Punya reviews Shastro’s recently released album – live improvisations on bansuri, a string of jewels that takes one right inside.
Shastro has been offering guided meditation sessions to groups at Mandali, a retreat centre in Italy, inviting the participants to ‘listen’ in order to still the mind and fall into meditation. This album is a selection of live recordings from these well-attended events he calls ‘Doorway to Silence’. Each piece is almost 10 minutes long, so the album (including the extra 7th track) offers a full hour of delight.
Shastro is a multi-instrumentalist; and you never know what tool he will mesmerise you with next. In this album it is with the bansuri, the Indian bamboo flute. In all tracks he is accompanied by Nishta’s anantara (an instrument that combines a monochord with a tanpura) and – on track 5 – by the voice of Suyana.
When I was asked to write this review, I hesitated at first because I did not even know what a raga is exactly. And I barely knew what an alap is. I only knew what Osho said about it while telling us a joke about Mulla Nasruddin, where the Mulla was crying already while the alap was being played…
Now I know that the alap is the introduction to the raga that contains no rhythm (played by the tabla). Here the soloist is free to improvise in a relatively free and much slower fashion, introducing the specific flavour of that raga – one note at a time, with no hurry. Only later the tabla comes in and the music usually picks up pace, eventually reaching the finale in a very fast tempo.
‘Flute Meditations’ starts with Alap in Hamsadhwani, followed by Alap in Yaman and I sense that alaps are the perfect format to take us into meditation, with flowing, soft, slow rhythm and exploring improvisations before the raga begins to form.
Shastro explained to me that each raga has certain ‘rules’, e.g. you can play only particular notes (these can be 5, 6, 7 or even more), but also at times certain notes can only be played going up the scale and others going down, or certain notes are emphasized more than others (maybe that Eb that sweeps me away each time?). These rules are what gives the raga its specific colour, its mood (which is actually the meaning of ‘raga’).
The two Alaps are followed by Talking to Nature and Mysterious Night. Both feature nature sounds that Shastro added after the live recording. He told me that after finalising the album he is now playing these two pieces live already with the background, because it creates an atmosphere that fits those two ragas and helps with the improvisation.
It is interesting to note that another recording of Talking to Nature, that Buddha Lounge had uploaded – with Shastro’s permission – to their YouTube channel, had just short of 5 million hits. “What surprises me is to see how so many people – and we are not talking about meditators but mainstream people – have a need for this kind of music and are responding,” he writes.
My favourite track is Mysterious Night. Frogs and crickets as I remember them from the many tropical nights, backdrops to our Master’s words, when meditation and his love caught and pulled us into the mysterious. A bit daunting sometimes, maybe. Where is this leading to? Will I be safe? But the sounds of nature reassure us that we are indeed held, that there is nothing to fear. (Again that ‘half note’ trick that caught me elsewhere.) Shastro tells me that all pieces are based on an existing raga but Mysterious Night is based on a 9-note raga he created himself. He named it Raga Sharga.
In Flight of the Swans we meet Suyana, a singer song-writer, originally from Belgium and living in Austria, with whom Shastro had played at a Music Festival in Corfu. “It was so good that we had to meet again. I invited her to come to one of the retreats at Mandali. The amazing thing is that she doesn’t know anything about Indian Classical music and yet she immediately locked into my playing and brought in just the right mood for that piece. A very sensitive and perceptive vocalist.”
These tracks would not have the same quality if they were not recorded live. A big inspiration for Shastro’s playing is of course the audience that provides an anchor for him. Everybody listening attentively, relaxed, going inside and exploring Who is the one hearing? takes him even deeper. An echo effect, mutually helping each other to glide deeper inside as the hour progresses. He says, “The music is always improvised as that is the way to keep me in the present moment. The event is a meditation for me as well, and not only for the listeners.”
With Sitting in Zen I see the black robes of the Zen monks; the blackness represented by the deep drone; the monochord’s sensitively placed overtones are the light on the bamboo mats raining in through the open windows, vibrating between the shadows of tree branches outside. It seems Shastro has been there as well! The depth calling again.
While listening to the final extra track (an absolute must!), Alap in Shivaranjani, I fall in love each time with a particular ‘half note’. I wait with nostalgia for it to come back, then unexpectedly there it is. All the while I descend deeper into meditation, not a cool state of meditation but one full of joy and a big yes.
Shastro’s virtuosity and depth of being brings undoubtedly what we call ‘music for meditation’ to a higher level.
Review by Punya
Available from www.malimba.com
Note that the extra track Alap in Shivanranjani is available to download from the musician’s website only and that for audiophile friends there are uncompressed WAV files in 24 bits – which is higher than CD quality. Put on your best set of Sennheisers!
Shastro took sannyas in 1981. Trained in Italy as a fashion photographer, he had the opportunity to photograph Osho on various occasions in Pune. His creativity soon expanded to music and, together with Sirus, he composed the music for the No Dimensions Meditation. He later founded Malimba Records that, as of today, features 17 of his albums as well as those of 12 other sannyasin musicians. Shastro lives alternatively in the USA and Europe when he is not travelling around the world presenting his musical meditations. shastro.com – malimba.com – shastrophotography.com – link to articles by this author on Osho News.