Paul Prem Nadama talks to Punya about his life as a television director and singer-songwriter, and what taking on a new name means to him.
You told me that during autumn/winter you work in a harsh, ego-centric, ruthless and ambitious world, staging British television shows such as ‘Have I got news for you’ and ‘Live at the Apollo’. On the other hand I have seen you for quite a few summers here in Arillas, Corfu, participating in mantra events and singing your own songs in various, quite meditative settings. It appears you are living an interesting and for sure challenging life in two different worlds. Would you like to talk about this?
‘Have I got news for you’ is a satirical comedy show making fun of the main political events of the week, bringing in also smaller, sillier stories or celebrities gossip. And ‘Live at the Apollo’ is the biggest stand-up comedy programme on British telly. Both shows are on BBC. The two shows are well known in the UK as well as in Holland, Germany, and Scandinavian countries, or wherever there are enough people who have good English.
I am a studio director. Before each show I arrange camera positions in the best way to cover the show and agree to lighting cues and other details (props, music cues or whatever is needed for that particular evening). During the show I am the one in the control room calling the shots. Sometimes I also suggest other talent to the production team.
Television is a very competitive business. There are some very ambitious people, drawn to this media world because it seems so cool to be involved in something that is seen on TV. This work atmosphere affects me because I am just not like that, I have never been ambitious; it is not my way. The job came to me, I did not actively set out to be a television director, I did not seek it. Sometimes I feel I have to play a game that is not true to myself. When other people are stressing and fussing, as often happens in television, I manage to stay centered and honest, and calm.
But I’ve been blessed to work with many charming comedians, among the best in the UK, and I’ve had a lot of fun along the way. Some of them have actually called me ‘the buddha director’, not only because of my shaven head (!) but because they must have picked up or tuned in on my calm and solid way of doing things. I tell people, if ever they hear me shout at anyone they are welcome to shove me out the door. It will be the day I quit for good.
How did the job then come to you?
At university I studied physics… very handy for a musician and a comedy director! I grew up always doing the done thing. I had always been an all-rounder, quite good at a lot of things, but did not know what I wanted to do; so, being a boy, I was told to do a science degree. I had just picked up playing guitar and, although I was doing well and loving it, I never had the confidence or belief to consider this as a career possibility. I had been brought up with the phrase; ‘children should be seen and not heard’ or, ‘don’t make a fuss, play the game’, and for the first half of my life that’s exactly what I did.
It was a tough time at university, a complete disaster, but I scraped a degree. Afterwards I applied to many jobs but in one of those ‘guided’ moments, the job I got was to be the sound effects guy for the BBC radio. You can imagine, I had objects on the table, tea cups, door handles, a tray of gravel, coconut shells in case a horse turns up, and the like… I loved it! I absolutely loved it. The best job I ever had.
Within the BBC I changed jobs several times and moved from radio to television. Long story short, one day I was offered a director’s job at ITV, the then only independent station in the UK. I became connected with many comedy producers which then led me to these shows. I am now self-employed but mostly work for the BBC and with small independent companies.
All this just came to me; I did not have to fight to get these job. On a practical level it meant I could support a family. When I was 21, I married my first girlfriend and became a father of two daughters quite quickly. So moving up the television ladder helped a lot. I was now doing the ‘normal’ thing of paying for a family life. It was a challenging relationship and it was a difficult time for both of us, but I was good at taking care of things and did all I could to make things work.
Everything changed on 1st of May 1993, the day my dad died. I asked myself the question, ‘Is this it? Is this all there is? You do your job, you pay your bills, you play the game and then you die?’ Basically, I realised I was just surviving; I was not living. I hardly took my guitar out of the box. When you are in situations like these you just do the minimum, you just exist. But somehow, I had always ‘known’ within me that I was not being true to my self, my path. But growing up in an unconscious world it’s so difficult to identify or articulate what that feeling is. For many of us it needs a trauma or loss, or something similar, to ‘wake up’…
Within a short space of time I walked away from the marriage. I left with just the guitar and a bag of clothes, I gave away everything else, house, stuff, etc… ( I read recently that when Osho’s dentist was going through a divorce, Osho advised him to do exactly the same, ‘leave everything behind’.) I did remain close to my daughters, of course, but carried on with the TV because I had to keep paying for everybody.
