by Niklas Göransson
Phurpa is a roving monastic choir that espouses a rogue form of Bön, the shamanistic spirituality of pre-Buddhist Tibet. Having been curious about this Russian ensemble for some time I was dismayed at the scant information available online so when a March 2016 Stockholm performance was announced I decided that in the absence of answers, I might as well do the asking. The ensuing tale is a captivating journey shrouded in Himalayan mysticism; from the shadow of the Kremlin to the pyramids of Egypt and further on into the vast emptiness beyond.
I had initially agreed with the promoter to do the interview in the afternoon, in order to have it over with and not lurking in the back of my mind during the show. While making my way to the venue I was informed that my appointment had been postponed until afterwards as Alexey Tegin, the orchestra’s founder and lead conductor, had announced that ‘questions will change during concert’. Upon arrival I found all three members sitting on the floor humming intonations into headset microphones – throat chanting. This is a discipline of overtone singing called ‘rgyud-skad’ (‘tantric voice’) and is the principle foundation of PHURPA’s soundscape; a form of vocal meditation that produces an otherworldly rumbling barely recognisable as human. A range of traditional Tibetan instruments accompany the incantations; drums, cymbals, horns, shells and oboes – some featuring and even made from human and animal remains. Needless to say, this was a far cry from the type of sound-check I’m used to. While watching, the promoter from Stockholm’s Bored to Death Bookings mentioned that Alexey was adamant in his demands of a ‘strong sound’ on stage, proclaiming himself ‘not interested in playing music, it’s all about power’. At first glance Tegin looks a bit like a younger and bulkier version of The Emperor in the original Star Wars trilogy, had the latter embarked on a career in sidewalk pugilism instead of intergalactic domination. Before I had a chance to speak to him I overheard a conversation with a confused venue employee, the latter ensuring she’d understood him correctly – no lunch, no dinner. Alexey confirmed and informed her that his primary diet consists of raw meat.
– It makes me feel like wild animal, he explained.
Fellow PHURPA member Alexey Naumkin, a sturdy gentleman who looks like a fusion of a tortured Russian author and a Slavic barbarian, commented:
– Alexey, you know, old man who likes to go around – he doesn´t want money, he just likes ritual at strange places.
Tegin’s spoken English was better than I had expected, yet fairly basic – I have tried to convey his quotes as literally as possible with the occasional restructuring or editing for clarification. Once I’d introduced myself, he happily announced that I was about to witness ‘power’ and stressed the importance of speaking afterwards, as I would get a glimpse of an alternate reality and be able to form new questions from there. When I enquired about the lack of interviews available he explained that he never bothers with them as he finds the typical questions uninspiring.
– Many ask me ‘What about Tibet, what about Bön?’ For me it’s not interesting. Interesting for me is generating power, travelling around performing rituals; meeting other people and giving them a change of reality. This is important work for me, this is PHURPA.
Running the questions I’d prepared through my mind, I confirmed to myself that most of them were in one way or another related to Bön. I decided to ask them anyway – as a writer, it would be absurd to interview a religious choir without discussing their doctrines. That’s as silly as black metal bands singing about the occult but don’t want questions about it.
– We talk afterwards, he said, you will understand.
The venue was literally shaped like a big black box, with the stage area on one end of the room. Immediately in front of the ritual space were floor seats, then a few rows of chairs, and at the rear people who watched standing. The bar was closed for the duration of the performance so there were barely any people moving back and forth in front of the stage. Besides a handful of cretins who used flash photography and others who filmed parts of it with cell phones (seriously, all amateur PHURPA live videos look exactly the same – what exactly are you hoping to capture?) there were barely any disturbances at all. I’m not going to waste either my or your time by describing what they look and sound like – check the video. I had myself listened to studio record “Tro-Wo Phur Nag” (2007) and live album “The Magic Rituals of the BON Tradition” (2014) as well as watched the Boiler Room video prior to this but neither one of them could have prepared me for what followed.
