As the deep, sonorous voice of Lama Tashi fills the room, you feel every note coming alive, pulsating with musical energy. Each of his multi-phonic chants breaks over you like a wave, soaking you in its rhythmic beauty. Geshe Ngawang Tashi Bapu, or Lama Tashi, as he prefers to be called, has been practising this sacred form of singing for more than 25 years now. “This vocal style is unique to Tibetan culture. Usually, when a group of monks performs, each of them intones three notes simultaneously, thereby creating a complete chord. This results in a deep gurgling kind of sound,” he explains.
During his travels around the world, Lama Tashi popularised this unique style of chanting and came to be fondly known as the singing monk. Such was his mesmeric hold over Western audiences that in 2006, he became the first Buddhist monk to have been nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Traditional World Music Album. He breaks into a smile as he recalls his first performance in the US. “Some monks, including me, had been chosen to travel the world as part of the Sacred Music and Dance Tour of 19991-92. When people in America first heard us, they thought the sound wasn’t human at all,” he chuckles.
Since then, Lama Tashi has performed in the US, Canada and Mexico time and again, amassing an enviable fan following. He has collaborated and performed with artists like Natalie Merchant, Ben Harper, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins and legendary Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil. “It was simply an outstanding experience to perform with him. He had been nominated for a Grammy the year that Asha Bhosle had been shortlisted and he won. When I perform abroad, I realise the significant space that people give to music in their lives, sometimes even more so than movies,” he says.
When Lama Tashi first enrolled in a monastery, he had no idea that his vocation lay in music. In 1983, he joined the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Karnataka for higher studies and immersed himself in Buddhist philosophy. “In the monastery, we have a lot of options in art and music as well. From the first day itself, I was drawn towards chanting, so in 1985 I enrolled for the classes,” he says. His exceptional talent and hard work brought him to the notice of the chant master and he was given the responsibility of leading the chanting on several occasions. About then, a decade later, his extraordinary abilities led to his enthronement as the Umzey or principal chant master of the Drepung Loseling Monastery. He, however, downplays his talent and attributes his success to the blessings of his teachers and hard work. “And also, keep yourself warm and never chant on an empty stomach,” he grins.
Lama Tashi is a firm believer in the principle that practise makes perfect. “You have to practice for hours every day, otherwise you will lose your voice. I knew one of the chant masters who had been an Umzey before 1959. After he retired, he came as a guest to a gathering. Since the current chant master wasn’t there, I asked him to lead the chanting. But his voice was just gone as he hadn’t practised for months.”
Though busy at present with the administration of the Central Institute of Himalayan Culture Study at Dahung, Arunachal Pradesh, he makes sure that he takes time out for his chants. “I am extremely busy with the centre. This is a project undertaken by the Ministry of Culture to promote the rich Himalayan culture,” says Lama Tashi.
His attachment to the Himalayan region runs deep. The lack of development in the area incenses him. With minimal healthcare facilities and negligible educational infrastructure, the belt ranks low on the socio-economic development index. “Through my foundation Siddhartha, I am trying to set up a small hostel for monks. I wish to conserve Tibetan culture, which is extremely vibrant and unique,” he says. There are also dreams of setting up schools for the poor, orphanages, old age homes and healthcare centres. “Just the other day, someone asked me if I will be recording an album soon. But there is so much on my mind right now, so much that I want to do for the people, that I just don’t have time for an album. However, I keep my music alive by participating in concerts like the Handshake Concert organised by the Rattle and Hum Music Society, Nagaland. One can simply dream on. Who knows what the future will bring?” wonders Lama Tashi.