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MPR’s Euan Kerr talks with guitarist Steve Tibbetts about his recent work. Tibbetts, whose work is primarily instrumental, is trying something new…but also very old, with his latest album "Cho." He adds music to a 900-year-old acapella song cycle performed by Buddhist nuns in Nepal.

Tibbetts has long pushed the boundaries of music, blending rock guitar with computer samples of music and sounds gathered from around the world.

Segment contains music segments.


1998 PRNDI Award of Journalistic Excellence in Best Use of Sound category


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EUAN KERR: In the converted insurance office that serves as his Minneapolis studio--


EUAN KERR: --Steve Tibbetts grabs the Packer phone, its handset mounted in a Green Bay football helmet, and tries to call Nepal.

STEVE TIBBETTS: 01-977-1-- it's Kathmandu. 478246. OK. [INAUDIBLE]

EUAN KERR: Tibbetts is trying to call Choying Drolma, a nun at Nagi Gompa, a Buddhist nunnery at the southern end of the Kathmandu valley, and the singer on Tibbetts' new CD.

STEVE TIBBETTS: It's busy. I mean, it's not busy. It's just impossible to try to get a decent line over there sometimes. We can try in a few minutes.

EUAN KERR: What kind of reaction have you had from the monastery?

STEVE TIBBETTS: I haven't heard. That's why I want to call them. I want to call Choying and see what she thinks.

EUAN KERR: While he waits, Tibbetts tells the story of how working as a travel guide in Nepal for Western students, he spent some time at the nunnery. Each night, the students would return to their lodgings. And he would sit with the translators on the nunnery roof, listening to the distant sounds of the valley below.

STEVE TIBBETTS: And one evening, Andreas, a German translator, came up and said, you should come down to the shrine room and listen to this nun sing. You should bring your tape deck. And so I bundled up my Sony Walkman and the little stereo mic and went down there. And I was so amazed at what I was hearing that I forgot to take it off pause.


There, she was singing. And there was the statues in their niches, and the butter lamps casting their shadows about. And it was a moment of high romance. Definitely. It could have been anywhere. It could have been a thousand years ago or 2,000. And there was her voice in the room.


EUAN KERR: The singing is radiant and sweet. But the songs' meanings are deep and disturbing. Choying Drolma is a practitioner of Cho, a school of Buddhist thought where adherents seek enlightenment by confronting their worst fears. The song cycle, written nine centuries ago, calls on deities and spirits to help in the struggle. Tibbetts went home to Minnesota, but kept playing with the idea of recording the nun's singing and adding music.

He did have one recording of the singing and tried it. Eventually, he approached the nuns with a finished tape. And what he admits was an audacious and quite possibly sacrilegious proposal to record the entire song cycle.

STEVE TIBBETTS: It's like a Tibetan coming to Clarksville, Mississippi, finding Robert Johnson, recording him, taking the tapes back to Tibet, and adding Tibetan longhorns, crashing drums, monks chanting-- putting together a tape and sending it back to Robert Johnson and asking him what he thinks about it. It's that ridiculous.

EUAN KERR: But Choying Drolma and the rest of her choir agreed to the recording. And Tibbetts returned to Nagi Gompa. Getting the recordings was still far from simple. A plan to meet the nuns in town misfired. He went ahead alone. But then the nuns' taxi broke down. From the nunnery high above the valley, Tibbetts watched as they walked up the hot, dusty road in their maroon robes.

STEVE TIBBETTS: So they get to the top and they said, we can't sing. And I said, why not? And she said, because all the omens are wrong. We missed our connection at the gate, we blew out a clutch, and it's a black day. Now this is something we don't deal with here in Minnesota. If the bass player is late and the conga player forgets his conga, well, we just make do. But nobody says it's a black day. And they don't look at the calendar to see how the omens come together and say it's wrong.

EUAN KERR: And there was a further complication.

STEVE TIBBETTS: The main teacher for all these nuns, a man named Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, was about to die. He was two floors above where they were singing and on his way out. He was dead 10 days after I came back to the United States. So that lent a certain atmosphere to their singing.

EUAN KERR: After one hectic week of taping, Tibbetts got what he needed and returned to Minneapolis, recording the singing onto two tracks of a 16-track tape. He then worked for three months adding the music. On a Monday, he might record a guitar track. On Tuesday, perhaps some gongs and percussion. Wednesday, something else, listening only to the singing and not what he'd recorded in previous days.

STEVE TIBBETTS: On Thursday, I'd have seven or eight tracks all created independently. And then I listened to them together with the singing or without, and see what worked together. It's sort of like designing furniture by throwing pieces of wood into a pile in a dark room. And then on Friday, flipping on the lights and seeing what you can sit on.



God! It goes there, it gets through, and then it just cranks out.

EUAN KERR: Maybe somebody left it off the hook?

STEVE TIBBETTS: No. No, it's not. I know what a busy signal sounds like in Nepal.


EUAN KERR: Ultimately, it takes two days to get through to Choying Drolma. She is excited to talk, although she politely explains she's a little upset her picture is on the CD cover. And then there is the question of what she thinks of the album.

CHOYING DROLMA: Well, to be honest-- actually, I didn't really much liked it the way-- I mean, like it was made it up. I mean, like mixing it up with the other music and-- cause originally, it is not that way. But on the other way-- I mean, like I thought, it's also good. I mean-- because to inspire people, different people. So it is also necessary. So I'm quite happy now.

EUAN KERR: Choying Drolma says she hopes people can enjoy the album, Cho, for its own sake. But she says she also hopes it may intrigue some listeners enough to learn more about the spiritual aspects of the songs. Proceeds from the CD will go to pay for a new water system at Nagi Gompa. Choying Drolma says she has also been asked to record with the Beastie Boys. And she's interested in touring the US.

However, she says her long-term future is back at the nunnery, where she hopes to build a special school for the nuns who often miss out on the study opportunities offered to monks.


Steve Tibbett's album, Cho, is released on the Hannibal label. For Minnesota Public Radio, I'm Euan Kerr.



Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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