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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Spiritual rebirth

December 1, 2008

Phil Void's rock band has never made the cover of Rolling Stone but
in Dharamsala they are hugely popular. Clifford Coonan reports
The Statesman (India)
November 27, 2008

Few rock stars can claim to have been pushed on to the path of
musical glory with specific instructions from the Dalai Lama. If it
wasn't for the advice of the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people,
Phil Void might have found himself a scholar today, rather than the
singer-songwriter of the Dharma Bums.

The artist once known as Philip Hemley -- he was given the name Phil
Void by a Tibetan oracle ~ has been coming to Dharamsala, the seat of
Tibet's government in exile, since 1975, the year he formed the Bums.
But it was his 1989 visit to the Indian hill station that changed his life.

Void found himself there, facing a quandary. He was studying Tibetan
religion and philosophy at Columbia University but was agonising over
whether to pursue his studies under Professor Robert Thurman, a
Tibetologist and the father of the actress Uma, or to keep playing his music.

Although Void has had many audiences with the man everyone around
here refers to as "His Holiness", their meeting that year, after a
full initiation rite, was crucial. The Dalai Lama reduced the number
of mantras Void was required to recite from 500,000 to 100,000 and
then gave him important career advice.

"I said that when I went back to the US I had to decide what to do.
Should I study for my PhD or keep going with music? I presented him
with the original version of my notes for Rangzen and he looked at me
with a funny smile and a look that bore right through me. His
Holiness said: 'You have a special talent for these songs.' I knew
what decision I had to make."

Void had written Rangzen, which translates as 'Free Tibet', on his
way to Dharamsala. It would end up being the Dharma Bums' signature
tune. "And who will sing the songs to be sung, and speak the name on
every tongue, and fight with words though they have guns, and lift
the yoke upon us," runs the song. It calls for a return to harmony
and for independence, but as Void points out, this was long before
there was any tension between the idea of a "Middle Way" and of
autonomy, the subject of last week's meeting in the city.

The group's first major gig was at the Tibetan Institute of the
Performing Arts in 1989. When the curtain pulled back, the front rows
were a sea of maroon robes as monks packed out the hall to hear the
music. "The kids went berserk. Every time I go to Tibetan events
around the world, a Tibetan will come up to me and say they saw that
gig," Void says.

The Bums' hippie pedigree is impeccable; they take their name from
the Jack Kerouac book of the same name and songs in their repertoire
include Winds of Karma and Ocean of Wisdom.

Dharamsala has a population of 20,000, of which a few hundred are
foreigners, but with his distinctive bushy beard, booming laugh and
twinkling eyes, the man from Woodstock is probably the most
recognisable of the overseas hordes.

The singer is disappointed the Dharma Bums have never made the front
page of Rolling Stone magazine, but he has received better kudos; the
Dalai Lama wrote of the band, in a letter of support: "They have
sought at every opportunity to draw attention to the cause of Tibet
and to sing up for the freedom of the Tibetan people, for which I thank them."

Richard Gere listens to their songs and Blondie's Chris Stein has
played with the band. Other Bums collaborators include Maura
Moynihan, a journalist, activist and singer-songwriter who first
jammed with them in 1989. She is the daughter of the Democrat senator
Dan Moynihan, who was the US ambassador to India under two
administrations and was instrumental in forming Washington's policy in Tibet.

Void reels off the festivals his band has played at, including the
Miss Tibet beauty pageant and a 2005 performance at Madison Square
Garden in New York after a Dalai Lama teaching. He remembers with
fondness one concert which thousands of Tibetan refugees attended.

"They were all at the fence and I started singing and they went
berserk. There were 100,000 people at the festival and by the time I
got to the third chorus the refugees were all singing with me," Void
recounts. And with that, he bids farewell and heads into town, to
arrange the next gig.

The Independent
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