Elizabeth Gunto, staff writer
On March 3 yogi, published author, and singer-songwriter Dada Nabhaniilananda will be performing at Sage Café. He has released three albums and is currently touring the U.S. His music has been compared to Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel.
Elizabeth Gunto: People have compared your sound to Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel. How have these, and other musicians, affected your sound and lyrics?
Dada Nabhaniilananda: It is worth remembering that when people say things like this they are often just using the comparison as an simple way to communicate what the music sounds like. It is really hard to describe a musical style any other way.
I’ve certainly soaked up my fair share of great music. I must have a million classical harmonies embedded in my brain from years of playing piano. That makes it really easy for me to come up with vocal harmonies – they just spring up unasked like eager bunnies. And all those Beatles songs and clever pop melodies I’ve heard so many times have undoubtedly left their mark on my psyche. But although I’m surely inspired and unconsciously influenced by a host of much loved maestros I’ve never presumed to deliberately mimic them.
EG: When writing songs, do you make a conscience effort to separate your music from that of your influences to create your own personal sound, or is it a more natural process?
DN: I don’t think about this when I’m writing. This is quite easy for me as my route to songwriting was atypical. I studied classical music for 14 years. Then when I was 20 I suddenly gave it up and picked up the guitar and started chanting yogic mantras. I completely missed the phase that many singer/songwriters go through of singing Beatles songs and the like. So although I’ve listened to plenty of popular music, I’ve never played it. Well, almost never. Last year I finally learned to play Imagine. I was surprised to discover that it is quite simple.
My ignorance of popular musical styles has an advantage and a disadvantage. The benefit is that I sound more like me than I do like anyone else. The hard part was having to figure out all those songwriting tricks on my own. It took a long time, but at least I can lay claim to my own mistakes.
EG: What inspires you to write about political issues?
DN: Stories. Stories of lives that move me. They don’t have to be true stories. Archetypal myths can be very evocative. I have a song about the Tiananmen Square massacre of students by Chinese government troops, but the focus of the song is a painting by an artist working secretly, painting an image of Hou Yi, the mythological savior of the people. It was a thrill to sing this in Taiwan in 2007 – there was certainly no need to explain the significance of the story there.
The story may feature an animal as does my lament for the last blue whale. Or a figure from history like Pemulwuy, the Australian aboriginal resistance fighter.
Some of my friends have accused me of writing too many sad songs about the world, but I see a lot of tragedy out there. I do not sing these sad stories just for the sake of it. I hope to break through the numbness that comes from seeing too many news broadcasts and the sense of powerlessness that comes from too much contemplation of daunting odds. Only when we connect with our true feelings, behind the barriers we erect to protect ourselves, can we be motivated to act. In the end my songs are about hope for the future, but that future cannot come to pass if everyone pretends to themselves that they don’t care.
Che Guevara famously said “at the risk of sounding ridiculous, I feel that a true revolutionary is motivated by feelings of great love.”
I am just fortunate enough to be wielding a guitar rather than an AK47.
EG: How do you think politically charged music changes situations or people’s opinions?
DN: There’s a great line from “Folk Song Army,” a song by Tom Lehrer: “They may have won all the battles, but we had all the best songs.”
He was talking about the Spanish Civil War against Franco the Fascist Dictator, and it’s true that it takes more than a good song to win a war. But it is also true that most wars begin with the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people. Here songwriters hold the advantage, for music is the very language of the heart. Those who wish to oppress are well aware of the power of musical voices of dissent – why else would they suppress them so systematically and cruelly? Why else would they kill someone like Victor Hara of Chile? He never carried a gun, but Pinochet’s soldiers killed him just the same. And his songs live on.
Revolutionary songs can change peoples attitudes and move them to action because they have both intellectual and emotional impact. The right music and lyrics at the right moment can carry a powerful punch.
Come see Dada Nabhaniilananda perform at Sage Cafe on March 3.