There’s a sanctuary where the pulse of cumbia moves to Tibetan notions of eternal time, where Native American and Indian sonics transform the voice of a female Sufi from Iran. A retreat where one of the planet’s most revered teachers’ words become a melody, and the message dances in the medium.
This place, created in a cozy home studio in the L.A. hills, is the home of the striking soundtrack to the documentary film Dalai Lama Renaissance (White Swan; May 11, 2010). The film follows the journey of some of the world’s most distinctive thinkers—from nuclear physicists to self-help experts, with narration by actor Harrison Ford—to see the Dalai Lama at his Indian home-in-exile and discuss a way to freedom for Tibet and humanity. The release is timed with the Dalai Lama’s May 12-23 speaking tour of the United States. The soundtrack flows from the voluntary contribution of a diverse yet serendipitously harmonious group of musical fellow travelers brought together by percussionist and producer Michel Tyabji.
Tyabji set out to accomplish the impossible: the creation of a score and soundtrack for a feature-length film worthy of the subject matter, without a budget. Yet this very hindrance proved to be the project’s strength. “The most affirming thing about this project was that it attracted certain types of people,” Tyabji notes, recalling how artists came out of the cyberspace woodwork wanting to advance the Dalai Lama’s message. “No one had any money but we didn’t have a firm schedule, either. We had time.”
With that time, musicians could come and linger in Tyabji’s home studio over cup after cup of tea, letting their inspiration carry them. Or Tyabji could meet them wherever they happened to be in the L.A. area, as he did with Grammy-winning guitarist Larry Mitchell. They connected at a nearby hotel where, on the fly, Mitchell effortlessly laid down a solo on Tyabji’s thumbdrive.
The musicians drawn to the project were a seemingly motley crew: Composer Medicine Bear, who provided large portions of original score; a group of brothers cum classical Indian musicians recruited by an American keyboard player (The Yoginis) and recorded at a rented New Delhi TV station; Heyraneh, a rare female Sufi vocalist from Tehran; and the multitalented Techung, a Tibetan born in exile and trained in traditional Tibetan lhamo opera.
Despite the great spread of sounds and cultures, as Tyabji worked on the tracks and unified them to support the film, he was pleasantly surprised. “I was actually shocked how easily things gelled: traditional Indian, underneath or on top of Afro-Cuban beats, blended with a Tibetan song on the computer," Tyabji reflects. “We didn’t have to do any fancy stuff. It just came together in a perfect match up of tracks.”
Pieces like “Yar,” where the original plan to record Heyraneh singing a Zoroastrian prayer passed down through Tyabji’s Parsi family turned a magical corner when the singer burst into a Sufi invocation, transforming the track. Or the unexpected “Om Cumbia Om,” where Techung’s expansive recitation of a Buddhist mantra with its own sense of time ended up meshing with an intense Afro-Latin rhythm whipped up by two Colombian percussionist friends.
Even older projects—like a recording Tyabji and his wife and frequent collaborator Rosa had made of the last living teacher of Tibetan chöd chants—worked seamlessly with the material his new-found friends were laying down in the studio. “Rosa and I had recorded Lama Wangdu Rinpoche at an ashram near Portland, Oregon,” recalls Tyabji. “It became an album for use by his students, with really limited distribution. But then it took on a new life as I brought it into the mix.”
Yet the lucky accidents channeling the eclecticism of Dalai Lama Renaissance had deep roots: the calls for peace, freedom, and compassion of the Dalai Lama himself. Though of a different faith, Tyabji felt a profound resonance with His Holiness’ teachings. Descended from a distinguished family including a vocalist favored by Gandhi and a dedicated politician who shaped India’s constitution, Tyabji’s elders instilled a love of wise teachers and the non-violent path to liberation.
He soon learned for himself how music could play a part in that liberation. Tyabji came of age traveling the world with his parents, UN workers who took on some of the world’s most difficult assignments. One of these challenging postings took the family to Somalia, where a teenage Tyabji watched the desperately poor country slip into a devastating civil war.
“I saw that music and poetry held together whatever semblance of society was left,” he muses. “Just having a battery-powered walkman saved us. There was something that made a little bit of sense. There was certainty in the beat, the lyrics. That’s when I got into music, in Africa, and understood its power.”
This power to move, encourage, and heal, Tyabji feels, also lies in the words and voice of the Dalai Lama, which he interwove throughout the soundtrack album. The task of picking and choosing the words seemed daunting at first—until he began to hear the music in His Holiness’ message. After spending years trying to find the right fit with the music, Tyabji discovered to his surprise that the passages that he felt most strongly were the ones where the tone and cadence meshed best.
“For me, his most powerful message, the one that repeats on the album like a mantra, is that each of us is personally responsible to think about humanity, other human beings,” Tyabji states. “For someone who has lived in so many different countries, who’s lived through wars, who was fortunate to be born into a family that cares, I know this is what we all need to think about: each other.”
The accidental meetings and fortunate breaks involved in the making of the album are still bearing fruit. Tyabji has teamed up with Techung and their tours have taken them as far away as European Russia’s oft-overlooked Buddhist region, Kalmykia. Heyraneh’s participation in the project has moved her out of the margins, where she was relegated due to her gender, and into the local spotlight, as the L.A. Persian community embraces her artistry.
Tyabji senses that this joint effort based on a mutual love for the Dalai Lama’s message is like one of the Tibetan songs Techung brought to the project, “Lhasang.” The singer calls out to the mountains, hoping to hear what the echoes may bring. “That song embodies what we were doing with this album,” Tyabji smiles. “We were singing out to a stone wall and just waiting to hear what happens.”