BHUTAN/FRANCE: Rain of Blessings: Vajra Chants - Lama Gyurme & Jean-Philippe Rykiel
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Serenity, spirituality and sanctity feature as strands of this phenomenal collaboration between two musical devotees
When many in the West imagine a monastic Buddhist life they often get confused and instead picture the deprivation of asceticism. Under this narrative, the idea of Buddhists performing and recording music might not seem in keeping with this misunderstanding of Buddhist principles. Whilst the life of a Buddhist might on the surface seem massively deprived in comparison to the consumerist life that many in the Western world are engaged in, Buddhist practice does not encourage the total abolition of enriching activity such as music. Rather, music is not only welcomed but it is embraced within Buddhism, so long as it is created under the guise of the Noble Eightfold Path.
“Lama Gyurme used to perform at the end of huge raves in France, an audience one might not think would be a natural bedfellow of a Buddhist guru, but when one’s music has such a purifying and powerful sound...[it is his] duty to share their gift of music to the world itself.”
Although in some senses Buddhist teaching is simple and fairly easy to understand at its core, it has many facets to it, and describing who a ‘Buddhist’ is can sometimes be as challenging as labelling someone a ‘Christian’ or a ‘Muslim’. As a son of a Jewish fashion designer, keyboard player Jean-Philippe Rykiel might be a bit bemused by my bold claim that his relationship with music over the course of his career has been a far more ‘Buddhist’ one than arguably anyone else I have come across over this odyssey of musical discovery from across the world. The irony of this is that his work on ‘Buddhist music’ with Bhutanese Lama Gyurme is only a short footnote in a inadvertently ‘Buddhist career’ even though on a musical sense it has been focused more on African music than anything else.
Rykiel’s love affair with music seems to be one of devotion and comes from a place of authentic purity, rather than a thinly vailed guise to reach fame and stardom like so many in the industry surreptitiously aim for. For him, music appears to authentically be his vehicle for learning, self-discovery and is almost his form of meditation. Rykiel’s website is filled with his writings and reflections of his journey and it seems somewhat apparent that his collaborations with musicians across the world, haven’t been used as a ladder to climb to attain musical accolades but rather has been a tool for him to gain inner wisdom and understanding. In almost a similar vein to that of Siddhartha Gautama, leaving the palace on his own personal journey that led to his knowledge that form the foundations of what we call Buddhism today , there is a parallel to be drawn with Rykiel’s work, as he wandered (albeit using planes) further afield than the Indo-Gangetic Plain to learn from and humbly collaborate with legends of African music such as Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Papa Wemba and Youssou N'Dour, as well as other legends in their genre such as Vangelis and Leonard Cohen, ironically a fellow Jew who explored Buddhism in his own way.
The blind Frenchman’s first foray into traditional Buddhist music, did not come out of an ego-driven search for spiritual enlightenment, but rather arose as part of his ongoing endeavour to reach ‘musical enlightenment’. A female disciple of Lama Gyurme drew Rykiel’s attention to the Buddhist spiritual leader due to his reputation as ‘Oumze’ (meaning ‘Master of Music’, an honour he received from the legendary Kalu Rinpoche at the young age of 20). Rykiel was of course not disappointed by the Lama’s soothing and inspiring voice and the pair first came to collaborate together in 1994. Sceptical that the magic of the first album could be recreated, Rykiel was fortunately persuaded and the result was the mastery that can be heard on Rain of Blessings: Vajra Chants.
The album is a perfect amalgam of Gyurme’s soft percussion and almost transcendental chanting alongside Rykiel’s keyboard and synth mastery. Neither the chanting nor the instrumentation ever overshadow one another, instead the blend simply enhances the sound of both; Rykiel’s ambient rhythms and Gyurme’s chanting would not be anywhere nearly as engaging and enticing were it not for the enhancement of the other. Both the music and the vocals are immensely stripped back, yet that is not to say it is not of a high-quality nor does it not contain its own complexities. The textures created by the sound are somewhat unique as each simple structure built by the musicians is slowly built and accumulated on. Whilst I love the simplicity of the sparse instrumentation that exists throughout the majority of the album, my favourite song Medicine Buddha Mantra is definitely improved by Yacouba Sissoko’s gentle kora playing. The only other instrument that makes its way onto the album is Florin Niculescu’s violin.
Whilst I found the opening three tracks Rain of Blessings, Offering Chant and Medicine Buddha Mantra, more engaging than the middle section of the album, which I personally found too chaotic to peacefully meditate to, the closing of the album with an unplugged version of the beautiful Offering Chant, this time with piano accompaniment, I found incredibly liberating after the journey the pair had taken me on. The album treads the fine line between ambient, new age and devotional genres perfectly. The combination of the Lama’s sometimes pacifying voice alongside rousing melodies juxtaposed alongside his occasionally stirring vocals and Rykiel’s calming musical beats totally won me over. Vajra (a word in the title) is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘diamond’ in English. Though its titling was meant with more spiritual connotations behind it that allude to the energies needed for enlightened living, on a rather simplistic level I do feel like ‘diamond’ is an appropriate description of the album. The album’s crystal structure allows it to shine bright. Yet unlike diamonds which are typically only accessible to the wealthy, this record’s value remains high but can be appreciated by all. Lama Gyurme used to perform at the end of huge raves in France, an audience one might not think would be a natural bedfellow of a Buddhist guru, but when one’s music has such a purifying and powerful sound, the likes of Gyurme and Rykiel seem to have an understanding that it is their duty to share their gift of music to the world itself.