winfield Clark). The next day his editor brought me a poem-like song that Rinpoche had written for me to set to music, so I did that and sang it and then she brought another and I sang that and thus the idea was planted.

I went home and started writing little songs about Dharma – some kind of hybrid between the kind of music I was doing before and what I do now. But slowly I started to really consciously write Dharmic songs, usually before or after a practice session. It wasn’t until I went in to record “Bloom” that I had to truly think about the combination of whatever kind of music I write with these dharma-inspired topics.

W: Were you already performing at that time and if so what was your music like?

R: Yes, well, I started playing classical cello when I was eight and so was performing classical music — solo, orchestra, chamber — until I was 21, when I developed arthritis. When I was a sophomore in college I started playing with an indie rock band (cello) and starting writing music with them – just cello parts at first, then little messy songs, then more fully formed ones. I just went and found some of those older songs actually! They are kind of sweet poppy sad songs — fun to sing and play.

W: At least two of the songs on your new CD deal with what might be termed “feminist” issues. “Marpa” evokes the question of where are the female gurus in Tibetan history, and “A-Dron” celebrates the female lineage-holder Machig Labdron. To what extent do you see a feminist perspective as being central to your artistic work?

R: Completely central in that I am a feminist! I believe that the essential nature of both women and men is Buddhanature and that both genders have equal ability to achieve complete perfect enlightenment. However, due to historical prejudices female practitioners have been devalued and left out of the historical Buddhist cannon — which is in part why I try to include them in my songs. I also include them because I personally find their lives and stories so utterly compelling, remarkable and inspirational.

W: You’ve said that Tsultrim Allione, the author of Women of Wisdom and founder of the retreat center Tara Mandala, encouraged you to record your first CD, Bloom. Has she been a source of encouragement in helping to highlight the discrimination women teachers have faced in the past?

R: Her “Women of Wisdom” is a remarkable work in that it introduces the life stories of various great female practitioners and teachers from Tibetan Buddhism. These are stories that are largely unknown and Tsultrim did a great service bringing these stories to a wider audience. She is a very spacious person who is not particularly saddled by the idea of gender, but recognizes that others are and that that has affected the treatment of women over history.

W: So apart from wanting to promote an awareness of feminist issues in relation to practice, are there other contemporary issues that you try to bring into your work?

R: Hm, I don’t think so. I do want the music to make people think a bit, but I also want them people to have something peaceful to listen to.

W: You mentioned earlier something about modern music being klesha-based and mentally tiring. Could you say more about that problem and how your music seeks to be different?

R: I think music — like anything — can often be very klesha-based and in the end that can really tire you out. It can be fun and exhilarating for a bit, particularly as you identify with whatever passion, aggression, etc., comes up in the song. But stepping back a bit, identifying with the thoughts or emotions generally leads us to believe them and then act based on those thoughts and emotions, rather than seeing the thoughts and emotions as just arising and passing away at their own rate. Believing our thoughts tends to lead to believing more of our thoughts and having our actions based upon those beliefs — and that generally leads to lots of samsara!

I definitely aspire to have my music be a bit different – but of course it isn’t! Maybe the subject matter is different — not so overtly packed with klesha — but in the end it depends on the mind that listens to it.

W: What does the rest of your practice look like — the stuff that isn’t directly connected with music?

R: I try to go on retreat a few times a year and practice daily in some form, not always the same practice — I tend to do the practice that fits what is going on in my life. Right now I am co-teaching a class at the New Haven Shambhala Center called “Taming the Mind,” which is a great way to verbalize what my practice has brought up for me.

W: Performing can be a very ego-based thing, being literally in the spotlight and having everyone paying attention to you. Is that something you’ve had to work with as part of your practice?

R: Excellent question. This is an issue that I have had to work with pretty much constantly, and it is rich! When I actually sing, it is not really a problem, because I am concentrating on the object of singing. But it comes up more when people come to a concert and then don’t donate or the center is (as it seems to me) stingy with paying or sharing donations. Then I get a real flare of both ego and the sort of ego-based, but also reasonable, question of why people think that art should just be free. That it is OK to listen for an hour and walk away without offering anything by way of support or to burn CDs without thinking about how that artist lives — actually lives: buys gas, groceries, rent, clothes, etc. I don’t charge a fee to sing and very much struggle with whether I should, and somewhere in there is a mix of ego, figuring out how to survive financially and self-worth.

I am very shy in some ways, so hanging out after shows hearing praise and such makes me uncomfortable. But I do like (and even crave) people to be quiet and appear to really listen when I sing. It’s a great profession to be in if you want to be reminded of all your edges!!

W: What are you working on at the moment? Are you working on new material, or are you still caught up in promoting the new CD?

R: Not yet! Dharmasong, in the scheme of things, only just came out! So I will be plugging it for a while! I spend a lot of time arranging concerts — so if there is a center/group out there looking for a concert of dharma music, email away!

But then again, I am always sort of writing – but not in a concentrated way, just letting things come up.

W: Thanks very much, Ravenna. It’s been good talking to you.

R: Thanks so much. It’s been enjoyable.

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“Dharmasong” by Ravenna Michalsen

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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