[This piece by Wu Ming 1 was published on Musica Jazz magazine, no.6, year 64, June 2008]
Jazz has long cultivated a relationship with Eastern religions and philosophies, be they post-modern or traditional, ascetic or business-oriented, extremely serious or charlatanesque: Hinduism, Buddhism, Ba’hai, Osho, Transcendental Meditation ®, and any sort of odd syncretism. In Euro-American popular culture (music, cinema, fashion, graphic design etc.) the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s is marked by the typical enthusiasm of the converted, and it’s a mass enthusiasm. Often phony, but sometimes genuine. Often short-lived, but sometimes enduring. Jazz records are chock-full of intriguing Eastern polysyllables from India, Tibet, Japan and so on: Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda suggests travels to Satchidananda and trips to the lake Paramahansa, chanting “Om Sri Rama Jaya Rama Jaya Jaya Rama” while the Mahavishnu Orchestra is flying on the wings of Karma.
The West’s fascination for “exotic” spirituality or – as is more often the case – exotic aesthetics is not an invention of the twentieth century. It is enough to read Edward Said‘s Orientalism, which has long been the night-table book for post-colonial artists and thinkers.
In the 19th century Arthur Schopenhauer is the first European philosopher to recognize the influence of Buddhism. At the turn of the century, a perfect storm looms over Europe. Two world wars leave the continent weakened and unable to keep her empires, or rather, delegitimized to do so: after having defeated the Nazis, it’s a harsh thing to discover that you yourself are a Nazi towards somebody else. Starting in 1954 (the year of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Indochina), the colonial powers lose their colonies one after another. The weakening of the old world undermines Eurocentrism, and other viewpoints are taken into consideration. For some time, interest in Asia and its cultures has increased in some circles and cultural niches, as has done the popularity of characters as diverse as Krishnamurti, René Guenon, DT Suzuki, Alan Watts… Now that interest overflows, and the Beat Generation takes it to the streets. Jack Kerouac‘s The Dharma Bums is published in 1958. In his poems, Allen Ginsberg drops such names as Swami Sivananda, Khaki Baba and Citaram Onkar Das Thakur, amidst sunflower and vortex sutras and mantras for the King of May. These are the 1960s, the tide gets higher and higher, both jazz (John Coltrane) and rock (George Harrison) explore the ragas of Indian music, and Ravi Shankar’s sitar enters Western concert halls. In 1968, the much sensationalized stay of the Beatles and other celebrities at the court of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi sets off the definitive pop explosion. From now on, it’s a real epidemic. The cultural building that’s erected is decidedly neo-baroque: a bricolage of pagodas, minarets, temples, bas-reliefs, and multicolored glittering ornaments.
Forty years later, much water has flowed under the intercultural bridges, nobody is a novice anymore and the approach is more placid, even in the titles of jazz compositions. There are less cryptic, polysyllabic “assaults”, less baroquisms & inner flames & sapphire bullets of pure love & visions of an emerald Beyond & aphorisms by guru Sri Chinmoy & bliss of the Eternal Now etc. And the covers? More sober, with less psychedelic mandalas and flower patterns. Indeed, Renunciation by the David S. Ware Quartet, while kicking off with a – touching – thanksgiving ode to Ganesh (the elephant-headed god of Hinduism, son of Shiva and Parvati), has a pitch-black cover. And the music? Less “cosmic”, less bloated, and with less horror vacui.
An album such as Nivesana by Daniel Carter and Ravi Padmanabha, although it’s as “indological” as those old 1970s albums could be (and maybe even more so), isn’t flashy or cluttery at all; indeed, it is a discreet jewel. And the title is not stuck with spit as sometimes happens, no, it makes sense, it’s consistent with the music. “Nivesana” is a word in Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, which is used in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Southeast Asia. The term means “home”, “house” or “one’s place”, but can have more connotations, because it is the noun of the verb “Nivis”, which means “to inhabit”, “to dwell”, but also “to enter”, and is connected to “nivasana”, meaning “clothing”, and another verb, “nivedeti”, meaning “to make known.” I think I’m not over-stretching meanings by translating “nivesana” as “the place that’s known as fitting me like a glove.” How do I know these things? Thanks to the Concise Pali-English Buddhist Dictionary compiled by Venerable Buddhadatta Mahathera. The music of Carter and Padmanabha does precisely this: it creates a place that becomes ours, a place that we can wear. In fact, the title track is quiet and meditative, Carter’s sax moves dreamily on a bed of ringings, distant rumbles and faint metallic sounds. We’re home, but this doesn’t imply any cocooning or narrow-mindedness. Maybe we had to go through exotism, before we could achieve this.