As soon as the reverberating triad of inhuman bellowing commenced I realised there are visual, auditory and especially physical frequencies that can’t be captured in recordings, one must participate to understand. As such, reading a PHURPA live review is almost as pointless as writing one but if I were to describe the sensation it would be the musical equivalent of kundalini yoga – a practice where one utilises challenging postures to attain an altered state of consciousness, sensory monotony being the common denominator. The insistence for a post-ritual convergence made perfect sense but in the after-shock of that two and a half hour cerebral earthquake, I felt in no mood for heavy discussion. Luckily, Alexey was swarmed by attendees as soon as he left the backstage and remained engaged until the venue closed. PHURPA were staying in Stockholm for the weekend as they were booked for a second, private event the following day and since I was attending this function we decided to reschedule the interview once more.
– PHURPA is not theatre, says Alexey, PHURPA is Bön. We don’t play ethnic music, we are not Tibetan folk group – this is tantric ritual. Inside of me, I have information about ancient magic cultures. Even before Bön, I practiced the magic of Carlos Castaneda.
Castaneda, a Peruvian national with a Ph.D. in anthropology, wrote a series of supposed autobiographical books about his training in shamanism and brujeria (the sorcery of the Americas) under the tutelage of a Native American shaman named don Juan Matus. One day in the early eighties, Alexey happened across a piece of writing that started a process which would irrevocably alter the course of his life.
– I held in my hands a book called “Ancient Persian Languages”. When I opened it and looked I saw the word ‘tegin’, my name – the book said it means ‘prince’ in ancient Persian. For me it was very strange. Two or three days later I had a dream where a vibrating voice gave me information about space; knowledge of a cosmic absolute, an ancient construction of all human minds connected through sound.
Shortly thereafter, Alexey heard a cassette tape that his friend had brought back from Tibet. It contained a traditional Bön ritual, performed by monks in a Tibetan temple.
– My friend knew a Frenchman who travelled to a temple and asked to record a ceremony. They said ‘No, never – no one records our rituals! We are monks, not music men; if interested in music – go to countryside and record.’
Fortunately, the French gentleman had studied the ancient Tibetan language and when he addressed the monks in it they changed their tune; he was to be the first and last man to record their worship.
– It was a terrible ritual to a deity called ‘Mi-dud jam-pa trag-mgo’ – a bloody god that carries a severed human head, adulated in songs and blood. When I listened to this cassette, the music had great resonance within me – very strange. To me, it was a magical sound. It was like the dream voice.
Prayer mantras in Bön rituals are conveyed by means of throat chanting. Transfixed by the obscure sound, Alexey realised what the strange voice in his dream was and – immediately sensing that he was onto something, began mimicking it.
– As I learned, I understood that the singing must be without emotion – invest all power into it. Power, not emotion! Making no human modification to the sound, it must be inhuman. As I kept practicing it started to change my life, body and mind. I trained my voice and my voice trained me. Reciprocity.
When you started learning the prayer chants, was it from spiritual or musical curiosity?
– There’s no need to separate them – music is the spirit sound, a declaration of the soul inside you. Our mantras are sung in a deep tone so we don’t change the world around us – just like silence; loud and quiet at the same time. First you learn throat chanting and create something, then comes spiritual texts.
To be able to study the scriptures Alexey first had to learn old Tibetan and then start translating mantras. In the Bön tradition there are five tutelary deities of the Father Tantra called yidams, they stand in eternal vigil guarding the teaching against ignorance and other enemies. One of them is the god of resolved action – Phurpa.
– Phurpa connects with the action aspect of the Enlightened One (Father Tantra). When we give concerts in other countries, it’s aggressive. For me, PHURPA is a terrorist for people’s mind – altering reality for people, mental terrorism. But I’m no missionary saying ‘I know the spirit way’; only you know the right path for yourself, not me. What happens when you return is up to you.
Even if this to a certain extent serves to increase awareness of the Bön teachings, Alexey says it isn’t the primary purpose – nor is it for the betterment of either themselves or the attendees.
– It’s for space, only space. We declare our power; cry out our place in different complex aspects. Our songs are for the gods, different rituals for different yidams – they come to our reality through our voices and we change minds.
Alexey’s early pilgrimage along the Bön path was a lonely one, it wasn’t until many years later he came across someone else with similar interests. This led to an early incarnation of PHURPA and as they began performing, they started garnering attention.
– After one performance some guys said they wanted to sing like us so we trained them with special exercises I learned from the dream.
