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Interview with Dechen Shak-Dagsay: “Music can heal when it is played with an open heart”

Dechen Shak-Dagsay with Raymond Lam. From Dechen

It has been a busy couple of years for one of Europe’s most renowned Tibetan musicians. Recently, the master of contemporary Tibetan mantras completed an interfaith album called Beyond: Buddhist and Christian Prayers with the legendary Tina Turner and Dechen’s Swiss friend Regula Curti. The three artists had been inspired to work together by the idea of understanding, respect, and tolerance amongst the great world faiths. “There should be no more wars due to different religious views. Singing and chanting the prayers of all the different traditions is a true blessing as it has opened my heart so widely,” Dechen Shak-Dagsay told me.

We reunited over breakfast to talk about the recent release of her new album, Asian Jewel, which is a remixed collection of her extremely well-received Jewel (2012). I told her that I felt Hong Kong was becoming her team’s Asian base. She agreed, particularly as she had her eloquent and humorous manager, Andreas Finke, with her. “I visited Hong Kong the first time when I was 14 years old, and it was such an experience to see the impressive skyline, especially at night. I grew up in a small village in Switzerland and I could not believe that so many people could live in such cramped areas. The mixture of cultures, history, the energy, and kindness of the people we meet—altogether, it’s an extraordinary, magical, and touching place for me.”

One of Dechen’s first performances in Hong Kong was when she and her producer, Helge van Dyk, gave a concert with her Jewel ensemble at the Kee Club in October 2012 (Dieter Dyk on percussion, Jürg Fuyuzui Zurmühle on flutes, Daniel Pezzotti on cello, and Helge van Dyk on piano). “We received so much positive feedback from the audience about the music on our Jewel album that we decided to bring out a new version of Jewel for an Asian audience. We featured famous Chinese musicians such as Master Tam Po Shek on the flutes, as well as Mrs. Shao Lin, who is a master on the erhu and part of the Shanghai National Orchestra,” she said. “We called the new version Asian Jewel’ and hope to introduce our music to Asia. Of course my great hope is to reach a lot of Chinese brothers and sisters who have already a great affection for the Tibetan Buddhist culture.”

Her meeting with Tam Po Shek was instrumental in the creation of her new album: “In 2007, my wonderful friend Maria Rhomberg invited me to perform in Hong Kong. I had the privilege of playing a small concert with Master Tam Po Shek at Matthieu Ricard’s photo exhibition, hosted by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. It was a beautiful combination of singing Tibetan mantras to Master Tam’s flute.” From then on, she nurtured the hope to collaborate with Tam Po Shek on her next album. When Asian Jewel was proposed, Dechen asked Maria if she could connect her again with the flautist. “Tam Po Shek kindly accepted to work with us, and even introduced us to Mrs. Shao Lin when we asked for an erhu player. It was such a privilege to work with both musicians and to integrate their beautiful art on the album.”

She says that her new release this October will be more “modern” in both instrumentals and theme. “Although some of the songs are much more dynamic than any of my previous songs, it was important for me to keep my style of creating a serene and joyful atmosphere.”It addresses the pressing contemporary problems of our time: preserving the planet, kindness to non-human sentient beings, and conservation. “All the ancient cultures of this world show us that we are deeply connected to nature and the elements out of which this planet and beings came to existence. We all share this mother earth and we all have the same responsibility to protect and preserve its environment,” she told me. “When visiting Tibet in 2006 and again in 2010, I was very sad to see that my people, especially the younger generation, weren’t environmentally aware. It disturbed me to see how so much plastic waste was dumped into the rivers. No one seems to realize that all the plastic waste takes centuries to decompose and that the cans and bottles thrown all over the fields are harming a lot of animals. I think it’s quite obvious that keeping Tibet’s nature and environment clean is not only in the interest of Tibet but the whole of Asia.”

Dechen’s deep worry for the well-being of her home is informed not only by her spiritual connection with its stories and people, but also by scientific observations. “With its massive glaciers, Chinese and Western scientists say that Tibet is now officially considered the Third Pole. But climate change is slowly melting this pole. This has drastic consequences for the Tibetan grasslands. Over the last few years, the grassland that is so important for the nomads has been flooded, causing loss of life and displacement. These floods then carry down to the source of rivers flowing into Asia. I hope to reach out to many people not only in Tibet to create awareness of the importance to protect and preserve our planet earth.”

What is the role of a creative artist in the light of these immense scientific challenges? “Since these are themes that concern all of us, I wanted to use the tool of modern music to reach as many people as possible. Music is a very powerful tool to carry a message. Since the message is so important, I asked my producer Helge van Dyk to produce the best sound and to gather the best musicians to help me to take it into the world.”

Over our yoghurt, muesli, and orange juice (while Dechen conveniently went to get some fruit), Andreas and I discussed how she’s become a profoundly good friend to all: her open heart empowers her to write songs that are similarly open to the emotions of her listeners. Perhaps this is the role of the artist or songwriter: inspiration through openness to the world and its suffering. “When it is played with an open heart, music is spiritual and has a big healing potential,” said Dechen proudly. “That is why it means a lot to me to have this beautiful Tibetan-Chinese collaboration.”

Dechen Shak-Dagsay’s latest album, Asian Jewel, can be ordered from MasterMusic in Hong Kong at all good record stores.

Read our review of Dechen’s original Jewel album

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