Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Practice: Music—Soul Food for Developing Higher Consciousness

Imagine yourself eating a ripe orange. Imagine the tangy taste on your lips and tongue, your teeth biting into the orange’s texture and the feeling of your grateful heart. And if you ate that orange with conscious thought you might feel your body radiate with the essence of the citrus fruit throughout the day. While we don’t think of food as containing vibration, everything we touch, taste, feel, hear, or see possesses a vibration and when we connect with those vibrations, an alchemical process takes place within our bodies.

Now, imagine listening to a Bach composition played on a cello. Imagine the low and throaty sound of the instrument vibrating in your chakras.  Allow your mind might wander to a memory associated with that piece of music. Your feet might tap in time and if you have developed consciousness in regard to your body, you might feel subtle vibrations moving through you and you might feel a slight crackle of energy in the room. And what if you were listening to a live cellist? If you connect with the cellist, it might feel like a sacred experience of Oneness. Again, you absorb vibrations and an alchemical process takes place in your body.

The reason why I gave food and music scenarios, is to point out the obvious of musical vibration. I wish to emphasize the importance of tracking your bodies’ responses to sounds and music you expose to it. Collectively “music” seems like too generic a term because it hails from every tradition, every nation and was created with a specific purpose in mind, including community-building, work songs, prayer/meditation songs, educational and entertainment.

We still sing lullabies to restless children and to ourselves when we feel frightened. Circus music transports us back to childhood and the blues might stir our repressed emotions leading to catharsis. But those are obvious scenarios and I believe that there needs to be a greater purpose and consciousness behind the music we choose to have in our lives. We need to spend more time tracking our emotional and physical responses to music. Then we use music purposefully in our lives.

That Magical, Musical Carpet Ride…

So how do we do that? The ultra sensitive people will experience the most fun with this task which involves the art of listening to music. I took a college course with that exact title, The Art of Listening to Music. The professor had us listen to the same Bach Fugue in G for every class, but I was immature at the time to hear the subtleties in Bach’s fugue. And sadly when it comes to appreciating music, I find that many people (outside of musicians, scholars, and music reviewers) have not developed the art.

We play music in the background and multitask or worse we hold a conversation instead of listening to the music. So then why play the music at all? Or worse, we attend symphony concerts because we need to fulfill a subscription or it’s a great place to run into colleagues.

But what if people came together as a community to actually celebrate the beautiful music presented, to sit quietly (no fidgeting, coughing or whispering to your colleague) and allow yourself to meld into Oneness with the orchestra musicians, the dead composer, the concert goers and the spirit of the music itself? If you allow the music to transport you to that place of Oneness then for that moment you have experienced higher consciousness.

Steps to Developing Musical Soul Food

Perhaps attending a symphony concert does not appeal to you, but reaching a state of higher consciousness through sound vibration does. The quickest route involves listening to sacred music from any spiritual tradition, as long as the performers set the right intention. Sound healing tools (although not melodic music), can clear blockages in chakras and provide an avenue for higher consciousness. World music, jazz, classical and some folk music traditions might also lead to higher consciousness especially if some kind of movement such as dance is involved.

I’ve melded with Oneness dancing to West African music and I’ve also experienced Oneness sitting quietly listening to Indian ragas played during the right season and right time of day. Musicians experience Oneness while they’re composing, recording and performing.

Step 1: Experiment with different kinds of music while learning the history and purpose behind the musical tradition. (For best results use instrumental or music sung in a foreign language).

Step 2: Enter a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted, make yourself comfortable and with or without headphones listen to the music. When I say listen to the music, I’m not asking you to theorize or analyze the sounds, rhythm and texture or to even get lost in the lyrics, but to listen with your heart/emotions.

Step 3: After you have listened to the music while sitting quietly, try adding movement (dance) and allow the music to take you on its journey. Lose your sense of time/space and bond with the music.

Step 4: When you have completed your listening, thank the music for its gift.


Think of music as soul food with specific intent and purpose. Learn the roots (cultural and historical) of your favorite music genres and try to align the right music with the right purpose for best results. As you practice the above steps, you will gain a deeper understanding for sound vibration and empower yourself in the process. Not only that, you will allow music to transport you on the highway of higher consciousness. Bon voyage!

Originally published in New Spirit Journal.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Practice: Africa! (My African Music List)

Music of the African continent leans towards earthy and robust with rich polyrhythms, soaring voices and rife with tribal traditions.  From the fascinating nature-based music of the Central African pygmies, to Malian blues, to Cape Verdean morna, and the ancient calls of Senegalese griot, “the dark continent,” provides music in abundance.  You could spend your entire life exploring the music of Africa and still not get past the tip of the iceberg.

Here are a handful of African recordings from my music library.  Many of you have amassed 100s of recordings, but I only have a small collection.  While I would imagine that every culture on the planet provides us with music for dancing, I find that African music and Afro-Latin music provides us with deep grounding.  Not only that, but nothing like moving that energy out of your hips, and thighs.  Here is my list.

