the democracy of sound project number six: a moment of breath, the gyuto monks and the tantric music of tibet

When I began the Democracy of Sound Project, back in January, I was angry and frightened. The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit result, and rising specter of Right-Wing ideologies – with the greed and hatred they peddle, cast a dark shadow across the globe. In the months since, none of these sentiments have changed, nor has my resolve to fight. I have watched in horror, as the strangling grasp of the Right has unleashed unfathomable suffering into countless lives – hearing first hand accounts from friends – real life consequences of shockingly inhumane Republican and Tory policies. It is a heartbreaking period – one where the worst  seems to have become accepted and commonplace. With the rest of the Left, I have witnessed the Right’s corruption and inhumanity unveiled – weekly, daily, and even hourly, confounded as they seem immune to consequence for their acts.

Like many of us, I am tired. I am haunted by the destruction of basic decencies which define the countries and cultures that I love. By the words of a dying woman, translated to through a mutual friend, as she sat humiliated for days in a pool of her own urine – the consequence of the Tory’s unraveling of social protections and the NHS. I am haunted by the fact that she is not the exception, but the coming norm. That with her, countless people across the globe will suffer similar fates – knowing, in all likelihood, that the unaffected will turn a blind eye. I am exhausted by the futility of it all. By the shocking treatment of friends at borders, some turned away for no reason beyond the color of their skin, or the cultures from which they come – powerless against the rising tide of racism, xenophobia, and fear. By the babbling lies of individuals who should be shamed or in jail, not the deciders of fates. I am worn by the fleeting escape of positive change – by dreams and hopes of the simplest application of justice, with what we all know is decent and right.

As the rubble gathers, as we’re tangled in the shifting web of lies, even at these early stages, it gets harder and harder to keep track – to hold the fatigue and disillusionment at bay. In the face of it all, there is single and necessary truth. We are under attack – and most people under threat protect themselves first. This basic impulse, as logical as it may seem in the abstract, is the core evil of Right-Wing belief – to place ones interests and well being over that of another, to protect yourself before you ensure the safety of the vulnerable and weak. When the Right deploys its attacks – eroding the well being others for its own gain, it spreads its disease into our lives – into how impulse provokes us to act.

At the outset of the Trump presidency, many of us rallied to the defense of those whom he attacked first – people of an ethnicity, cultural background, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, different than his own. This is what provoked the inception of the Democracy of Sound Project – an attempt to use music as a means to combat the rise of racism and xenophobia, as well discrimination and bigotry of any kind. As I began, I promised to flood the world with song -to post one piece of music – a video or sound file, made by someone, or a group of people from a culture, background, social position, religion, gender, or sexual orientation other than my own – effectively the same as that of the current president of the United States. Through music, I hoped to champion the voices which Trump fears and hates, and wants others to fear and hate in his quest to destroy democracy – a simple attempt to offer access to them, and chip away at his ground. It is a project that I endeavor to carry on, but I must also acknowledge that I failed to keep up with it as consistently as I would like. Much of this has to do with external obligations which often slow my writing pace, and the fact that I’ve approached the project with more ambition than I originally conceived – drafting longer and more exploratory texts, which take time. I also do not want to burden my readers, or displace the organic balance and diversity of what I post. Thus, rather than every week, I will draft this project as it comes – be that more often, or when it feels correct.

As I sat down to write this, the sixth installment, I thought of the people suffering directly at the hands of their own governments’ attacks – the poor and underprivileged, particularity in Britain and America. I considered how both the Tories and the Republicans, draw attention to those beyond their county’s borders, before beginning their attacks within. I pondered how hard it is to keep your eye on the big picture, when so much is happening outside your front door – to hold it all in perspective. And I returned to simple a truth that I have written about in the past – the thread that ties it together, bubbling below the surface of it all. Racism, xenophobia, and other fears of difference, are not natural and organic beliefs. They are taught and employed as tools to consolidate economy and power. When we see others feared for their color of their skins, cultures, genders, or sexual orientation, we should see ourselves – knowing that objective below, is coming for us all.

I’ve been forced to face how exhausted we all are – how relentless and consuming its been, and how much each of us could use a break – some fortification against the coming and endless fight. In that light, I thought I would offer a mediation of sorts. Though I hold no spiritual belief, there are few musics which have offered me more comfort and solace than those of Buddhist monks.

Buddhist music was among the first, stemming from beyond my own culture, that I began to seriously collect. As the obsession took hold, these sounds threaded and marked my life. I scoured the bins, bringing home everything I could find. I’ve lost track of how many LPs of this music I own. Many dozens bow my shelves. The sounds of Buddhism are incredibly diverse, extending from a number of distinct cultural traditions and geographies – Japan, China, Tibet, Korea, Vietnam, India, Thailand, etc, with realizations as diverse as melodic flute music, chant, vocal drones, and wild percussion. Among the most well know, and my personal favorite, are those musics which draw links to Tibet.

Something to be acknowledged when considering Tibetan Buddhist music, is that very few recordings actually come from Tibet. With those who make it, this music is currently displaced. In 1950, the Communist dictatorship of Mao Zedong invaded and occupied Tibet, with the country’s ancient religious traditions coming under heavy attack. During the following years, most Buddhist monasteries where abandoned, with monks largely fleeing to India, where they have remained since. Nearly all recording were made there, or when monks carried this music abroad.

The sounds of Tibetan Buddhist are more diverse than most people realize – with flute music, varied traditions of throat singing, chant, and percussion threading throughout. The most recognized are those of the Gyuto, Gyume, and Nechung orders of monks. The sonic traditions of Gyume and Nechung monks are largely focused on percussion and mantra like chants, while those of the Gyuto order are particularity distinct, and the most well know – over the centuries developing a remarkable form of overtone throat singing. Like Buddhism itself, this music is stunningly beautiful, while embedded rigor and challenge – a difficult door to a higher plane. At times it feels like it’s emerged from the wilder corners of avant-garde (particularly when accompanied by percussion and horns), rather than the mouths of monks. It is stunning and unlike anything else.

With that, I’ll leave you with the sounds and images. The date and origin of this film is unknown. It’s fairly old, so may have been shot while the monks still remained in Tibet, or in the years shortly following their settlement in India. It is a think of beauty for the eyes and ears. My it offer breath and pause – a respite and calm before the storm ahead.

-Bradford Bailey












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