Choying Drolma / Steve Tibbetts


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In 1997 the contemplative, deeply moving collaboration between Tibetan Buddhist nun and monastic abbot Chöying Drolma and guitarist/soundscape artist Steve Tibbets was a textbook example of how to bring together two cultures whose musical and spiritual traditions were so different. Tibbetts, long a maverick who had little regard for the way world music was presented in modern contexts, set about working with Drolma, whose traditional and devotional Tibetan chants were revered in Buddhist circles. He understood that for Drolma, singing her prayers was a bedrock foundation of her spiritual practice. He illustrated them by composing guitar and percussion soundscapes to fit the context of her prayers; not the other way around. Seven years later, the pair re-team for Selwa. The title refers to the luminous mind, which is clear of obstacles and therefore awakened. Tibbetts takes more chances here sonically, but he remains committed to the source material. Whether Drolma is singing devotional or deity prayers such as "Palden Ranjung" or homages such as "Chenresig" or "Je Lama," or folk-oriented tunes such as the airy "Vakritundi," which comes form devotional Hindu music but reflects a modern Indian sensibility, Tibbetts stretches his backdrops to give Drolma's beautifully reedy voice flight. Tibbetts who, on his own recordings can be either beautifully subtle or outrageously harsh depending on the framework in which he is working, opts for crystalline impressionism here. The hinge piece of this outing is "Song of Realization," a hymn of aspiring Buddhahood, in which the diamond mind has been set free of all attachment, all subjective perception, all separation, and sees everything as full, empty of intrinsic existence. Drolma sings: "I do not recognize this earth as earth/It is an assembly hall adorned by flowers/I do not recognize me to be me/I am the supreme victor, the wish-fulfilling jewel...." Tibbetts multi-tracks the vocal, adding ghostly percussion in the form of hand drums, gongs, and shimmering symbols. His guitars, all edges rounded, float inside the space between her voice and the rhythm, coming closer, then backing away to give her vocal room for its transcendent chorus before the dynamic changes. Ultimately, Selwa is in many ways a stronger album than its predecessor. The principals are more comfortable with one another; there is an obvious element of trust and a shared sense of adventure. These two albums should be the standard by which all other East-West collaborations should be judged.

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