Jean-Philippe Rykiel: “Music allows you to exist outside of yourself”

- through Fabrice Groult

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In 1994, Jean-Philippe Rykiel recorded his first album, Wishes for Awakening, with Lama Gyourmé, before a successful international tour. Since then, the composer has produced two other albums with the Bhutanese lama, accompanying his sacred Tibetan songs on keyboard and piano. A harmonious and warm collaboration for the musician, who thus completes a rich discography with artists from all over the world. Blind, Jean-Philippe Rykiel perceives the beauty of life through his other senses. Here he confides in his love of music and his desire to share.

You are blind from birth. Did this lead you to develop your other senses, a particular awareness of the world?

I believe it's a fantasy. People think that nature abhors a vacuum, that the absence of one sense must necessarily be filled by others or a sixth sense. In reality, we are simply more focused on the four senses that we have left. I am more attentive to what I listen to, what I touch, what I smell, what I taste… When a sense is missing, the part of the brain normally assigned to it will be used for something else. I may have a special sensitivity, but I don't know if my consciousness is different from everyone else.

You sometimes collaborate with Lama Gyourmé. What qualities do you appreciate in him?

I met Lama Gyourme in 1989. Above all, we have a musician-to-musician relationship. He's a wonderful person, who I want to be like. A very warm man, with a voice that I adore. He differs from the image I had of a Buddhist monk. In particular by his humor and his detachment, which I particularly appreciate. Lama Gyourmé spends his time laughing, making puns in French. He is calm, exudes serenity and peace throughout his being. I guess, like everyone else, he has moments of discomfort and weaknesses. But he hides it so well that even a blind man cannot see it!

Together, you have produced several albums and made several tours of sacred Tibetan songs. What did your work with Lama Gyourmé bring you?

His particularity, compared to other artists I have accompanied, is that many of his songs do not have a defined rhythm. There are mantras that you can beat time to, but there are other chants, like “Wishes for Awakening,” that have only your breathing as the rhythm. I really have to listen to when he's going to change syllables and notes, so that I can change chords at the same time. There are fairly simple melodies that must be harmonized to interest an uninformed audience, so as to make them universal. That it's not just Tibetan music or techno for the dancefloors, but a real East-West musical mix.

“You have to work on your instrument as well as possible, so that the body is not an obstacle between the melody that you have in your head and in your heart on the one hand, and the listeners on the other. If I have this gift of transforming what I have inside me into sounds that can touch others, I am happy to use it. »

What are the sacred songs or prayers that touch you the most?

I really like the song "L'offrande de Tsok", which I accompanied on the piano in the first album, Wishes for Awakening. It is not often played on stage, because it is difficult. In the second album, shower of blessings, I love the title of the same name and, more recently, "Le tambour du ciel", in the third album, songs for peace. Its melody reminded me of Pachelbel's Canon. I adapted a chord progression that looks a bit like it, but in five beats instead of four. A nice mix.

Are you following a spiritual path? 

I'm afraid that's too overused a word. Lama Gyourmé never suggested that I enter Buddhism. I haven't felt the need so far either, but it's not excluded that I'll be interested in it one day. Whatever happens, I think the important thing is to be good. As an agnostic, my primary motivation for doing good deeds is not to buy myself better karma or a place in heaven. I believe in living in the present and doing good around you. I don't know if it brings anything after death, but making the people around us happy brings immense happiness. I look no further.

Does music give meaning to your existence?

I am the music, of the verb "to follow" and of the verb "to be". I live it all the time. Music allows you to exist outside of yourself. You have to work on your instrument as well as possible, so that the body is not an obstacle between the melody that you have in your head and in your heart on the one hand, and the listeners on the other. If I have this gift of transforming what I have inside me into sounds that can touch others, I am happy to use it. But the meaning of existence, I think we find it in every second of our life. Everything that happens to us has a meaning, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.

You have collaborated with many singers and musicians around the world, including Youssou N'Dour and Salif Keita. Has music allowed you to open up to other cultures?

Music was a way to approach other cultures, people I loved for their difference. I discovered Africa in 1982, thanks to a Ghanaian friend. Four days after my arrival in his country, there was a coup. Our musical plans fell through, but I lived with my friend's family for a while. Four or five generations were united under the same roof. I found a warmth, a lot of laughter and happiness despite the few material possessions. I stayed in contact with this continent as much as possible. As I don't speak any African language, the musicians I met made the effort to speak to me in English or French. But I sometimes found myself in villages, with people who spoke neither one nor the other. Our instruments were our only means of communication. It was really magical to be able to interact with people, to be able to listen to them and answer them without knowing their language. A unique experience.

What do the great Buddhist principles such as impermanence and non-duality evoke for you?

I haven't really gone into it from the Buddhist point of view, but they are universal notions, useful to everyone. Impermanence would allow us not to get too attached either to things or to beings. That doesn't mean not loving them, but not clinging to them too much so that you don't suffer too much when they're gone. Non-duality is feeling one with the rest of the world, like a cell in a gigantic organism. If we manage to really experience it, it allows us to live better. There may be a time when this feeling becomes so obvious that even altruism no longer has any reason to exist. Because when we speak of altruism, we distinguish ourselves from the other. Whereas if I and the other are one, there is no longer me and there is no longer any other. But the person who shows off with his new SUV will not necessarily share these notions of impermanence and non-duality because, for him or for her, it means nothing. I don't know if you can force this awareness in someone. I believe it must happen when it happens. And it would be good for it to arrive as soon as possible to as many people as possible...

Is composing a form of meditation?

Composing is a work of imagination and practice. Not so much from a theoretical background in my case, because I am self-taught. Listening work, too. I try to be attentive and bring what I can with my instruments. Meditation is something else. Sometimes I meditate when I feel it, that I find myself in a free space-time. I then sit down and try not to think of anything for a quarter of an hour. It brings me a certain calm.

The consumer society has taken over meditation: what do you think?

The consumer society takes over everything: organic food, poverty, rebellion… So why not meditation? I don't know if it can be interrupted, if we'll be there to see it and at the cost of how many deaths, wounds, terrible things… It's the consumer society itself that should be stopped.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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