When marriages break up it rattles many cages, you also lose your friends. The structures that were around you collapse. I was living in a tiny box room above a Greek restaurant. Nobody visited me, nobody knew where I lived. During that time I had a relationship (I went to her place), my son Oliver was born, who is now 19 year old, and shortly afterwards my mother passed away. This meant that my brother, who has a learning difficulty, was now also dependent on me. Unsurprisingly, my relationship with Oliver’s mom did not work out either. All this in the space of a couple of years. I was still only 38.
This was my chaos time. I went from playing it straight into total chaos. But simultaneously my TV career was more successful than ever, 14 hours a day were the norm. I threw myself into the world of television, anything to keep the mind busy…
On top of all this I started up a party band with my friends and daughters. Initially we were doing gigs for cancer charities but then we became a semi-professional function band. We had some great times, we had good fun and I re-discovered my passion for playing music, for singing and performing. My daughters are good singers; Katy also plays keyboard or bass while Sarah was the main singer. I did guitar and the male vocals. The rest of the band was a couple of old school friends or we hired session musicians.
During that time I also discovered something called Biodanza which is a wonderful form of music and movement, representing all aspects of humanity and connection, using all genres of music. Truly beautiful. I even went as far as doing the training to become a Biodanza teacher, and made many friends in this new ‘spiritual’ world.
One of them was Stephen, a social worker, a lovely guy, who like me was doing the training and attending the group every Thursday in Covent Garden. Quite unexpectedly I noticed that he had missed a few weeks. Then his wife Helen called me with the shocking and sad news that Stephen was in fact very ill, in the latter stages of stomach cancer. He was 51.
I knew I had to go see him immediately, and as I arrived in the Intensive Care room I recognised straight away the familiar shrunken body and pale-yellow skin like, not so long ago, my father had in his final days. The doctors had told Helen he had 48 hours to live as the cancer had begun shutting down organs in his body. It was two days before Christmas.
Although sad to witness this man, who not so long ago had been vibrantly dancing around a hall, I was able to be with this, and spoke to him softly at his bedside. There was no response as he was on a ventilator and hooked up to many machines.
Helen suddenly asked, “Have you got your guitar with you?”
“It’s actually in the boot of my car,” I replied.
“Go get it!”
So I did. I returned with my guitar and took it out the box, looking around at the 4 or 5 other very sick people in the room, and the nursing staff, as if to check they were OK with this. “I will play very quietly,” I said.
The nurse nodded and I gently began picking the chords to a song we often played at Biodanza classes and I knew Stephen loved, and old Celtic melody, ‘Listen to the River’. It’s about the life-cycle of a salmon. I began to sing, whispering at first, but then a little stronger.
What followed next will stay with me forever. Around half-way through the song, I noticed a twitch in Stephen’s eyes, then slowly but surely, his head moved a little, then turned to face me. By the end of the song he had a smile on his face, and was even trying to mouth the song, as if he was singing along. Tears flowed from all of us present in the room, aware we were witnessing something very special. Stephen moved a hand in a kind of wave.
“He means to keep going!” said Helen. And that I certainly did…
I played another 5 or 6 songs over the next half hour during which time Stephen had almost sat up, removed the oxygen mask and was indeed humming and chanting along as best he could. I was singing through tears, my whole body shaking with the joy for what was happening.
Stephen did not die in two days as the doctors had said, but he lived another two weeks, into the new year. He was a very popular and much-loved man and these two weeks gave a wonderful opportunity for his friends and family to say goodbye and tell him what he had meant to them.
I went back twice more in the Christmas / New Year holiday, again with the guitar, each time greeted by cheers from the staff and any patients and friends present. On the last time I visited, Stephen was now ‘letting go’, we could all see that. I sang ‘Listen to the River’ one more time and left him with Helen in the private room. Shortly after this he passed.
