Chant music is everywhere these days. It seems like every yoga instructor has Sanskrit as their second language. There is traditional chant — and chants for each of the different styles of yoga practice, just voice or with ethnic instruments from India. There is non-traditional chant with Western instruments. There is chant where the Sanskrit (or other ancient languages) is sung instead of chanted. Some have even gone so far as to translate the old sacred words into English to chant or sing to appeal to modern audiences. It is hard to believe that most of the Buddhist-based chant music had never been heard by Western ears until musicologist Huston Smith journeyed to a mountaintop and recorded the Gyuto Monks of Tibet in 1967. This set off pilgrimages by others (notably David Lewiston in 1974 and 1977) to capture the earthy, spiritual sound of a group of male monks chanting in their temple as part of their tantric traditions passed down for thousands of years (with their particular monastic institution founded in 1475). Albums of their music sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide and finally some of the monks were even lured down off the mountain . For example, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart got them into the studio with his side-group in 1989, and the monks returned to the USA to do a series of concerts with the Dead in 1995. The monks also appeared in the Brad Pitt film “Seven Years in Tibet” and on the soundtrack album in 1997. There have been numerous recordings since then including “Pure Sounds” on New Earth Records which was nominated for a 2011 Grammy Award in the Traditional World Music Category.
Which brings us to a new album, “Beyond Karma,” also on New Earth Records. Even though the Gyuto Monks of Tibet get top billing, this album is really a collaboration with Australian musicologist Dr. Kim Cunio, who is known for researching, preserving, expanding and cross-breeding sacred musics from around the world. That is exactly what Cunio does here. He lays down musical tracks using both Eastern (tanpura, santour, joza, oud) and Western (piano, violin, cello) instruments (and a few other ethnic sounds like wooden flute plus a didjeridoo played by a special guest). Then he weaves in a combination of monk chanting and his wife, Heather Lee, singing sacred music in various languages including Latin, Hebrew and Arabic. The monks mainly chant in a very low range, between a low A and C, almost an octave below the regular male range, and often use overtones or chordal singing (with various monks singing different notes that make up the chord). To top it off, instead of bowing to modern wishes, all of the monk lyrics and what they mean are kept secret. Their chants are part of their daily prayers and meditations. So once they set a spiritual mood, it is quite a thrill to hear Heather Lee sing as a female soprano on the same pieces. But those tunes, such as the title track, are only part of what this album offers.
In addition, Lee sings alone on the Hildegard of Bingen tune “O Pastor Animarum” (words from the 1050s), a solo monk chants on three tunes, a children’s choir sings on “The Suffering of the World,” “On The Path” is mostly ambient instrumental with just a little of the monks in the background, and on “As The Sun Sets” Cunio plays solo piano. So there is a wide variety on this CD, and if you like gentle sacred music from around the world, this is one you will want to check out.