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by Richard Thorne

The Dalai Lama: Inner World – At The Heart Of The Matter

by Richard Thorne

The Dalai Lama: Inner World – At The Heart Of The Matter

It’s hard to imagine an artist whose album release advance PR might be received with equal adulation by the diverse likes of Pitchfork, The Guardian, Stereogum, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The Times of India, Spin, Billboard and that other crucible of musical credibility, the Brooklyn Vegan. June 9, 2020 saw the first global release of news that a unique album of mantras and teachings by the Dalai Lama, set to music, is to be released to honour the 85th birthday of His Holiness, on July 6. Entitled ‘Inner World’, the album was introduced to the wider world with a first ‘single’, the Compassion mantra, one of the most famed Buddhist prayers, dating back as far as 3000 years. 
‘Reciting the mantra of the Buddha of Compassion is said to open our hearts and bring us closer to others, to feel love and compassion through wisdom, generating a desire to help.’ It was surely a timely message to be sent out into the world of extending Covid-19 pandemic isolation, human loss and global uncertainty. A welcome revelation certainly for Buddhists worldwide, as the Dalai Lama has never before had his teachings set to music – and for Auckland couple Junelle and Abraham Kunin in particular, a moment to savour. 

Remarkably this entire project, which from early July will be being listened to, celebrated and debated among the world’s 500+ million Buddhists, was conceived and delivered by Junelle, with the music composed, produced and largely played by her musician husband. 

Abraham (Abe) Kunin is well established in the Auckland music scene having been in bands that include The Means and Coach, his name closely associated with releases by Home Brew, Teeks and Maisey Rika as guitarist. Junelle (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāti Tūwharetoa), has been a practising Buddhist for 16 years, and released a solo EP entitled ‘Just This Sky’ back in 2014, which naturally enough Abe produced. 

While the idea had first presented itself prior to that, it was back in 2015 that Junelle Kunin decided her idea of putting music to the Dalai Lama’s spoken mantras was one she absolutely needed to pursue. The opportunity lay ahead as she was preparing to make the reasonably common Buddhist spiritual pilgrimage to the home of His Holiness in Dharamsala, in the foothills of the Himalayas, northern India.

While visitors might hope to see and hear the Dalai Lama, the likelihood of an individual audience is slim. Even getting his attention via a note, letter or email is all-but impossible given the necessary protection afforded him. Fortunately Junelle already had a personal connection, having been his host on earlier high profile visits to Aotearoa.

“I’d spent a lot of time with him before this conversation came up, and been on tour with him in NZ. On those occasions I was officially hosting him and his entourage, but he would be my priority. He has two close monks he tours with and I would work along with them – I have a strong connection with them, also the Dalai Lamas’ younger brother his brother is one of my teachers.” 

When the Dalai Lama does tour here in NZ a small team of volunteers help out. Her hosting days would start about 4am and last until late evening with the wider entourage, the role, she admits with a delightful giggle, almost boiling down to ensuring that he has food and drink when needed.

“The moment he steps out of his door it’s formal and full on. He doesn’t have the luxury of eating, drinking and having a break when he wants to, he’s surrounded constantly. So at every venue we go to I would need to be able to provide him with those necessary moments of privacy, and always carry a thermos of hot water for him to drink!”

She speculates that those occasional moments of her service, “…windows of intimacy” allowed for the building of a personal trust that meant the Dalai Lama said yes to her idea, when he had previously not agreed to meet with others who made similar suggestions. 

“I do sometimes think back on those experiences we’ve had over years, and wonder if that’s why he has trusted me with this.”

In 2015 Junelle travelled across the ditch when the Dalai Lama was touring in Australia, spending some time with him and his entourage. 

“After that I went back to work at my corporate office downtown in Auckland and was wondering, ‘What just happened? Why do I always have to lose them and come back to my ordinary life where everything feels mundane?’  

“It was in that window that I wondered, ‘How can I have a sense of that in my life all the time? And how can I share him so others can have the same kind of beautiful experiences as I’ve been so privileged to have? That was the catalyst for this idea.’’

With that in mind Junelle wrote to his office… and was politely rebuffed. A few months later she was headed to India herself. With the developing idea keeping her up at night and “…burning in my heart”, she decided she had to try again. It was in a cherished dream that she realised she could, and should, simply ask the Dalai Lama himself, directly.

“Basically, long story short, that is what happened, and his reaction was so enthusiastic!”

Two days later she was sitting with him, a hastily borrowed dictaphone between them and the opportunity of a lifetime ahead. 