One is reminded of the route to Bön as described earlier in the conversation; first the psalms, then scripture. As the clergy evolved they built their own shrine in an abandoned building in central Moscow, near the Kremlin. It became known as the Fabrique of Cardinal Art.
– You know the term squatting? We made a rehearsal space from an empty building of 4000 square meters. We got electricity, painted the walls and brought in amplifiers.
The ritual ambiance they created eventually travelled across the Moscow River to the very heart of Russian political power.
– We had a big drum, maybe two meters – it made a very loud sound that was carried across the water to the Kremlin. Three security police with Kalashnikovs came – ‘What is this? Are you narcotic dealers?’; ‘No’ we said, ‘we practice Bön’. They asked ‘What is Bön?’ so we told them to put away their weapons, sit down and listen. We performed for two hours, extremely loud sound in our dark labyrinth auditorium. Afterwards we asked if they had any more questions; ‘No, we go’. I called after them; ‘Guys, you left your Kalashnikovs!’… ‘Oh, thank you’ – it was good times.
Was this in the Soviet or Russian era?
– In-between. Perestroika – it was revolution situation.
Alexey remembers these years as the best of his life. Alas, this came to an end near the turn of the millennia; an unceremonious revelation in the shape of construction workers showing up to announce that their temple was being turned into a parking lot. The group was given a week to clear it out before the entire building was levelled to the ground.
– I told boss of workers they wouldn’t build anything in this space – never, nothing. No one believed me. Every night of that week my friend and I performed the ritual trul-shen; Bön destroy magic – special rite, very difficult preparations. When we moved out we left behind symbols in blood. Afterwards, they said on the TV news that construction was stopped because Moscow River was running under the ground, so anything built there would crash. It was our rituals, I promise.
In its present-day shape, which is adhered to by about ten percent of Tibet’s population, modern Bön is largely a form of Tibetan Buddhism – a consolidation of faiths that can be traced back to the 14th century when Bön teachers started merging the two. Although differing vastly from its original manifestation, today’s practitioners see themselves as successors to the ones of yesteryear. Alexey however, makes no claims of being part of either. Having learned from the source rather than living tutors he has no official initiation, no masters or any lineage – something that’s usually considered crucial in all things tantric.
– We practice the original, shamanistic tradition – I have studied old documents and translated from ancient language. For the Phurpa aspect there is only a little information because it must be resonated with, not studied. Listen to Tibetan monks and PHURPA, not the same sound. Different voices of the Bön tradition, we sing PHURPA style; more aggressive, more power. Like martial arts – karate and kung fu; different instruments from same spring.
Another dissimilarity is PHURPA’s inclusion of the fairer sex, with Russian vocalist Alissa Nicolai having a prevalent role on the 2014 live album “Mantras of Bon”.
– She’s been my friend for five or six years, I invited her to join us on a few concerts. I gave her a central note and told her ‘Sing around note like crazy woman, like devil’. In our ritual she is the voice of the Dakini – a terrible black woman in Bön tradition. For woman, it’s good role. When Alissa sang, it was like a woman from hell and afterwards she asked me ‘Is this my nature?’ ‘Yes’, I said. It’s interesting because we all meet our true self when looking inside.
This does however seem like a step away from not only the modern but also the old Bön approach to prayer song.
– It’s not classic Bön tradition practiced in temples, no… for me those are not the real guys. The naljorpa (a Tibetan ascetic who possess magic powers) is without temple, without tradition – the best guys. In old time of Bön there were no temples in Tibet, who knows what it looked like in ancient ages?
Alexey goes on to explain how wandering shamans like the naljorpa once spread Bön under different names throughout what is now known as Siberia, Mongolia, Iran, Tibet and India.
– It is total name for ancient shamanistic tradition. ‘Tibet’ is the name of a contemporary country – Bön was practiced in an era before it even existed but Tibet saved Bön, so it’s good. PHURPA uses Tibetan names and language but we had the same traditions in Siberia, though not many of those customs survived.
Given Alexey’s unconventional interpretation of the teachings, I’m curious to know what an ordained practitioner might think of his practices.
– When I met with monks I showed them my exercises; ‘Wow, you have a good voice’, they said. I taught them some techniques like headstand breathing exercises and special drinks.
