Buddha and the Beats
In the recording studio with D.C. hip-hop duo Shambhala
DC Style Magazine
Inside a tiny recording studio off Anacostia Road, SE, two emcees are shepherding a track called "Creative Destruction" on a hard path toward aural nirvana.
"I tell you I got it!" exclaims Agua, one-half of the D.C.-area hip-hop duo Shambhala, from inside a five-foot-wide closet-cum-sound booth. "It's in my funny bone right now!," he yells through the glass door to other half, Born Infinite, and their sound engineer, Ice.
Ice, hunched over the mixing board, cues up the music (a thumping electronic concoction of sitar and violin) and waits for the vocals. "This is an exclusive," Agua declaims into the mic, "since they say we remain reclusive."
It's also another false start; a tick on a sonic samsara (the Buddhist cycle of birth and death). But the stop-start of the recording session isn't fazing Agua or Born: as veteran students of Eastern religions and philosophies, they know that songs, like reaching nirvana, take time.
"One more time," says Agua, "one more time."
Time is a classic Shambhala subject, in tune with the band's Buddhist/Taoist-leaning themes. While other artists are rapping about Cristal or singing the praises of the female backside, Born (real name: Ofosu Jones-Quartey) and Agua (born Al-Jabar Hakim Graham) are more apt to rhyme about meditation or draw inspiration from ancient spiritual Burmese chants. Their first album, 2003's The Lotus Of..., is a 14-track study in street-wise transcendentalism, featuring tunes like "Monastery Gladiators" and "Tao of the Full Moon."
"What we're doing is expressing and uplifting our own consciousnesses and hoping it will uplift others,'" explains the tall, clean-headed Born over a pre-session dinner at Agua's incense-heavy apartment. "That," he says between swigs of Heineken, "would be our mission statement."
Just back from performing at Chinese New Year festivities in Taiwan, Shambhala is working on three projects for the spring, including a batch of songs called The Return of the Silent Dragons, which they expect to release next month. The pair has collaborated since 2002, when they met at an open-mic hip-hop event at a local nightclub. They've played the 9:30 Club on the bill with Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu, and cite the Wu-Tang Clan, John Coltrane and Stevie Wonder as influences. (And they're planning more gigs in Taiwan this summer.)
These dudes do have day jobs, by the way. Born is a paralegal in Virginia and Agua is a dreadlock-twister, and they're both raising children. On top of that, the duo finds time to experiment with low-fi melodies like those that will be found in another forthcoming project, The Butterfly Dakinis. "We're real interested in breaking new ground and not getting bored," says Born.
By 12:15 a.m. Thursday nobody looked bored, but "Creative Destruction" didn't quite break out of the wheel of becoming. Another session would be needed for that. Saving the finishing touches for later, Born and Agua just laughed as they sauntered out of the studio toward Born's Jeep.
"It's a hell of a party, once you start touching the rungs of enlightenment," says Born. "If you want to come, come on in."