I am so grateful for this precious parting gift Stephen had given me. Before this event, I had seen my music and singing as something I did for fun or for money. I was often frustrated to see that what I did was not successful or meaningful. But I had never realised what a vital healing tool music can be, especially when I let go of any intention, expectation or ambition and return to the purity of just playing heartfelt melodies, wherever and whenever it feels right. It’s an awareness I will carry with me for ever. As Osho says, “An ambitious man cannot be creative, he is driven by his own ambition.”
Later, while attending a Biodanza retreat holiday in Lesvos, I met my now wife Luna. This time I was on my path. I was living life more the way I intuitively knew it should be. Through the dance and music I had re-discovered my true sense of self, my self-identity. So, falling in love with Luna felt the most natural and flowing thing I had ever done.
Within a year, I had moved to Luna’s home country, Holland, and a year later Isabel was born. For five years I commuted to London to work for a few days at a time. Now we have been living in the UK for the last six years.
It was during Biodanza classes that I first heard a tune to which we were dancing to, called ‘There is so much magnificence’. It really went very deep with me. I tracked it down and through that I discovered the music of Deva and Miten. That’s when I first experienced the effect of mantras and sacred songs. Coincidentally, the songs and tunes I wrote before I met them were of a similar nature, but I thought no one would want to listen to them.
I was now inspired to bring my songs to the public and discovered that it is possible to just do what you want to do. It is not an ego thing, it is rather that I just go play and sing wherever an invitation or opportunity comes along, without expectation. I just set it free! I trust and know – not with my head but within myself – that whatever I do is good enough, more than good enough.
Ideally, I would choose to abandon television completely and focus 100% on music. But my intuition tells me that, if music is my path, something will happen that will make it also financially possible. We have already simplified our living arrangements, as we live in a shared community house. That allows me to take more time off for music and travels, and spend less time at work (from June till August not much is happening work-wise anyway). This year we have been travelling since the end of June with our camper van across Europe, stopping in Holland where I did four concerts, then through France, Italy and to Greece to attend the Gayatri Festival. We have been coming to sing with Deva and Miten for the last six years.
Last year you were given a new name, Prem Nadama, by Miten. What does this mean to you?
It was the perfect thing at exactly the right time. I have been committing myself more and more to music and my old surname had so many attachments to the past. Last year I felt very strongly that I would love Miten to suggest a new name for me. When I asked him I could feel him resonating with this. Two days later they pulled me out of the crowd and gave me the name, Prem Nadama, in front of everyone. The word nadama means ‘melodies’ and prem means ‘love’. I love the name. Miten said, “You are the guy with the love songs. This is what you do.” And he was absolutely right. It is what I had always done, I just hadn’t truly owned it before… When I first picked up the guitar at 16 I was always drawn to melodies and love songs, while other guitarists wanted to play loud rock, although I have also done my fair share of that. My wife calls me ‘walking jukebox’ because I play so many different genres of songs; I know by heart the lyrics and chords of hundreds of songs.
When I perform I use the name combination Paul Prem Nadama, because I wanted to let go of the surname from the past, but still embrace the name my dad and mom gave me. I am still happy with people knowing me as Paul, so this seems to work. This feels good to me. Energetically the name change has helped my commitment to take my music to wherever it leads me. It feels great to have this name. It is more authentic as a music name because it reflects truly where I am now.
Do you use your new name also at work?
No, I use my old name. It would be difficult for anyone to understand the sannyas name. I do not have any connections on a spiritual level at work. And there is also a practical reason; being self-employed it is important that TV companies can still find Paul Wheeler, otherwise the work would disappear. They would think I have vanished, and that I cannot afford at the moment. But I also know that this apparent ‘double-life’ is my path, I am meant to have done all this TV stuff. And a little of my ‘buddha’ energy might rub off on some of the people in the TV world!
I am also delighted to be working on a new project, ‘Positive TV’, an internet channel featuring some of the wonderful work people are doing around the world. So maybe here’s the opportunity to use my TV skills to give a platform for activities of higher global consciousness.
Thank you, Nadama.
Paul Prem Nadama intends to tour Holland and Germany with his music in 2018. If anyone is interested in hosting a concert or mantra evening can get in contact with him through his website.