1. Cesaria Evora, Nha Sentimento, LusaAfrica

The late Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora has left a huge gap in the world music community.  Known as the barefoot singer, the chanteuse’s understated vocals expressed a wide range of emotions.  She made singing seem effortless while lifting the spirits of her fans.  She has a huge influence on the younger crop of Cape Verdean Diaspora vocalists, such as Lura.

2. Habib Koite & Bamada, Afriki, Cumbancha

You did not think I would leave out Habib Koite of Mali, did you? Koite has his own style of playing guitar that has a folk and bluesy edge. He sings about stuff that matters socio-politically and personally in his honeyed vocals.  His music appeals to fans of African and American blues, though his sound is more “pop” and definitely accessible even when sung in Malian dialects and French.

3. El Tanbura, Between the Sea and the Desert, World Village

Hailing from the coast of Egypt, a fishing port, the collection of fishermen and philosophers, El Tanbur, kick up dust with their delicious Egyptian rhythms along with ancient lyres and harps.  They conjure snaky melodies sung in call and response vocals inviting listeners to learn exotic scales and modes.  These infectious beats will have you belly dancing in no time or at least wiggling your hips.

4. Gigi, Zion Roots, Network Median GmBh

From Egypt to Ethiopia, the Ethiopian pop-electronic diva Gigi returns to her sacred roots on this acoustic album of traditional Ethiopian music.  The sacredness seeps from the recording feeling your space with peace and a desire to visit the northeast corner of Africa. 

5.  Ballak√© and Vincent Segal, Chamber Music, Six Degrees

Chamber music is the result of European classical cello and Malian classical kora connecting and intersecting.  The low tones of the cello blend well with the shimmering tones of the West African harp.  Griots and European explorers get on well this time around, causing me to wish that musicians had ruled over our various cultures instead of warriors.  This is one of those albums that leaves you in awe and wondering what could have and what might have been if humans connected deeper musically.

6. Trio Ifriquiya, Petite Planéte, World Village

What happens when a French jazz pianist, and an Arabic oud/violinist and a West African drummer collaborate? The musical planet shrinks and Arab-Andalusian music takes on new dimensions. I have not listened to this CD in a long while, but found it breathtaking upon the first few listens.

7. Ablaye Cissoko and Volker Goetze, Sira, ObliqSound

A German jazz trumpeter combines his clear tones with West African kora.  It’s a strange combo of instruments that works marvelously well and the result is a set of unforgettable songs.

8. Baka Beyond, Call of the Forest, White Swan Records

Long before Afro-Celt Sound System bounced into the world music community, British musicians Martin Cradick and his wife Su Hart ventured into the central African forests and explored the music of the Baka (pygmy) people.  More than a feel-good humanitarian project, the musical blend of Celtic fiddles and guitar with West African and Baka percussion and vocals has more power to lift vibration that several Putumayo compilations played in a row. That’s saying a lot. Effervescent and earthy, Baka Beyond hits the spot.

9. Lokua Kanza, Nkolo, World Village

If you listen to African pop and world music fusion projects you would have already heard Kanza’s vocals.  His solo recording features folksy African ballads that could leave you feeling a bit moody.  It’s one of the more accessible sounding African recordings in my collection.

10. Samite, Embalasassa, Triloka

Hailing originally from Uganda and now residing in Upstate New York, Samite is an extraordinary storyteller, and all-around musician.  Not only is he a delight to watch in concert, in any venue, Samite’s soulful music came to my attention long before sound healing or music therapy.  Samite founded the non-profit Musicians for World Harmony that brings instruments and music lessons to refugees, former soldiers, and AIDS patients in Uganda and other parts of Africa.

11. Women Care, collective, CARE/Kirkelig Kulturversted

Women Care marks another charity project album this time for the women of Africa.  This album features 4 European vocalists teaming up with 4 African vocalists as they sing about the many issues that African women encounter on a daily basis.  The women don’t flinch even going as far as singing about female circumcision (which they are against) and bringing in the famous Tracy Chapman tune, “Fast Car” which oddly fits in.  The songs are sung in mostly English and French.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Practice: Listening to Ragas ( A list of 10 raga recordings)

Ragas were introduced in the West during the 1950s, and grew in popularity in the United States with Ravi Shankar performing both Indian classical music recitals and performing in pop-rock music festivals. His musical relationship with George Harrison also brought the sitar and ragas to public prominence in the West.

Today, ragas come in many guises, from pure and sacred to pop and jazz fusion.  A variety of young talent emerges from India these days blending raga traditions from the South and North of the Subcontinent.  Western instruments were introduced as well, such as the saxophone and slide guitar, though the Indian slide guitar is different in that it contains sympathetic strings much like an Indian sarod or sitar.  Any fan of world music has come across Indian ragas in one form or another.

