Lama Gyurme Offers Spirited Musical Fusion

Eastern holy man and French keyboard wizard set timeless prayer chants to electronic music.

Lama Gyurme is the real thing: a Tibetan monk, born in the Asian nation of Bhutan and raised from age 4 on the teachings of Buddhism.

Yet when Real World Records wanted to set his ancient prayers to a techno beat, it wasn't Gyurme who rejected the idea — it was his keyboard-playing collaborator, a non-Buddhist named Jean-Philippe Rykiel.

"I'm more of a purist than [Gyurme] is," Rykiel said, laughing, "because I think dance music is bad for you. The rhythm is stupid, and it wouldn't have respected what I feel in the music. So I just couldn't stand the idea of having techno or dance remixes of our work."

Instead, the recently released album, Rain of Blessings: Vajra Chants, features Gyurme's throaty intonations of ancient prayers buoyed on a feathery electronic bed.

Rykiel's synthesizer pads draw from the new-age palette, yet they somehow complement the material and the holy man's sepulchral baritone.

Their unlikely partnership pairs a blind, self-taught French musician with a spiritual master. Yet in the nine years that they've known each other, Rykiel and Lama Gyurme have performed before audiences throughout Europe and recorded two albums: 1994's Songs of Awakening and the follow-up, Rain of Blessings.

There's a timeless quality to Rain of Blessings, though the recording method was strictly modern, from the separation of vocal and instrumental tracks to Gyurme's willingness to punch in the occasional errant note or misquoted scripture.

Frankly, all this hocus-pocus bothered Rykiel far more than the Lama. He fretted about not having translations of the text when creating his arrangements. And while everyone at the Real World label agreed with Gyurme that the solo-piano accompaniment he recorded for "The Offering Chant" was more sublime than the carefully crafted electronics in the final version, Rykiel begs to differ even now.

"We did a concert in Madrid, and there was an acoustic piano in the hall," he said. "I said, 'Why not do something with this piano? It's waiting for us.' Everybody agreed that for the encore we would do 'Offering Chant' (RealAudio excerpt) on the piano. The concert was recorded, and when my manager gave the demos to Real World, everybody was raving about the 'unplugged' piano version (RealAudio excerpt) — which, personally, I'm not crazy about, because I don't see myself as a good pianist. But they insisted so much that I did it, more to please them than to please myself." Both arrangements ended up being featured on Rain of Blessings.

Rykiel, more than the serene Lama, broods over his role in world music. "I hear so many depressing things that are called world music," he said.

"There's an especially big problem with sampling," Rykiel continued. "For example, we have a group in France called Deep Forest. They're amazing musicians, but they use their sources, everything they've recorded from the Third World, as though it were an instrument: They sample it, and then they take little parts and arrange them in a different way. When I work with musicians from the Third World, I cannot imagine that I'm going to cut and paste what they sing or play in order to make it something different."

Instead, in his work with Lama Gyurme, Salif Keita, Youssou N'dour and other artists, Rykiel dedicates himself to preserving the integrity of the music. "I'm just keeping it as it is," he said. "Many musicians think that if they do more commercial stuff, they will make more money. But really, that's a kind of perversion. And I can't do that."