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- Posted on Dec 1st 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Let's face it: For many of us, when paired with "music," "yoga" is a four-letter word. That smug serenity! That bland New Agey-ness! That indiscriminate, dilettantish plundering of sounds from cultures for the sake of seeming "exotic" and "spiritual!"
See, the music at yoga classes is supposed to enhance the experience, to help the practitioners glide through the poses, mind emptied of external distractions. But if your mind is distractedly filled with thoughts about what music you'd rather be hearing, well, it seems to defeat the purpose. "Make it stop! Make it stop! Make it stop!" is not an effective mantra.
Well, would you feel better with something more like this?
EarthRise SoundSystem, 'Rama'
That's 'Rama,' from the album 'The Yoga Sessions,' by EarthRise SoundSystem, due for official release on New Year's Day.
"All the record works well in class," says yoga instructor Derek Beres. "I teach 15 classes a week, and this is geared toward that."
In a remarkable coincidence, Beres is also half of EarthRise SoundSystem, his partnership with producer-percussionist David Schommer, a.k.a. Duke Mushroom. But it was, in fact, their frustration with conventional yoga music and their deep interest in real global sounds -- not manufactured "exotica" -- that led them to create this set. The idea was to make something that somehow had both the right flow for accompanying yoga poses and substance for those who want the music to stand by itself. A nice balance, you might say.
"David and I took this very much into consideration, especially sequencing for different parts of class," Beres, also a noted world music DJ and journalist, says. "The record is made to be played sequentially for Vinyasa-style [yoga]. Picks up and flows as a class would. Even as I present and pitch the postures, people are moving into my approach and change as the rhythms play."
But what about for those who don't know Uttanasana from Uma Thurman? There's more than one kind of stretching intended with this album.
"Really, the precursor, from a production standpoint, is this 'Bole 2 Harlem' record I did, fusing Ethiopian music with the sound of Harlem," says Schommer, who has made several extensive trips to Ethiopia. "It came from being in class and they were playing what you might call typical yoga music, a biscuit short of Enya. I thought, 'Do we really need 17 layers of synthesizers to reach nirvana? Or can it be more organic?' Derek and I started talking, and the same teacher had another playlist with more world influences. I realized the yoga community is open to that. It's the perfect path to be on. This is where we're living and it's more about the whole, the composite. It's not just music for yoga class. The potential has a different, bigger meaning."
The trick, he said, was to draw on a multitude of cultures in a way that allows all of them to breathe.
"We can talk about our heritage, that we're the American melting pot that takes the best of the best and fuses them," he says. "Unfortunately, it's become more of an assimilation pot. The community of friends and musicians we have on this have an appreciation for that."
The guest list is, indeed, diverse. Among those joining in are singer Lucy Woodward, Basya Schechter of Middle Eastern fusionist band Pharaoh's Daughter, Canadian producer/DJ/musician Eccodek, gnawa musician Hamid Boudali and vocalist Lital Gabai of the Israel-based modernist Idan Raichel Project.
"We had five different languages on songs -- Farsi, Hebrew, Urdu, English, Arabic and Sanskrit," Schommer says. "There are elements of raga on Indian-leaning songs. Rhythmically, we built some beats around Moroccan gnawa."
Beres cites eclectic producer Bill Laswell and the group Thievery Corporation as aesthetic relations. Both, he says, keep the rhythms and "warm bass line" up front for its "healing" quality but never compromise the source inspirations.
"David is so versed in world sounds," he says. "When we did something Egyptian, he said, 'I'm going to lay down an Egyptian rhythm.' Maybe we take some liberties, but overall we are pretty spot-on."
"Especially things like scales," says Schommer. "One track we did with Eccodek, 'Sombience,' is a beautiful track based on a kalimba that I had. My father used to live in Ethiopia and this is from Gataama Island [in Lake Tana], a very minor pentatonic scale. I talked with Eccodek about that scale and he adhered to it, although playing a bamboo flute and shakuhachi. So there's a thing from Ethiopia and Japan in a pentatonic scale. Every song on the album had a deeper intention to the hidden story line."
EarthRise SoundSystem, 'Sombience'
Wait. Back up. "Hidden story line?"
"The Ramayama is the classical Indian text," explains Beres. "And it's very patriarchal, as many Indian texts are."
He summarizes the tale of Sita, stolen from her husband, Ram, by the demon Ravana and later rescued by an army led by monkey warrior Hanumam -- but then Ram would not touch her because she had been with another man, even though it had been against her will. Beres -- who studied theology in college, writing a thesis about how Buddhism has been misinterpreted in America -- wrote a summary of this as something of a mission statement, a thematic guide for others involved in the album.
"He would not touch her until she was thrown in a fire -- and if she came out pure, then she could be back with him," Beres says. "I said, 'Let's look at this from a woman's perspective. She was loyal to him.' I threw that out there to the lyricists. The only one I wrote lyrics for was 'Daylight as Sunset.' The others were by the singers."
That's a lot to digest. Need some yoga for the brain?