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Selwa
Chöying Drolma and Steve Tibbetts
Six Degrees Records, 2004
$14.99 (CD)

A truly successful musical collaboration requires that everyone approach the project with an open mind and the willingness to listen deeply. Egos must be checked, in service of the greater whole. On Selwa, a Tibetan nun and American guitarist grant each other the space to move freely through their respective disciplines, and the result is a lesson in listening for anyone who is fortunate enough to come across the album.

Born in 1971 in Nepal, Chöying Drolma began her Buddhist education at thirteen under the guidance of Vajrayana master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche at the Nagi Gompa nunnery on the northern slopes of Nepal’s Kathmandu valley. (Tulku Urgyen was known for his equal treatment of nuns and monks, a rare practice for a lama of his stature in the male-dominated culture of Tibetan Buddhism.) The precocious Drolma rose to the status of chant master shortly after entering the nunnery, later becoming her teacher’s personal attendant until his passing in 1996.

The year after Tulku Urgyen died, Drolma met a Minnesota guitarist named Steve Tibbetts. A globetrotter known for his luminous recordings for ECM Records, Tibbetts had been fascinated by the music and cadence of the Himalayan region ever since his first visit to Nepal in 1985. He recorded Drolma at Nagi Gompa, accompanied only by a click track for tempo, and returned home with the tapes to produce Chö with the help of percussionist Marc Anderson. The result was a richly textured album far superior to any “East-West fusion” that had come before.

Seven years after their stunning debut, Tibbetts reunited with Drolma in Kathmandu to record Selwa(meaning “clear” or “awake”) for Six Degrees Records. Selwa is a tempered, minimalist retouching of one woman’s sacred music, backed with light guitar flourishes and intelligently enhanced percussion. At first listen the lightness of being is unavoidable: Drolma’s polyphonic melodies married to Tibbetts’s sweeping orchestral suites provide a sonic landscape for contemplation and quietude. When one dives deeper into lyrical translation, however, a whole other dimension unfolds.

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