“It was at his residence. I quickly moved some furniture around and turned the aircon off, before he came in with his translator and two of his secretaries. There were five of us in the room.”

Unlike your typical recording session, the ‘artist’ hadn’t been told his repertoire, and novice recording engineer/producer Junelle was in no position to make any demands. 

“Times with His Holiness are very brief, he’s so busy. I had written a list on the plane going over, in the hope that he might say yes! I listed mantras that would hopefully help people, have a practical purpose. They vary in application so; for healing, for courage, for compassion, for protection in times of fear – there’s a suite of benefits with each of these mantras. 

“And then I also wrote a couple of topics in English that I thought would be nice to hear from him. So there’s track where he talks to children, and a track where he pays homage to mothers which is really beautiful. That’s the one Anoushka Shankar is featured on.

“Then he proceeded to go down his own track and did a talk that we have called Humanity. That was more than I’d asked for. He was very keen to fulfill my requests, and showed a clear understanding of and passion for music, and also was very clear on his wishes to be combined with music.

“It’s really interesting in the current climate we’re in, with the Black Lives Matter movement and obviously racial discrimination around the world, His Holiness spoke specifically about the dangers of a ‘we and us’ mentality and how it divides us. How it’s the basis of exploitation and bullying and killing, and how we need to remember that we are one human race. So this is a talk he gave almost five years ago, and listening to it now it is really quite confronting and powerful.”

Returning from India, Junelle must have been enormously relieved to safely deliver the precious dictaphone files to her musician/producer husband. It’s late evening when we talk via Skype, and Abe joins the conversation after winning the domestic battle of getting their young daughter off to sleep. He’s worked on the files on and off over five years, but the obvious first question is about the starting quality of those audio recordings.

The response, “She did amazingly to get them,” is both diplomatic and very telling, and Abe laughs gently after delivering it. Anyone who has worked with audio knows just how much the environment and microphone quality affects the captured result – and it’s safe to assume that the recordings had a nuanced character.

“One aspect within that is that given the recording, a certain degree of fidelity had already been decided,” he continues. “So we chose to use that as part of the sonic palette, which meant a direction had been decided, and we worked with that. A vibe was set.”

While numerous (mostly local) musicians ended up participating, the ‘we’ he’s talking about here is his good friend Aaron Nevezie, the fellow Kiwi owner of a fabulous Brooklyn, New York recording studio called The Bunker. The pair have long shared great creative chemistry and Abe says Nevezie was definitely the right mix engineer for the job.

“It was pretty daunting. A once in a lifetime project, knowing going into it that it would likely be the most important thing we will ever work on. But back tracking a little, the recorded files had no inherent sense of key or rhythm, it was up to us to find where they sat. So there was a lot of micro-editing done to space things to fit into some kind of meter, or develop a musical feel.

“Zooming out from that, the biggest challenge was deciding what it was going to be! There was no template for this. With some experimenting, to find a balance, Junelle and I agreed that to have the most benefit this needed to be accessible to as many people as possible – to have as broad an audience as it could have within those who would be open to it. A gateway to the messages really.”

“One of the first challenges was that we weren’t even sure what to do with it,” Junelle concurs. ‘Do the tracks need to be 15 minutes long?’ ‘Do the mantras need to be 108 times on repeat for Buddhists?’ [As was repeatedly suggested, no joking there.]

“We decided this is actually for people who don’t necessarily have meditation practices, or have the time or skills. Hopefully they can play it while commuting or taking a walk, and enjoy some of those benefits without going through a process. So we settled on kind of radio length tracks – and we decided not 108 mantras on repeat!”

As composers commonly experience, Abe found some tracks came together from a first wave of inspiration, while others required a fifth or sixth version to reach completion. Yes, what you’ll hear on ‘Inner World’ is by no means the original version of this album, but is all the better for enduring numerous iterations. For the first completed album he estimates spending 2 or 3 days a week, 5 to 6 hours a day, over a year. The globally quoted pre-publicity talks of his having played as many as 30 instruments.

“For almost all the songs I’d start basically in the same way I start making beats. Trying to find something, a synth patch or guitar sound that sits well, in a repetitive manner. I’m not a Buddhist myself, so while I had to study up and seek advice, it was important to be very respectful of the lineage. There was also the matter of trying to quiet those voices of self-doubt when carrying such a responsibility and being given so much creative freedom. And really I just had to be receptive, and make music from a sincere place in order to serve the kaupapa of the project. 

