For more than a decade, Ani Choying Drolma, a most unlikely of rock stars, has shared Buddhism's sacred chants with a growing number of fans worldwide. But she found this path almost by accident.
Ani Choying can't remember when she started singing, but she does know that her formal training began at 13 when she joined the Nagi Gompa monastery north of Kathmandu where the Rinpoche recognised her talent and started teaching her sacred chants (see picture, right).
"They often made me sing on whatever occasion took place," she says. "I used to be the entertainer for everyone, my teacher and his wife were really, really enthusiastic about my singing. They knew it, what my future was."
Ani Choying has recorded 10 albums, including her latest, Inner Peace II. Some monks have made it big with their chanting, but few, if any, nuns have. Her music combines Tibetan melodies and Nepali lyrics by poet Durga Lal Shrestha with traditional and contemporary instruments, like singing bowls and synthesisers.
Her voice may sound like a mountain stream, but underneath, her passions are like a storm. Her vocal power comes from a complicated mixture of devotion, confidence and anger. She confesses that she didn't become a nun out of faith, but rather to escape from her father, who beat her almost everyday.
"At the very beginning of my stay at the monastery, I was still very wild, with a lot of negativity in my heart, in my mind," she recalls, "I was always ready to protect myself. That means to be angry or to fight. But that slowly, slowly transformed."
Ani Choying's journey to the world stage started in 1994 when musician Steve Tibbetts first heard her sing. Amazed by her voice, he taped her and sent the recording to legendary music producer Joe Boyd. Boyd gave her a thumbs up, and Tibbetts returned to Kathmandu in 1997 to record the album Cho with her. A year later, he brought Ani Choying and two other nuns to tour in the US.
Today, Ani Choying Drolma tours six months a year in countries like Brazil, China, Singapore, Russia and France. Doris Grimm, who organises her summer tours in Germany, says: "It makes me really calm, I slow down. I feel the happiness in the music, the joy. I relax and my heart opens wide, especially when she sings the mantras."
But it wasn't always a love fest. When she began singing these songs publicly, other Buddhists criticised her. She turned to her teacher, the meditation master Tulku Urgyen, for advice.
"I asked him with the motive that if he says it's not good to do it, then I wouldn't have done it," she says." But then he was so positive, and he said, "Well, these are all great powerful mantras it doesn't matter whoever, whether they are believers or nonbelievers, whoever gets to hear it will be benefited."
When Ani Choying was a teenager, foreigners would often visit the simple Nagi Gompa monastery to study with her famous teacher. They gave her the nickname "Ani Chewing Gum", taught her English and introduced her to the blues.
"Long ago, I only could buy Hindi songs or Nepali songs," she says. "So, I asked a Western disciple of my teacher to help me get Western music, and that person gave me a Bonnie Raitt cassette."
Years later, after performing in San Francisco, Ani Choying saw a red-headed woman approach her and say: "Hi, my name is Bonnie Raitt and I am one of your greatest fans." Ani Choying replied: "Are you kidding? Actually, I am your fan."
In Kathmandu, everyone knows Ani Choying. She supports more than a dozen charities through her Nun's Welfare Foundation, and is building Nepal's first kidney hospital. In 2000, she founded the The Arya Tara School, the first school in Nepal to offer both Western and traditional Tibetan studies to nuns.
Ani Choying says she believes anyone can benefit from listening to her music. You don't have to follow the words, she says, it is a universal language.
Adapted from NPR
Ani Choying's chants choying.com
Singing for Freedom in Nepali
Ani Choying Drolma's 11th studio album Mangal Vani takes her devotional music to another level of spiritual ecstasy: both for the singer and the listener.
Like her previous albums, Mangal Vani (Auspicious Sounds) takes its inspiration from the chants and mantras of Nepal's unique syncretic amalgam of Buddhism and Hinduism. Ani Choying has extended her collaboration with Nhyoo Bajracharya and poet Durga Lal Shrestha. The lyrics of all the seven songs on the album are translated from Shree Acharya Satyanarayan Goenka's philosophy of Vippasana by poet Durga Lal Shrestha. Ani's enchanting voice makes the seven slokas mesmerising, the perfect music to relax the body and cleanse the mind.
The album was released on 6 May at a glittering ceremony in the Garden of Dreams. "I want to make it possible for people to enjoy the teachings of the Buddha through music," Ani Choying said at the launch. Songs like 'Kalo Raat Gayo Ta' and 'Yehi Dharma Kritana' do just that. Ani Choying's sublime voice, accompanied by soothing flute and singing bowl blend beautifully with a background guitar in all the numbers.
The album is pricey, at Rs 3,000, but proceeds will go to Ani Choying's plan to build a kidney hospital in Kathmandu. The nun says it is in memory of her mother, and her battle with kidney failure.
Ani's school, TSERING DOLKER GURUNG