The silence you can’t express in words

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Praful talks to Punya about playing in Buddha Hall, composing mantras and becoming a big star in the USA (Part 2).

In case you missed part one of this interview, here is the link: Sax in the attic

What had saved me during all the turmoil of my youth was: Music!

Suddenly, when playing in Buddha Hall in Pune, I became aware of a quality in me, a quality I knew I had always had; I could play and bring in something from the beyond, the unspeakable, the silence that you can’t express in words. I simply knew I had the capacity of allowing that to come through. I just had not trusted it before because, you know, with the whole Jazz training I had become too closed… But it was always there, that which wanted to be expressed. That was maybe what had been so frustrating before I came to Pune: I could not really find a way to make a living and still bring that out in the music.

It’s like something from another dimension, you can call it silence, meditation, essence. Then it’s not just music for entertainment, but something that makes you sink deeper and get in touch with something sacred, and very still, inside yourself.

As a Jazz musician I was used to playing very complex music; maybe a song where the chords change every two beats and the key changes every few bars… So, to improvise over something like that you have to be very concentrated and also mentally focused. Now, I was playing for some 1500 people meditating in Buddha Hall, where I could play just a single note and could feel how that one note was received by 1500 hearts. The music was sort of making a cycle with your own heart, and that space that was between the notes was more precious than the notes themselves.

The tunes we played in Buddha Hall or in the Samadhi were so simple, but the wonderfulness came because of the way we were playing the notes. This is something so sweet, so tender and delicate, and so precious. I played a lot and learned to trust that quality in myself more and more.

In many many ways Osho has saved my life. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t gone to Pune – not only because of the music, but because of my own process, with all the meditation and therapy groups I was doing.

At some point, though, I felt I needed to go back to the West, I needed to play professionally again. For many years, I would say for the whole 90’s, I felt a sort of split in myself, as if I was standing with one leg in the so-called ‘real world’ and with the other in the sannyas world. Sannyasins can really play from the heart, but sometimes their music is lacking a bit of musical quality. Many of them came to music because of meditation and are not skilled musicians. So, I was missing that sometimes. On the other hand, when I was playing with the trained and skilled ‘real musicians’, I was missing something too, feeling, Hey guys, you know you’re not really connecting in the heart.

For two years I toured with Milarepa’s band, One Sky Music. It was the craziest tour I have ever done – it was fantastic. One year Narayani was with us, Rupesh, Satgyan, then Moksha from Sicily sat in for Satgyan on bass for a while. We had Harida who lives in Portugal now, another time Danish Raj Rishi. I remember Mexican Marcos, a wild man he was! We were a real wild bunch. But it was great, it was one of the best times of my life.

Of course we never made a penny. After touring for two months up, down, and across the whole of Europe, we came home with maybe 50 Deutschmarks each in our pockets. But it was an amazing time I have to say! I got to know all Osho meditation centres and discos in Europe, from Risk in Denmark to Miasto in Italy, from Parimal in Germany to centres in the Netherlands. It was just amazing.

But… for me to play only Osho songs was not totally satisfying, as the singer-songwriter style does not allow me to express and share myself fully. So I started exploring different avenues. I had already met and played with Miten before Deva Premal had even made her first CD, but then I toured with them after The Essence was released in ’98.

I remember the first time I heard The Essence. We were in Pune; Deva had not released it yet and wanted to play it to a small select group of friends. It was a big step for her because prior to that she had just been playing the tamboura or singing vocal backgrounds for Miten. I remember that the Dutch therapist Arpito was also there. He gave her much-valued and in-depth feedback to what he was hearing. We were in KP’s room which had a good sound system, leisurely hanging out, lounging on the bed, while she played the album. We listened for a whole hour without saying a word – it was so beautiful! And of course we had no idea how big this was going to become…

We all felt there was something beautiful happening there. When I was back in Amsterdam, Miten and Deva asked me to join them in their band. A whole band again, also with Satgyan and I think Rupesh. Deva slowly slowly started singing more and more mantras. And that’s also when I started composing new mantras for her. Before that I didn’t have any connection with mantras at all, but from my musical training, I already had a background about how to put music to existing words.

In fact, I had already composed a lot of musical pieces, mostly instrumental; for instance in my bands we always played our own music. And now I felt like giving it a try with the mantras. Deva gave me the words – or I found them, I do not remember – but the first one I composed for her was the one which goes like this: Om shree saché maha prabhu. I played it to her and she really liked it.

For that same album, Love Is Space, which was released in 2000, I also made the arrangement / adaptation for Ide Wede Wede, a song in the West-African language of the Yoruba, dedicated to Oshun, the goddess of love and rivers. It’s a chant she now sings at almost every concert. Little did I know that as years passed, this song would become a standard in so many singing circles around the planet! I’m also often playing it myself in my solo concerts and have recently released my own recording of it, with a different vibe and approach from Deva’s.