“It had to be approached with a clean energy. Music’s always intuitive, but this was incredibly intuitive. If I got too cerebral it never worked, it felt too processed. Junelle was a great sounding board.

“One of the first (I think subconscious) steps to create variety, was to get different people to play live on it. That will always bring different elements and a lot of familiar names from the Auckland scene pop up on this. They can’t help but impart some of their identity into their playing – which is why you ask them to contribute in the first place.” 

For the most part, he says, as producer he gave those performers some freedom of interpretation, but admits in some cases it was more like, ‘Please play these notes’. 

“The album was created over such a long time that it is all sorts, some improvisations, and in some cases very finely detailed. Plus it was recorded in many, many locations. Shitty and nice hotel rooms when I was on tour with other artists, an apartment in Edinburgh [when performing in the NZ-centric musical Daffodils in 2016], and three or four houses we’ve lived in over that time.

“Very, humble gear too, I wish we had documented that more – I’d have trouble making music on some of that gear now, but you make use of whatever you have at the time! So there was a combination of lo-fi bedroom production and stuff recorded at Aaron’s studio, which is like absolutely world class.”

While both claim knowing in advance that this was a considerable challenge in every which way, Junelle responds promptly to the question, ‘If this project was the size of an apple at first, how big is it now?’

“Like the earth,” she heartily laughs, but without any sense of that being an exaggeration. 

“I don’t know if I would have picked this up if I knew what we would have to go through… But I’m glad we did. 

“You know, with every single track we couldn’t just make the music, we actually had to go through life lessons that were applicable to each of those mantras, for example. It was honestly like walking through fire making this work, at times. It tested Abe and I, to the absolute depths of our respective beings. Everything that is important to us was thrown into question, and it was actually soul destroying at times.

“In retrospect I think that we couldn’t have offered a work like this without it having served us in real time, in real life. I don’t think it would have been appropriate. It sounds a bit ambiguous I know, but the work has been like a real teacher for our minds.”

She recalls her own recurring mental picture supporting the drive to completion was of an elderly Tibetan lady who has never been able to see His Holiness, because he’s in exile, but could have this album to listen to before she leaves this world. At one point “…one of our windows of despair,” she flew to India, pregnant with their daughter, to seek help from the Dalai Lama.

“Throughout you couldn’t have found anyone more passionate about this work, even more than us! He always maintained how much it would benefit people, and in those hardest windows it was the kaupapa that held us. The kaupapa has always remained the same, that we are doing this to help people.”

“I don’t know if we’ll ever be allowed to talk about what we went through, and I’m not sure I would… When we were going through these shadows my Buddhist teachers kept reminding me that the greater the benefit of a work, the greater the need to purify negativity, to have the positive karma to even offer that work to people. So for us, it seems we had to purify lifetimes of shit apparently,” she laughs in exclamation.

It’s been a long, long journey to bring us all ‘Inner World’, but she’s clearly thrilled by the worldwide coverage afforded the release of debut track Compassion, saying they couldn’t have wished for a more positive response.

“In this last few weeks it has blown up, in a good way! The media globally has been crazy, and people have gravitated to the heart of it. I really appreciate that, that the Pitchforks and Billboards have picked up on that kaupapa. This can help hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have lost loved ones in the last few months from this pandemic, or have been facing discrimination, or suffering other losses. 

“Every detail was a challenge, and every decision we made also needed to be run through a very thick bureaucracy that surrounds somebody like the Dalai Lama… and the record label! Now we finally get to offer it to other people, to hopefully provide some comfort to those wondering what to do. Especially for people who don’t have a religion, I think it’s helpful in those times, and this will provide help in those times of despair.” 

The couple created their own Khandro Music (NZ) label for the project, but obviously needed a real world label to market and distribute it internationally. The first signing was to UK label Decca – the connection made by Junelle with a boldly direct email approach to Lucian Grainge, CEO and chairman of Universal Music.

She laughs almost happily about it now, but the reality was that, having worked their way through almost two years of endless hurdles within the upper echelons of Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, the world of multinational record labels all-but provided the straws that would break their camel’s back, sinking their project and dream.  

“Long story short we did sign to Decca, but fast forward to 2018 they decided to pull out, so we were back to square one.”

Not just one, but numerous previously enthusiastic labels backed off. They had stepped into a terrain that was strewn with all manner of boulders; cultural, political, patriarchal, narcissistic egos and boardroom posturing – each seemingly working against the other to thwart any progress.