– I drink hot tea with cayenne pepper or chilli, it burns inside like fire. Afterwards, milk or animal fat.
This reminds me of the peculiar carnivorous dietary habits I overheard the day before. Alexey explains the principle behind the motto, ‘different eat for different purpose’.
– There is power in food. If you want to feel wild like a tiger or shark you need raw meat, maybe a little salt and pepper. I like horse meat, in Moscow this is possible. When you eat it, there is fire inside you. Sometimes your body says ‘stop fire’, then you drink yoghurt. This is for Phurpa, action aspect – if you instead want information from space you drink only water and eat vegetables.
Alexey mentions that other PHURPA monks have also met with their Tibetan counterparts.
– One went to a temple in Tibet and told the monks ‘We have CD, we sing’ and asked if they wanted to listen. They did and asked ‘You come from Russia? Unbelievable.’ When he came back next day they were playing our CD, their master said ‘Very strange, but the guys know what they’re doing’.
After being a devotee for the greater part of his life, I wonder how big of a role his spirituality has had in shaping him into current manifestation.
– Do I look like an old man? How old do you think I am?
No idea, fifty-something?
– I was born in April 1951, I will soon be 66. It’s a result of Bön practice; it changes your body, your social connection and your behaviour. You feel true to yourself, to your physical self.
A PHURPA performance is a rather physically taxing affair, which is why the vessel of flesh is as crucial as its sonic output.
– Our performances are sometimes between two and four hours, for this you need training. It’s not only recitation; it’s a physical exercise that changes your body.
Besides the Tibetan tradition Alexey also studied the rituals of ancient Persia and Egypt and though finding titbits, there is simply not enough knowledge preserved to reproduce them. He did however have plenty of interesting experiences along the way.
– I went to Egypt with my wife, as tourists. In the Khafre pyramid I looked at the guard and saw that he was Coptic, not Muslim.
The relevance of this observation is that anything that could be interpreted as prayer or meditation is strictly prohibited in the pyramids, as it violates Islamic law. For instance, merely closing one’s eyes is banned, as is walking with bare feet. The Coptics are one of Egypt’s religious minorities and often find themselves at odds with the Muslim majority; hence, a Coptic guard might not be overly concerned with enforcing rules from the Quran.
– He looked back at me and I started singing a little.
A cavernous rumbling emanates from his throat.
– When the other tourists left he said I could stay and sing – I did and he listened. Afterwards, he told me I could lie in the sarcophagus – very good for me. I lay in there with my eyes closed for ten minutes; bye, bye. Very strange. When I got back up I looked at the guard and said ‘I remember you, I know you – you are my friend. Not in present times but in a past life’. We had just reconnected.
As an unsuspecting attendee of a PHURPA concert, what exactly am I looking at?
– What you see is vast, empty, dark space – cosmic, without any attributes of civilisation. The covered hats for example, there are two aspects to them. People look at the performer and wonder what he’s feeling, but you can’t see PHURPA – no human emotion. Sometimes I close my eyes and sometimes they are open but I see nothing either way – no visual information. I chant in a deep voice and sometimes without the mind – I dream and all I see are stars, yet I keep singing.
Not only is the headwear rather adventurous, the remaining wardrobe is equally alien.
– You don’t wear civilian clothes when you go to war, you dress in uniform. When the spectator sees us it must be something that is not normal, not connected with real life; should be like a dream.
At the start of the ritual Alexey burns dried Mongolian juniper bushes, this produces vast amounts of smoke.
– Good smell, he explains, very powerful for me. The smoke rises to space like a signal for the gods to notice us, to see PHURPA.
He describes their music as a power generator, broadcasting loud enough to drown your inner monologue with a reverberating stillness of mind; he wants the audience to feel it as much as hear it – prayer mantras pulsating through their chakras.
– In our bodies we have the real, true information. The mind is good for contemporary social situations but the body has the truth, the knowledge of all.
He then reveals how he came to learn about the physical gifts of music, quoted verbatim.
– I liked to party when young, he says while emitting a thumping techno beat, same situation to trance. I understand young people who… OMPH OMPH with narcotics, it’s good. Spirit – SHOOSH, travel another world.
