San Rafael, CA
by Paul Liberatore
“The Buddha would dig it.”
Marin has a national reputation for its contributions to rock history. Now the county can claim the distinction of being the birthplace of a new and esoteric genre – dharma folk music. Because Marin is also known for its alternative spiritual practices, it seems only natural that such a musical style would evolve here, springing from the pastoral surroundings of West Marin’s Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the phenomenally successful Buddhist community in Woodacre.
“Dharma folk music in the west is a relatively new thing,” says singer-songwriter Eve Decker, a retreat manager at Spirit Rock. “Buddhism in the East has chanting, and there is lyrical music for other spiritual traditions, but dharma music as a popular form for regular folks is just being born in the last decade or so.”
Decker grew up in Mill Valley, has recorded “Commentary on Perfections of the Heart,” an acoustic folk-pop album based on the 10 paramis (teachings) of Buddhism – generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness and equanimity.
“Eve Decker writes a wise and witty lyric, and has a voice that carries our deepest longings and fulfillment,” said Wes “Scoop” Nisker, a radio personality, meditation teacher and author. “She is one of the true artists of our new Western dharma spiritual movement.” Inspired to write a Buddhist song cycle during a three-month silent meditation retreat, Decker collaborated on the songs with friends, fellow musicians and family members.
“I think it’s a real breakthrough album,” said singer-songwriter Betsy Rose, a longtime leader in the family practice program at Spirit Rock. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a recording that so boldly puts forward the 10 teachings in a very literal, but a very beautiful way. It’s like listening to a talk about the teachings, but quite poetically done. Eve has created something quite unusual.”
Decker and Rose, who perform together in a “Singing the Dharma” concert on May 16 at Spirit Rock, have been in the forefront of the nascent dharma music movement.
Spirit Rock founder Jack Kornfield, who was trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India and Burma, is among the spiritual leaders who have been teaching a Westernized form of vipassana (insight) meditation in the United States for the past 30 years. “But the vipassana tradition has been without music,” Decker said. “It came with some chanting, but not even much of that. So it’s gone all this time with very little music. In the last 10 years, Buddhist practitioners, myself included, have started to write contemporary music based on Buddhist teachings in the Spirit Rock/Marin County context.”
Decker writes and plays in a style that she says is “very reminiscent of Western music in that it’s sing-along and folky, but it’s based on Buddhist teachings”. Growing up with folk music-loving parents who took her to concerts by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and other stars of the ’60s folk movement, she began playing guitar under the tutelage of her mother when she was 6. When she was a student at Old Mill School, she was chosen to sing on Rita Abrams’ song, “Mill Valley,” which became a national hit.
“That was the beginning of my musical career,” she recalled. “After that experience, I started writing songs.I wrote my first song when I was 8 and I never stopped.”
For 15 years, Decker has been one third of the female trio Rebecca Riots, a self-described “radical feminist Buddhist folk band” named best band with a conscience by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She’s also brought into the studio stellar acoustic musicians such as Mike Marshall, Kathy Kallick and her bandmates in Rebecca Riots: guitarist Lisa Zeiler and singer Andrea Pritchett.
The harmonies on the chorus of songs like “Generosity” ring out like a Buddhist bell and “Energy,” co-written with Pritchett, is more rock than folk with an electric guitar, wailing organ and driving drums. Decker sings with just a harmony vocal and percussion on “Lovingkindness,” a simplicity consistent with its subject and tradition.
There’s enough musical variety and instrumental texture on the CD to keep it from being a testament to treacle, and the lyrics avoid being preachy or pedantic.”
The Buddha would dig it.
Buy It: “Commentary on Perfections of the Heart,” independent, $15 at CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes, or send a check for $17 (includes $2 postage) to: Eve Decker, P.O. Box 3536, Berkeley CA 94703