“Thirty-two labels – I kept a list,” notes Junelle, with a rare hint of real frustration in her voice. “We were stuck.”

Fortunately the pair had engaged a great London-based music lawyer from early on. Unfortunately by now they had a substantial debt with him, and elsewhere in their lives. The project was saved with the aid of a friend who put Junelle in touch with an industry broker who in turn connected them with Charles Goldstuck and L.A. Reid, the entrepreneur and music industry veteran pairing who had established their ‘modern-era music company’ Hitco Entertainment in January 2018.

“After negotiating with them for 12 months, Charles flew us to LA and we started conversations in February [2019] – and at the end of February this year we signed our deal!” 

She laughs again at this revelation, acknowledging what, by almost any measure, is the insanity of the scenario – the time it took and the high stakes game they are all still playing.

“Hats off to Charles Goldstuck though, his heart got kind of threaded into this, and he saw the importance of it. He’s the only person in the industry to do so, and I am glad for those challenges to be with him. He’s amazing, and he’s at the helm now! 

“He was through every detail. We remade three of the tracks in the last few months since he came on board. He had us look at so much of the album, had aspects remixed and re-mastered, and found us the bad-ass US publicist we’re working with.”

On the album Junelle and Goldstuck are co-credited as executive producers, with Abe the music producer. Coming back to the work early this year when it was finally scheduled for release, he says 75% of it still felt right. 

“For those that didn’t it was a blessing to have that time and the chance to have another run at it, remaking those three tracks has really balanced out the album. They have a really different energy about them. I think early on there may have been a feeling that it had to be epic or carry a sense of gravitas to be appropriate for the subject matter. Then came the realisation that it’s really about heart. Getting on the wavelength to find something that will hopefully move people, rather than impress people, and writing from that space. Having the confidence to maybe not fill it up with instruments or do too much, I think the balance is really right now.”

He shares Goldstuck’s surprise that early international response has been 60% male, when the expected ‘market’ for the album had been female-oriented, and in a particular age demographic – more the spirituality and mindfulness kind of audience. Also that some more hip hop-centric blogs have been noticeably responsive. 

“I wonder if that’s because that’s where my musical roots are, and maybe some thread of that is evident?”

“Based on the analytics of the Youtube clips NZ is high on the list right now!” Junelle reports, clearly pleased with the local support already evident.

Despite the album being unreleased when we talk there is evident demand for CD copies which have been delayed a few months due to Covid-related production issues. 

“With monks and nuns all around the world the demographic is so huge and many really want physical, which is unusual, but I think we’ll be fine with a delay in getting that happening.”

Of course the likely highest volume market, Asia, is renowned for a somewhat cavalier attitude towards audio copyright, so there are yet more challenges ahead, but those will be for Hitco to manage. It will be years before Junelle and Abe Kunin are likely to see any financial reward, any return for the years of work and real debt they have accumulated in bringing ‘Inner World’ to the world. Again Junelle somehow faces that fact with a positivity, a sense of humour even, admitting they instead hope this project may lead on to something else that does bring with it an income.

The involvement of the famous sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar (daughter of the legendary Ravi Shankar) in the track Ama La, is one of the things she is most proud of. The ‘Inner World’ camp will honour the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6 with an hour long programme that will promote the album release, streamed at two different times to account for the global audience. Along with Anoushka Shankar’s performance recorded in London and another from Abraham in Auckland, various guests including Richard Gere will also take part.

“We had an incredible response to the first single publicity globally and we were overwhelmed by it, but one of my biggest joys was for Anoushka. It was my decision and people told me I couldn’t get her, but there were a number of reasons why I wanted to try; she’s female, she’s a mother, she’s of Indian heritage and she represents so many women through her social activism, which is really unusual within Indian society. She is obviously inherently spiritual, her music is so profound – and it was a way to pay homage to India as being the birthplace of the Buddha, and also the country that has taken in the Tibetans in exile. So there are multi-layered reasons to bring Anoushka into the mix.

“It’s the track in which His Holiness gives homage to mothers and Abe had already made the music and it was one of those beautiful rewarding moments to hear Anoushka had played all around his composition, almost like a call and response. He ended up taking some of his work away to make space, but it was amazing and made me so proud. And she’s going to perform as part of the release!”

One Of My Favourite Prayers, Courage, Healing, Protection, Children, Humanity – the spirit of this extraordinary album is written in its track listing. With lyrics that date back as impossibly far as 3000 years, it is yet somehow very much an album for our time.