I bought Waterbone's album Tibet while staying in Ohio as an exchange student. I had gone to Borders with my host family. It was shortly before Christmas, and I suppose the main reason for going there was to hint to each other what each of us wanted for Christmas. Being as I am of the opinion that you can never get enough music, I thought that even if I bought a couple of CDs, I still had at least a dozen CDs I wanted in that store, despite the fact that I am hardly their target audience. This clearly offended them. It was worth it.
The CD was actually up for preview in the store. I grabbed a pair of headphones and flew away.
Thought that trip hop was dead? Thought that chanting monks were for your parents? Thought that the long-haired guys from Los Angeles in ugly sunglasses traveling the world and making weird electronic music were finally an extinct species? Well, think again.
Pressed in 1997 and released by World Disc in 1998, the album is the result of the travels of D. Kendall Jones and Jimmy Waldo to the Tibetan and Nepali Himalayas. Scratch that. Most of the album is. Track six, Snow Palace, was composed by the former half of the duo prior to their expedition, and became the theme for the rest of the songs, which, though each one of them has its own qualities, tie together as a single entity.
The music has been likened to that of Deep Forest and Enigma. I am bound to agree, but while the recipes may look alike, Tibet features unique and prodigious harmonies of its own while taking its main ingredient from a largely unexplored cultural tradition and incorporating it fully in a peaceful convergence of east and west in what can only be expressed as a reverberation of an emotive reconciliation with the world in all its states.
Most of the sounds and vocals were sampled on-site in various locations in the region, including everything from a close co-operation with the local Rolyang Group as well as what seems to be spur-of-the-moment recordings in villages, airports and noisy hotel rooms. The underlying trip hop rhythms are periodically somewhat upbeat for the genre, but with little emphasis on the bass drum, instead using the rich harmonies of the pewong, the mang, other traditional instruments, the chanting of Buddhist monks and the singing of children, soaring freely over deep synthesized bass lines, the whole make for a soothing experience. As much as this is an album to listen to carefully and analyze, it is a collection of songs to which one can comfortably fall asleep.
1. Eastern Girl
Gorgeous female voices fill the air in the opening song, accompanied by spectral synthesized ditto, the different elements of the song interact to form a dialogue between its components, each expressing different nuances of harmony.
2. River of Souls
A deep, sustained synthesized bass takes shape and is gradually accompanied by a rhythmical chanting, a celebration of the dead, in the first part of this song, and then turns to a much brighter tone, dominated again by female vocals. The track is circularly composed, and wraps up the same way it began with the chanting village people.
The chanting of fifty Buddhist monks should say it all. This is a powerful song, even despite the fact that the melodies do not tie together as well as in most of the album's other songs. The shifting trip hop grooves work well with the chanting, but the sheer power of the chanting is not as easily backed by harmonies, and instead the track comes out as a compromise with rather weak synthesized sounds that tend to detract from what is the core of the composition.
4. Song for the Mountain
This piece was written prior to the journey, but is nonetheless heavily influenced by the same culture as the rest of the album, and is, alongside Waldo's masterful flute line, carried by mystic female vocals. As the song has a slightly more downbeat feel to it than most of the album and is of a slightly more simplistic nature, it provides an excellent atmosphere for sonic relaxation.
5. August Moon
The rhythm section, rather slow and soothing as in the preceding song, borrows more heavily from the local range of instruments than most of the album, and this is a welcome element. The Nepali female vocals were recorded during primitive conditions, but little of this is revealed in the final product, which also features a male Tibetan folk singer.
6. Snow Palace
The song that marks the beginning of the project, written before the Himalayan expedition, and one can almost tell. The song is slightly more simplistic, perhaps with a shade of contrived exoticism, though there is really nothing negative to say of the result per se.
7. Pujari Vision
The chanting monks aside, this is probably the most powerful display of male vocalists on the album, provided by the Rolyang Group of Tibet and recorded during horrid circumstances described in the liner notes. Again, skillful editing ties the piece together, with some female vocals thrown in as well, alongside the usual trip hop grooves, a catchy lead and stereo-echoing bass lines.
This is really the only disappointment of the album. The bass is all too cheesy, the drum loops all too intrusive, and, most detrimental of all, an important spoken voice sampling contains a high-pitched noise that has not been filtered out. Perhaps my hearing is too attentive, but this sort of thing gives me a headache, and that is a shame with a track that contains some lovely choir samples as well as mystic male vocals that could easily have been a more exciting track.
9. Bridge to Manaslu
Warm synthetic harmonies back up the atmospheric flute-playing of a humble Nepali in this song, which serves as an intro to the next song.
10. Tantra II
The harmony deepens and grows richer, and we are reacquainted with the chanting monks from Tantra I, this time in a much more fulfilling sonic teleportation. There is little more to say of the song, except that it is, with Bridge to Manaslu as its intro, probably the most heartwarming and accomplished composition of the album, serving as the quintessence of this cultural unification.
11. A Child's Prayer
Concluding the journey is this song, featuring solo vocals of a young child. The last syllable of the melody is rather low for the child's voice and turns into a mere whisper, enough to melt your heart. By far the album's most upbeat song, it takes on a corybantic beat backing the voices of three hundred schoolchildren singing the Tibetan National Anthem. Magic.
The generously informative liner notes of the album, detailing much of the thoughts and backgrounds behind the songs (and from which most of the facts in this writeup have been extracted), conclude with a simple plea. I shall repeat it here. Heed it well.
Please support all efforts to Free Tibet and stop the brutality against the Tibetan people by the militant Chinese government.