Review of 03/09/98 Tibet-House concert, Carnegie Hall, New York City

With Prayer, Chants and Rock-and-Roll


Art makes unlikely alliances, especially at the annual Tibet House benefit concerts. Punk-rock, Tibetan folk songs, Minimalism, Buddhist chants, gospel, protest songs and Beat poetry shared the stage at Carnegie Hall on Monday night (03/09/98) for the 10th annual Monlam Great Prayer Festival, which is named after a traditional Tibetan New Year celebration.

It's the only concert of the New York season where the composer Philip Glass would sit in with the Velvet Underground founder John Cale, the rock band Live and two former members of the Modern Lovers to play "Pablo Picasso," a Modern Lovers song about the artist picking up girls. Built on one chord, the song was kin to both Minimalism and the drone of Buddhist chants; with its blunt lyrics, it owed something to the Beat tradition of Allen Ginsberg, an American Buddhist who was a mainstay of past Tibet House events. Patti Smith declaimed Ginsberg's poetry with a preacher's fervor near the beginning and end of the program.

Tibet House, at 22 West 15th Street in Chelsea, is dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture, which has been suppressed under the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Its benefit isn't a run-through of hits; instead, it sets musicians thinking about spirituality and freedom, and it brings out voices that are tender, earnest and impassioned.

Caetano Veloso, the great Brazilian songwriter, came up with "Terra," a rumination on seeing satellite photographs of the Earth while he was a political prisoner, and "O Lećozinho," an affectionate song about a lion; Tibet's flag has two snow lions on it. Live's selections were "I Am Overcome," a tribute to a Scripture teacher that declares "My master is in the yard giving light," and "Lightning Crashes," which hints at reincarnation.

Tibetan musicians brought devotional music: deep, enveloping chants by monks from the Drepung Loseling monastery and a tender a cappella tribute to a lama (teacher) from the singer Yungchen Lhamo. Dadon Dawadolma led a rock-driven version of a Tibetan New Year's song. American singers turned to gospel, as Sheryl Crow and Natalie Merchant sang a glowing duet on "When They Ring the Golden Bells." Ms. Merchant's solo song, "Thick as Thieves," pondered biblical imagery and "the chaos of millennium."

Ms. Crow's "Redemption Day," sung in a duet with Angelique Kidjo, condemned American apathy toward Bosnia; she also introduced a memorable song she said she had just written, "River Wide," a Celtic-tinged ballad about doomed love. Ms. Kidjo, who is from Benin, lavished her voice on "Malaika," a love song from Tanzania, with growls and swoops that linked African tradition to American soul music.

Ms. Smith read from Ginsberg's "Howl" and hooted on her clarinet over the drone of "Spell"; she sang "1959," contrasting the Chinese takeover of Tibet with the Beat culture uprising in America. Her song "People Have the Power" has become a sure-fire finale for benefits. Determined and hopeful, insisting on optimism as Ms. Smith pumped a fist in the air, it brought the audience to its feet to sing along.

Copyright © The New York Times Company 1998

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