Musician merges East and West into blissful blend
By Michael McCall
JANUARY 19, 1999: When percussionist Kirby Shelstad turned to Buddhist studies six years ago, it wasn't for esoteric reasons. His motives were as profound as life gets. At the time, he had been swarmed by death. In quick succession, his parents passed away, then his wife. A couple of close friends also died unexpectedly. "I was at a point where loss was such a repetitive, ongoing thing in my life," he says.
Long before then, Shelstad had shown an interest in Buddhism. "It was just a book here and there, but it always resonated," he recalls. As he dealt with the deaths of loved ones, he says he "thought back to what I'd read about Buddhism and about how they dealt with the issues of loss and the cycles of life."
In time, Shelstad's religious studies began to affect his music. It was a natural progression for this longtime Nashvillian, who in the last two decades has performed everything from danceable rock music to trance-inducing New Age soundscapes.
Shelstad first received attention playing drums for The Nerve, one of the city's most popular club bands in the early '80s. After the group's demise, he branched out in several directions. His work with mallet instruments and his early interest in MIDI computerized music programs led to a job with Apple Computers. He traveled the world demonstrating the musical capabilities of the Macintosh computer.
At the same time, Shelstad continued to be a part of the local music scene, working with Aashid Himons and electronic musician Giles Reaves and occasionally supporting mainstream pop and country acts, among them Kathy Mattea, Bela Fleck, Gatemouth Brown, and Jill Sobule. He also recorded several of his own New Age recordings, selling more than 60,000 copies through live appearances and distribution to bookstores, gift shops, and health-food markets.
Then, in 1990, he began studying Indian classical music with the Tabla master Pandit Swapan Choudhuri. He also starting making yearly visits to a California music school run by Ali Akbar Khan, one of India's most respected musicians. As it turned out, the dual study of Indian music and Buddhist religion soon merged in an unexpected way.
"All of Tabla is taught in syllables, and there's a lot of syllables," Shelstad says. "To teach you the music, a teacher recites everything that he wants you to play. There's a lot of recitation and memorization." The same, he says, is true of learning to meditate through the use of Buddhist mantras.
The more he meditated, Shelstad noticed, the more a musical quality emerged from his mantras. He also found his voice developing. He had never been a singer, but because of the daily meditating, his voice began creating tones it wouldn't have been able to achieve in the past.
As he composed, he found that the repetitive, shifting textures of Indian music and the hypnotic quality of the mantras began merging inside his head. Bringing in other styles he'd played in the past, Shelstad found himself composing a unique blend of instrumental music based in Eastern mysticism but tempered with certain Western techniques.
The musician first used his new approach to provide music for an instructional yoga video. Happy with how the songs unfolded, he continued to work with the tracks, adding and subtracting sounds to see what worked. While experimenting, he started adding his own chanting. "I didn't plan to include vocals when I started," Shelstad says. "But at some point, it really gelled."
The result can be heard on Shelstad's recent CD, Dewachen. The chants are all done in Sanskrit or Tibetan, while the hypnotic, soothing music mixes Shelstad's voice, percussive instrumentation, and slide electric guitar. Contributors include bassist Michael Rhodes, guitarist Larry Chaney, Giles Reaves, violinist Jonathan Yudkin, and vocalist Beth Nielsen Chapman.
With eight songs stretching over more than 71 minutes, Dewachen offers a trance-like beauty, but it has more depth and texture than most New Age albums. Shelstad has created a beautiful, dreamlike collection of songs that is uniquely his own. The album earned him a Nashville Music Award nomination for Independent Album of the Year.
"I still don't know what the definition of it is," Shelstad says of his music. "But hopefully it is something that people will find interesting.... I wanted it to be something that creates a good vibe, a good space--for it to be something that enhances people's environment. And I've been real encouraged by the number of people who tell me they play this music every day, that they're using it in their daily lives. That's about the best response I could hope for."
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