This is how I started composing for Deva. Apart from composing, I had also written a lot of lyrics over the years, but still what comes easiest and most natural to me is to create music around a text that is already there. That’s why I also like to take Rumi’s poems, because then I already have a kind of input. I can take that, and then it sort of starts from there – it’s releasing my creativity. This is maybe why I got into it; because I enjoyed taking something given and then working on that. I also got more and more into writing original lyrics over the years, mostly in English, Portuguese and Spanish, but my strongest access to music is still sound – the words come second.

For Deva’s next album, Embrace, I composed four pieces, like OM Namoh Bhagawate, Om Tare Tuttare, Om Ram Ramaya. After that came Dakshina, for which I composed almost the whole album for them, and I also co-produced it in London together with Martyn Phillips, Miten and Deva.

Since then, every two years I close the door of my studio for a whole week; I hardly come out – and just keep composing new songs for Deva. I then make a little demo recording for her where I sing everything I have come up with, sometimes up to ten songs. She then listens to them and if she likes something that works for her, she will pick it out and maybe change the key to suit her voice range.

On most of her CDs, until a few years ago, she had always one or two song that I had composed for her. Of course, for me it was a wonderful way of helping Miten and Deva out, bringing in my creativity and also creating a little extra (copyright) income for myself. It was a win-win situation for us all, I think.

In Amsterdam, where I was living in the 90’s and early 00’s, there was a very large music scene. I was playing a lot, no longer so much Jazz, more all sorts of ‘world music’ and crossovers, like Salsa, African and Brazilian music. I had lived in Brazil with my first long-time partner, my first wife, a Brazilian sannyasin I had met in Pune, Safi. That’s why I speak Portuguese. I also speak Spanish, so I had an easy connection with all these musicians.

I had several bands with people from many different countries. I also often played in clubs and discos with various DJs, making people dance to semi-acoustic and electronic music. And some time later I met the Dutch-Moroccan Ecstatic-Dance-DJ Kareem Raïhani, with whom I started releasing conscious dance music under the name Red Fulka. We made the album We Are One and continue to create new dancing pieces to this day.

That was the 90’s for me. I was playing with sannyasins and also doing a lot of freelance work. Basically, I was doing anything I could get my hands on. Then I started feeling a bit like, Okay, to continue this freelance playing at every wedding and at every party that you can get booked for is not very satisfying. I was already in my mid-30’s. I felt I should take another step in my career and find ways of creating my own music.

Yeah, but what is ‘me’? I am still not totally going for ME, I realised.

At the time I had a girlfriend who was a physiotherapist, and in 1999, as a Christmas gift, I made some music for her that she could use in her massage sessions. In a way, it was a kind of excuse to start get going with something different, just for myself. And for me it was the most beautiful way of giving something to her – and it became my first… it wasn’t even meant to come out as a real …album! It’s called Touched by Love. It’s basically one piece of music with different sections and ocean waves in between.

Back in Pune, when people heard it they kept asking me to make a copy for them (in those days you could make CD-copies on your laptop). I kept making more and more copies and, of course, not asking anything for them because you can’t really ask money for a home-burnt copy… Then I said to myself, Well, this is really stupid, I should just get it out as a CD and then I can sell it. And that’s how my first album was born. I brought it out independently on my own label. Touched by Love. I no longer have it in print – though still people sometimes ask for it. But it’s available for download or streaming via my Bandcamp profile.

At that time, in Amsterdam, I was also involved in experimental music. We had a band, Project 2000, and were mixing drum and bass with World music. One band member was a Senegalese singer, then there was an MC/rapper, and a drummer from Bulgaria. Like in a sannyas band, people from all over the world, from different cultures, mixing different cultures: a black man singing in his native language, Wolof, a German Jazz-cat playing sax and flute (that would be me), a drummer who also used ethnic percussions, and three guys from Holland doing Rap and electronic stuff, programming beats and synths. On our album, for some pieces, we also recorded a whole orchestra. Most of it was very fast music, great for the last slot at any major outdoor festival. This band was very successful, especially as a live act, and we had a record deal with one of the major record labels, Universal.

Through this connection with Universal, I got a deal with a label in Amsterdam, Therapy Records, which gave me a contract to make my own albums, a mix of jazz with lounge / chillout music and electronic flavours. It was the time when lounge music became really big. It’s the kind of music you now hear everywhere, in a café along the beach, like where we are sitting now. You would hear it softly in the early evening in a bar when you are having your first drink, but then an hour later it could be turned up and people can start dancing to it. It has a beat but not that pump pump. It has a heart quality to it also, like all the Café del Mar music from Ibiza. This kind of music started in Amsterdam and in Ibiza. So, in Amsterdam we were at the birthplace of it.

The record label basically gave me carte blanche. The deal was for three albums.

