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  • The Great Moscow Adventure of Three Bon-Pos
    (Moscow Times, Friday, April 2, 1999)
  • Ritual
    (From "Body and ritual" by Olga Ziangirova)

    The Great Moscow Adventure of Three Bon-Pos

    Head over to Bolotnaya Ploshchad opposite the Kremlin of a Thursday evening, enter the disused factory territory with the sign "Zapretnaya Zona," or "Forbidden Territory," and you will hear the aching, drawn-out rumble of the ancient Tibetan music of Bon.

    In a cramped room, three men dressed in black sit blowing through 3-meter-long bronze tubes and human shinbones, abusing the eardrums of their uninvited audience which huddles on the floor in total darkness.

    "It's like a Chinaman hearing his first symphony," is how one of the musicians Slava Ponomaryov describes a European's first experience of hearing the sounds of Tibet's earliest known religion.

    Ponomaryov and fellow Bon-po Alexei Tegin appropriated the vacant low one-story building last autumn, put doors and windows in, cleaned the floor till it shone, and made themselves at home.

    Now, their weekly concerts, which last precisely two hours from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., have acquired a reputation as one of the most exotic musical, for some metaphysical, experiences in town.

    "It's like a journey to Tibet," said one of the 50-odd listeners thronging the cramped space allotted to them at the back of the hall.

    In fact, none of the three musicians has ever been anywhere near Tibet. It was through hearing a cassette a friend of a friend had brought back from a Tibetan monastery six years ago that Tegin and Ponomaryov first heard the grueling chants and harrowingly dissonant instrumental music that characterizes the monastic rites of Bon.

    The two musicians, who had been playing avant-garde, jazz and rock together ("in the spirit of The Swans") for two decades, underwent a slow but definitive process of inculcation, abetted by the visits of Tibetan monks to Moscow and that of the Dalai Lama himself three years ago.

    "I began listening to it morning and night," Ponomaryov says. "At first I was closed to it [Bon]; only later was I able to understand the dissonance and loudness."

    Listening generated a desire to imitate the music. Tegin and Ponomaryov began playing together and were later joined by a third, younger musician, Igor Yanchoglov. The group, which is called Purba, is named after a Bon symbol: A three-sided dagger used to fend off evil spirits.

    The instruments and their range have no equivalent in European culture. Each of the bells prepared by Tegin makes a single note, and the interval between the notes is far subtler, he boasts, "than any do re fa."

    It involves a total retraining of the musical ear," Ponomaryov says. The two of them also fashioned their own big drum, or nga, their 3-meter tubes similar to an inverted tuba. Only the kanling, or human shinbones - used as a wind instrument - and the cymbals hail from the Orient.

    The use of microphones in the concerts seems incongruous but Tegin has his explanation for this too. Deprived of the acoustics of a Tibetan stone temple, they are forced to compensate; they also have to make up for what Tegin calls the Western listener's "loss of hearing ability." He cites the examples of monks from the Gyoto temple who recently recorded their music in Los Angeles with microphones.

    "They need a bigger hall," says Mikhail Mikhailyuk, a fellow multi-instrumentalist and experimenter, about Purba. Tibetan music is "meant for big spaces, to be played from mountains to mountains one kilometer apart."

    The concerts never change and work through five stages of cleansing of "negative energies," culminating in the 108 drumbeats dedicated to the spiritual leader Shenrabmivo who 3,000 years ago brought Bon to Tibet from Persia.

    In Bon theory, the musician's inner mantra, or voice, fuses with the outer one - the sound he is making - representing a transfer of energies into the cosmos. The volume gradually raises itself to a mind-numbing level, a representation of the state to be attained in the afterlife.

    Listening itself is a form of agony and physical violation. As for the musicians who sit right by the drum ....

    "You become that sound," Tegin says. "It's like if you're in the cold and go out just in a shirt thinking you are that cold. Then you no longer feel it."

    The aim of the process is to achieve a total absence of thought or emotion.

    "You feel nothing, and that's the whole paradox," Ponomaryov says.

    "Playing jazz or rock you feel emotions, associations. But I gradually understood this [Bon music] isn't really music."