While not feasting on any mind-warping compounds himself , he says he doesn’t need them to enter an altered state, Alexey is not averse to them as long as they’re treated with proper reverence and respect.
– They give you knowledge but you give them your mind, your eyes, your hearing and your body. People think it’s only for them but they have to give something back; before you use them, you decide what you can give in return. Their spirits have no human morals, different sort of power – you need to know why and use them wisely. After trip you must have results and use the information to do yourself good. It’s not relaxation, not meant to feel good or taste nice – it is work.
He also notes that nature’s pharmacy won’t induce brilliance to a mediocre mind.
– If you eat narcotics and think you will play like Jimi Hendrix – no. But I like music guys who use narcotics, normal minds don’t interest me. It’s your own way; your choice, there are no laws. It’s your life and it must be interesting – it’s a journey and an experience.
Alexey remarks how modern people constantly crave new information, new data to process – and as such have short attention spans.
– For me, it’s very strange because it’s only information – not knowledge. To get knowledge, you must do work within.
As word of PHURPA spreads through genres like black metal and dark ambient, they have found themselves making festival appearances. One that went well was last year’s Sommer Sonnwend Celebration festival in Salzburg, Austria.
– Good guys at the fest in the Alps, berserkers – I like it. Real, good men. Fire, brutal – it’s good.
Two other festivals that invited them were Czech metal open air Brutal Assault and a smaller black metal-oriented gathering called Nidrosian Black Mass in Brussels, Belgium. Alexey appears somewhat perplexed by the attention he’s been getting from the extreme metal scene lately. I explain that at least part of the fascination is their complete and genuine devotion to spirituality, something not particularly common in black metal.
– I like metal guys in a social way because I prefer people whose way is opposite to normal but the problem is authenticity, much seems to be just decoration. Metal music needs more devotion, many bands seem to be more like a business. They say it’s spiritual but after they take off their dresses they live standard lives, it’s not interesting. Also, they use attributes from different cultures without having deep knowledge about them. I asked a guy, ‘What is this 666? Kabbalah?’ He didn’t know, funny.
He has a rather pragmatic take on the genre’s devotion to darkness.
– In Bön tradition, there are no concepts of good and evil. To me, Heaven is like a house for old men – not interesting. Hell is interesting; contrast, power, plus and minus – that is life. In Heaven – nothing, total death.
Neither is he especially impressed by the music side of hell’s rock ‘n’ roll.
– We don’t listen before or after our performances but I have heard fragments. I think black metal needs different instruments; they should create their own – hear sound inside and construct one that can make it.
This is the approach Alexey has wholeheartedly embraced in his industrial side-project CORPS, in which he exclusively uses instruments built from scrap metal.
– This is contemporary Bön, industrial Bön. All instruments are made by me, I am good hand-maker – if I need a cosmic sound I know how to build something that will generate it. The concept is a situation that can manifest, the whole planet destroyed by a third world war – post-apocalyptic. The survivors rediscover music without memories of what any of the styles sounded like before destruction. They use what’s available to play the music inside them – very natural, like animal sound.
As the observant reader will have noticed by now, the concept of ‘power’ is central to Alexey’s worldview.
– Power is power. We have muscles but our intentions decide how to use them – if you want to smash something, you apply power by thinking it. Power in your mind is power inside you. When you meet people, you can see if they have it– you can feel it. Empty, clear power – without human attributes. Power like cosmic space, you create it inside before your hands can use it.
Fellow member Eduard Utukin adds his take on the matter.
– In our faith, emptiness is not the absence of all – it’s everything. If we create sound or magic we open the emptiness and form from it, in there all is possible. From potential to kinetic.
– Power from emptiness. We make deal with the power, it manifests through this contract.
He says that when imploring the void to do your bidding you must promise it your utmost efforts and once a deal has been struck, it can’t be renegotiated.
– If you work poorly your life will crash but if you produce the best power, it connects with yourself and your body becomes instrument for spirit. The spirit, power, emptiness – whatever you call it, gives you task and if you say ‘yes’ you are a warrior inside. It’s not a joke, if you take the first step you can never go back. For me it is my happiness – foundation of my life. My life is content when I connect with emptiness. I am Alexey and my body is not me, it’s my instrument only.