Just when you thought a bunch of pop stars singing for a good cause couldn't possibly be interesting anymore, along comes "Mantra Mix." A compilation album to benefit Tibetan refugees of the Chinese Communist occupation, "Mantra Mix" assembles a Who's Who of pop and electronica musicians--Madonna, Moby, Propellerheads, REM, Sinead O'Connor, Fat Boy Slim, and Philip Glass, to name just a few.
All that, along with Tibetan chants (both unadulterated monks' versions and a bunch set to backbeats and techno crescendos), a gorgeously produced CD-ROM with videoclips of the Dalai Lama, and little audiovisual briefings on Tibetan history, culture, and Buddhism. The proceeds from the album, produced by the jazz and world-music label Narada, and all the artists' royalties, go to the Office of the Dalai Lama. The sum, then, is way greater than its parts--a primer on both the state of contemporary popular music and the state of Tibet.
Each track on the album is a vaguely mystically themed song--a mantra, as it were--and like much trendy dance music these days, characteristically Eastern-sounding--incorporating sampled sitars, Tibetan chant, and harmonic minor scales. There's Madonna's "Shanti/Ashtangi" from her last album, a paeon to yoga; The London Suede singing "Everything Will Flow," a facile but pretty, post-rock version of the Beatles' exhortation to non-attachment "Let It Be"; and R.E.M.'s "Lotus (Weird Mix)." Disc 2 (wherein you'll find the CD-ROM component) features liturgical chants recorded at Buddhist monasteries and a half-dozen DJ-manipulated versions of the same. The effect of the whole collection of music is a little self-conscious but lush, listenable, and fun.
Coupled with the enhanced CD, which is jam-packed with information about Tibet, photos, mantras, and web links, the music takes on more depth and urgency. There is a lovely video clip of the Dalai Lama leading a prayer, images of monks spinning prayer wheels, explanations of the environmental and cultural devastation of Tibet, and thumbnail descriptions and images of refugee life.
The closing song on the record is Ben Harper's stripped down and beautiful blues number "One Road to Freedom." The Buddha suggested that there are infinite skillful means to travel that road--that is, many ways to get enlightened. A pop album may not be one of them, but "Mantra Mix" goes a long way toward educating the listener about a country and culture in extreme peril. In Tibet, monks and nuns are imprisoned for singing songs in praise of the Dalai Lama. Buying and listening to the songs on this album may be a tiny step in the struggle to help them win their freedom.