Picks and Pans Review: Freedom Chants from the Roof of the World
In retrospect, needless to say, it is a pity that the people of Beijing failed to heed the writing on the wall in Tibet. In March, three months before the Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese government made clear its willingness to use brute force against civilians when it unleashed police forces on Tibetan separatist demonstrators. The number of casualties remains unknown, but one foreign eyewitness said he saw soldiers dumping as many as 60 corpses into military trucks a few hours after the riots began.
The crackdown marked the 30th anniversary of the bloody suppression of a 1959 uprising in Tibet that left as many as 10,000 dead and prompted the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, to flee his fabled mountain kingdom and establish a government-in-exile in northern India. Among the refugees who accompanied the lama were monks from the Gyuto Tantric University, renowned for a type of multiphonic chanting that has been a part of sacred Buddhist rites since the 15th century. Last year 21 Gyuto monks traveled to America to draw attention to the widespread struggle for freedom in their homeland. Under the guidance of Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart, who has recently produced several superb albums of Middle Eastern, African, East Indian and East European music for the Rykodisc "World" series, the monks recorded their meditative chants at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch Soundstage in northern California.
While it is fascinating and moving, Freedom Chants from the Roof of the World is hardly easy listening. Except for an improvisational piece performed by Hart, minimalist composer Philip Glass and Japanese keyboardist Kitaro during a monks concert at New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the album is devoid of anything like Western music.
The Gyuto chants are low and guttural, with each monk capable of singing chords that contain two or three tones simultaneously. Melody and rhythm, in the conventional sense, are absent, although the otherworldly vocalizing is lightly accented by cymbals, horns and bells. During one lengthy chant, the monks call upon the divine Buddha form Yamantaka ("Terminator of Death") to exorcise anger, avarice, lust and envy from the world. During another, they conjure up the image of Mahakala, a six-armed demonic protector who carries a rosary of human skulls and dances in a sea of fire. The album is in Tibetan; a kind of libretto describes the individual pieces.
The monks' chanting is a prayer for freedom from oppression. As such, it serves as an appropriate elegy for those whose blood has been spilled recently both in Tibet and Beijing.
Listen, and weep. (Rykodisc)