I pulled out a random stack of CDs from my Indian music collection.  You can use these recordings as a jumping off point or you can visit a public library and check out raga compilation albums. Rough Guide has a few and I believe Putumayo has at least one compilation featuring ragas.  You can also check out local Indian classical music performers in your region and most likely, can purchase recordings from those musicians.  So, here is my short list.

1. Shastriya Syndicate, Syndicated, Sense World Music

This collection of young musicians from North and South India provides an innovated set of short ragas.  These ragas do not start with an Alap and end with the composition/improvisation, but are in fact, the composition.  Extremely modern sounding, you will not only find the ragas here pleasurable, but you will also encounter some phenomenal young musicians.

2. Desert Slide (a Sense World Music Collective featuring Vishwa Mohan Bhatt & Musicians of Rajasthan), Sense World Music.

This is Indian desert music with gorgeous Indian slide guitar and passionate Rajasthan gypsy vocals.  Again, the sound is modern and the ragas fall on the shorter, more radio-friendly side.  Personally, I love this CD.

3. Autorickshaw, Four Higher, Independent Release-Canada

I first saw Autorickshaw at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 2003.  When this Indian music-jazz fusion band launched into Duke Ellington's Caravan, I was hooked.  This recording, (the band's second), features Caravan, A Night in Tunisia, and ragas.  It's as modern as it gets.  American jazz and Indian ragas flow well together, both relying heavily on improvisation and musicians connecting with each other.

4. Tarun Bhattacharya, The Art of the Indian Santoor, Arc Music

This particular recording acts as an introduction to raga and to the Indian zither, santoor.  You will hear actual ragas starting with the Alap and ending with the composition.  You could always start with this recording if you're new to ragas.

5. Shweta Jhaveri, anahita, Intuition Music and Media

My immersion into Indian ragas did not come without some embarrassing moments. Anahita was one of the first Indian classical recordings I reviewed for World Music Central.  I had read misinformation that khayals, a vocal genre of ragas were light classical, but in fact, this is a serious form of raga that takes much talent and vocal dexterity.  Shweta Jhaveri set me straight on that and I thank her for this gift.

The biggest mistake a music reviewer can make is to fall into a trap of arrogance.  There is much to learn in exploring music from other cultures and humility is an asset.  This album features khayals in a modern setting because Jhaveri worked with western musicians.  And by the way, take a listen to Jhaveri's lovely vocals, not to mention her dedication to classical Indian vocal music.

6. Kaushiki Chakrabarty, Pure, Sense World Music

If you seek young vocal talent from India, look no further than this single disc, by the daughter of Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, a phenomenal classical Indian vocalist. Kaushiki's vocals wowed the BBC radio programmers and will wow you.  In fact, if you seek Indian classical vocals with pyrotechnics, this is one is for you.  These are complete ragas sung in khayal and thumri.

7. Ronu Majumdar, Jewels of India, Sense World Music

If you seek a bansuri flute (an Indian bamboo flute) recording by a master, then give a listen to Jewels of India.  I have several recordings by Ronu Majumdar and all are equally pleasurable listens.  This particular recording features evening ragas.

If you are not familiar with ragas, each raga portrays a specific time of day, season, or mood.  I find it best to listen to each ragas during its proper time so I would listen to this disc during the evening.  I learned that if I don't listen to a raga at its designated time or season, I do not experience its full effect.

8. Debashish Bhattacharya, Calcutta Slide-Guitar, Riverboat Records/World Music Network

If guitar and slide guitar are your favorite instruments, then you'll love this recording.  Debashish designs and constructs his Indian slide guitars, and on this album, he performs ragas on three sizes of slide guitars.   The ragas are both accessible to new listeners and pleasurable to listen to.  I also find this album relaxing and I sampled from it for a music for doshas workshop I taught in 2009.

9. Amjad Ali Khan, Moksha, Real World Records

In classical Indian music duets are called jugalbandi and on this recording, father and sons perform ragas on sarod, a type of instrument I cannot even begin to describe, but similar to the sitar has sympathetic strings that vibrate under the struck notes. The instrument is a member of the lute family and reminds me of an Indian banjo.  The ragas here fall on the short and accessible side.  Again, this is a good starter CD for new raga listeners.

10. Ravi Shankar, Nine Decades, Volume 1, East Meets West Music-Harmonia Mundi

While Pandit Ravi Shankar, the most popular proponent of classical Indian music performs ragas in their purest form, he also has performed and composed for movie soundtracks, orchestras, and collaborated with musicians from the West.  You cannot listen to Indian ragas and not give a thorough listen to Ravi Shankar's raga performances.  It's almost as if, to truly understand the language of ragas, you need to listen to the Indian classical masters.  If you want to hear a long raga starting with the meditative Alap and ending with the fiery Gat, then give a listen to track 1, Raga Gangeshwari (recorded in 1968 and running 48 minutes).  If this raga does not grab your attention, nothing will. It's a river raga for the Gange.