    Having sat through two hours of physical agony on the hard bare floor, a long way from reaching this desired state of emptiness, I thought I'd begun to understand this too.

    But the skepticism of the uninitiated doesn't bother Tegin, who, in a recent interview with the Kontekst-9 metaphysical almanac, described the people who come to listen to his Thursday rites as "idiots."

    In our interview he was slightly more diplomatic, limiting himself to general invectives on today's kultura vospriatiya or culture of passive receptivity.

    At his concerts, players and audience may as well be separated by a yawning chasm rather than 10 meters of Moscow garage space. None of the three players makes contact, verbally or otherwise, with the listeners, who are blacked out by total darkness. On one occasion, on New Year's Eve, there were no listeners at all, but this doesn't bother the Bon-pos.

    "I don't even see them," Tegin says. "I don't think about anything. When you play you see before you an endless, dark expanse as though you're in space and there's some glimmering structure which you dissolve in. You only hear the pressure of your own voice. Your brain doesn't work at all."

    With his shaved head, broken nose, bare feet and open shirt, Tegin is the most striking of the three Bon-pos. Welcoming me into his studio in central Moscow, I was struck by the evidence of a life abandoned: Brushes and musical equipment lie covered in dust in a darkened room, which Tegin now mainly uses for meditation and listening to the planets - not Holst, but the actual sounds of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, on recordings attuned to the human ear.

    One of the most talented artists of the '80s Moscow avant-garde, Tegin, who now accepts that he may have been a monk in his past life, has all but forsaken his past loves, painting only to make a living and selling what he describes as "Renaissance-style" paintings to private clients, at home and in the States. He had none to show me: "I'm interested in the process, not the result. Once it's sold, I don't care anymore."

    In his ascetic appearance and behavior, one wonders why he doesn't pack up his shinbones and head for the Himalayas himself.

    But there's something of the missionary in him that contradicts his apparently proud independence. Despite his flippant attitude to his listeners, they're a fundamental part of his reason for being here.

    "We enter a religious state which communicates itself to a certain number of listeners. Whether they're ready or not, that's a fact of their biography, but they'll remember this state and perhaps sometime this will help them."

    There are many similarities between Bon and the Buddhism that succeeded it but, according to Tegin, there is one crucial distinction between a Bon-po and a Buddhist.

    "A Bon-po believes it's worth drawing into this world the magic world of other places, to make this world better, more magical. For us, we have one aim - that in Moscow at the end of the millennium this ancient culture called Bon should be heard. That's our mission."

    Finding Purba is a mission in itself. Exit metro Borovitskaya, head over Bolshoi Kammeny Bridge, walk over the park opposite the Udarnik movie theater to the end. Cross the small street and enter the yard opposite. Walk straight on till you have to turn left and you'll see Tibetan flags. Thirty rubles is charged by unidentified minions at the back of the hall.

    Moscow Times, Friday, April 2, 1999, by Oliver Ready


    In authentic ritual, every creative motion or ritualistic action, when preserved in a way recognizing its original cosmological integrity, is done with the intention of overcoming the entropic and chaotic forces of nature. Considering the fact that the chaos of modern urban society is not that remote from that of the natural variety, this may be among the explanations for the rather large audiences attracted to Purba's concert efforts.

    These performances are based on one of the most ancient Tibetan tradition Bon. They are structured to follow the various cosmological stages of the evolution of order from chaos. The chaotic motifs, which dominate the majority of current artistic efforts, appear here in their proper setting, as transitional elements. These elements, reflecting as they do the themes of death and rebirth, reveal a more controlled chaos, itself containing the seeds of cosmological order. The archetypes of initiation are the same in all cultures and ages. Therapevtic effect of these rituals may be is based, more or less, on their inner intention of overcoming the opposites, or overstepping their borders.

    The kind of transcendence which is attempted is both propelled and supported by the mythological space created in ritual, and this is its primary function. Purba intends to be aware of its responsibility to this function, and through this sensitivity can afford its audiences the opportunity to interact with the cultural practices of authentic tradition Bon.

    From "Body and ritual" by Olga Ziangirova

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