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Gyuto Monks: Ancient Practice, Modern Sound

March 26, 2009

One of the side effects of the Dalai Lama's
half-century exile is that the rest of the world
has gotten access to some esoteric parts of
Tibetan culture — like polyphonic throat singing.
Now, thanks to a new recording by former Grateful
Dead drummer Mickey Hart, anyone can hear a sound
that was cloistered in Himalayan monasteries for centuries.
by Anil Mundra
National Public Radio (NPT) - USA - Morning Edition
March 25, 2009

It was 3 o'clock one morning in 1964, on the eve
of the highest holiday in the Tibetan calendar,
when renowned religion scholar Huston Smith awoke
in a monastery in the Himalayas to experience something transcendent.

"There fell upon my ear the holiest sound I have
ever heard," says Smith, who was raised in China
by missionaries and wrote the classic textbook, The World's Religions.

Smith was so moved by the sound that he decided
to record it, eventually bringing it back to the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, he
played it for a colleague, an ethnomusicologist,
who was similarly flabbergasted.

"Why, the man just paced the floor in
excitement," recalls Smith. "And at one point, he
clapped his palm to his forehead, and he said,
'My God, I am hearing nine overtones!' "

An overtone is akin to a harmonic, so hearing
nine of them is kind of like hearing a nine-part
harmony in a single voice. Most people can't hear
that many, and even fewer can sing as many.

"[It's] a vocal miracle," says Mickey Hart, one
of the former drummers of the Grateful Dead. He
caught wind of Smith's tape in San Francisco in
the late 1960s, and it excited him immediately.
He couldn't wait to share it with his bandmates.

"I mean, wait'll Garcia hears this, he's not
gonna believe it!" Hart pips. "My ear was filled with monks for many years."

Yet the sounds that thrilled Smith and Hart's
ears were not, technically, consummate. Smith's
1967 tape is limited by several factors,
primarily by the technology of the day, but also
with the number of voices. Smith only heard the
remnants of the choir — the few monks that
survived the perilous trek into India after the
Chinese invaded in 1959 and killed or imprisoned
most of them. In the original Gyuto monastery,
there were over a hundred monks in the choir.

"No one's really heard a hundred monks outside of
Lhasa for many years," Hart notes.

People have heard smaller groups. Seven monks
from the only other monastery that practices the
chants won a Grammy recently. So, to re-create
the sound of a full choir for this CD, Mickey
Hart recorded each monk multiple times to make 10 voices sound like a hundred.

"We overdubbed, and now there's over a
hundred-voice choir here, which has never really
been sounded in the West," says Hart.

One of the first Tibetan monks to make his name
in the West as a musician was Nawang Khechog, who
was nominated for a Grammy in 2001. He says these
chants are among the most secret and sacred of
Tibetan Buddhism — that's why they're so heavily
layered and deliberately hard to understand.

"Very secret practice," Khechog says. "Secret as
well as sacred -- So, therefore, to hide the
words, in the general public, it's disguised in that kind of multitonic sound."

The Dalai Lama has approved these public
performances as the chants signify things which,
in his words, the ordinary eye can't perceive
anyway. And it's important for the monks to go
public — one of the ways the community has been
able to stay alive in exile is through the
patronage of enamored foreigners, or even just
quizzical ones. Khechog says that when he used to
live in New York, he would get funny looks when
he tried to harmonize with the subway trains.

"I start the chant, and then suddenly the train's
gone," Khechog says, "and I'm still chanting
that, and suddenly, few people standing there,
and they think, 'What's going on,' you know?"

But the curiosity of foreigners might be just
what Tibetan exiles need. Proceeds from this CD
go toward Tibet House, a New York-based
foundation, and to build the Gyuto
monastery-in-exile in India. And there's another
benefit, says Smith. This music can help the rest
of us understand our world more fully.

"There is more in heaven and earth than there is
in your philosophy," he quotes from Hamlet. "This
enlarged my understanding of human beings and what they are capable of."

Click the link above to hear Anil Mundra's full report.
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