I’ve brought a few CDs with me to show you. This is the first album I made with a label. It’s called One Day Deep. It came out in 2001. First it didn’t do much, at least in Holland, but two years later a scout from a label in L.A. found it being played at the ADE conference in Amsterdam and they thought, Oh, this is going to work in America, and introduced it to the States. The first single they brought to the Jazz radio station was the song Sigh – and it became number one on the billboard chart!

Already when the song was rising in the charts, the label said, “You know, something is happening here with this music, you have to come over.” So I scrambled something together, took with me the Dutch label owner who was also a DJ, and together with a percussion player and a female singer from California I quickly formed a little band. We did some concerts, mostly company concerts organized by the label. It was my first time playing in the States, mostly around California. I stayed for a few weeks and had a little holiday also. The very day I left California, Sigh became #1 on the radio. So we were drinking champagne in the record label office just before we set off to the airport to fly back to Holland.

Once you have a number one hit, suddenly everybody starts asking, Who is this guy? If you have a #1 hit it means your piece is heard on 42 local Jazz radio stations, because they are all inter-connected and form a nationwide radio format. And suddenly all doors open. Within no time I had a management and booking agent in the US, who booked me concerts for the next 3 to 4 years.

I think that between 2003 and 2006 I played over 100 concerts in the States. So, I was there sometimes for a week or two, playing 3, 4, 5 concerts. I always went over with my own band from Europe, which was a mixed bunch from Holland, Bulgaria and Iran. I liked to bring my own sound, I didn’t want to sound like the typical LA band which I find a bit too cheesy. But I often also integrated some musicians from the US, like the Brazilian singer Katia Moraes, or Marquinho, a percussion guy who used to tour with Mariah Carey.

So, I became a bit of a rising star over there. For a while it seemed like it was the way to go, but somewhere within me I again felt I was coming off the path. My heart was calling me to realign myself.

Because of that hit on the radio I had become a ‘smooth Jazz star’, but I never wanted to play this sort of contemporary Jazz! I find it a very cheesy, slick kind of music. With guys like George Benson, it was great and original at the start, but then it became a very commercial sort of thing. Most artists were just copying each other and following formulas that had proven successful at some point in the past. And of course, if you are moving in this sort of circuit you get more and more sucked into the whole thing.

After three or four years… First of all it was always difficult to travel from Europe; the overheads were very high, including all the tickets, hotel rooms, work visas etc. Also my relationship with Amura, the physiotherapist, broke because I was always abroad. I also had an affair with my singer – a typical musician-on-the-road story. After the separation I was still riding on that fame-wave and kept touring in the States. But I started getting sick sometimes and felt increasingly disconnected and not understood by the team I was working with.

Then in 2004 I met Vimal, who is still my partner. She is Norwegian. We met while I was playing in Sweden at the No Mind Festival in Ängsbacka and we immediately fell in love with each other. She came to live with me in Amsterdam. She really loved me, but she could also see that I had an ego blown up from here to Tokyo. I was a bit of a star in a certain scene, and over in the States people also make you a star… they definitely invented stardom. It’s very hard not to believe your own hype because they create this hype around you. So, Vimal basically chopped my head off and put my feet back on the ground, haha. That was the beginning of me pulling out from that US-adventure.

But in 2005, I still brought out a second album, Pyramid in your Backyard, the follow-up from One Day Deep. It wasn’t a big hit, like the first one, which had sold more than 100,000 copies in the States. Record sales were already going down massively at that time, and the whole music business worldwide was about to go through an intense phase of reorganising and reinventing how to get the music to listeners and also earn some money with it.

All this lead to the eventual bankruptcy of the L.A. record label, which also meant very little financial return for me from all my work in the US. In 2006, I played my last concerts in the US, on a Jazz cruise ship going from San Diego down the Mexican coast and stopping at several harbours, together with American artists like George Duke, Chris Botti, Dave Koz and many others.

After this, it became absolutely clear to me that I didn’t want to keep on doing this. I wanted to come back to and realign with my true and deeper purpose in life, which is play for people who want to go into a deeper journey with me, into a no-mind space, into meditation, into ecstasy, into a place of absolute stillness, either through dancing or through more silent music; it doesn’t matter, it’s the same for me. Music as a medicine, music for healing body, mind and soul. So, I basically quit all that U. S. scene around 2006-2007.

And again there was this bit of existential fear coming over me.

I was still living in Amsterdam with my beloved Vimal. We both became involved with the spiritual scene in Holland, not just the sannyas scene but a whole alternative movement that had formed there. Together with other people we created a festival, inspired by the No Mind Festival in Sweden. We called it Open Up Festival. It has been running almost every year since 2006, with a few interruptions, like Covid time. We were quite involved, Vimal was on the Board of Directors and I played with the musicians as a sort of artist-in-residence. Something was now happening in my life that was taking me in a direction where I was actually longing to go.

To be continued in part 3…

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Praful is a master sound healer, multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer and producer based in Germany.


Punya is the founder of Osho News, author of many interviews and of her memoir On the Edge.

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