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The Magical World of Phurpa

Musician Alexey Tegin on ritual singing, knowledge and the practice of Bön.

Moscow underground music scene veteran Alexey Tegin confesses to having lived many lives over the last four decades – from practitioner of Carlos Castaneda’s magical passes to avant-garde jazz and industrial musician. Now he leads the Phurpa musical collective that is performing on July 24 in Berlin at Krake Festival. Their performances are inspired by the traditional Tibetan religion of Bön and result from rigorous physical and mental training.  

The first creature I see entering Alexey Tegin’s apartment building, less than a kilometer from the Moscow Conservatory, is a black cat. It initially looks at me askance, like some kind of a security guard, but then grants me passage.

Tegin, in a black hoodie, serves tea while surrounded by scrap metal instruments. He’ll be 66 this April, although it’s impossible to determine his age based on his looks. He attributes his appearance to the practice of Bön – Tibet’s oldest spiritual tradition.

Tegin was active as a photorealist in the late 1970s. Before he became interested in Bön, he lived in a studio, slept all afternoon, awoke at night and practiced Carlos Castaneda’s magical passes. “I enjoyed that lifestyle,” he says. “In the center of Moscow, the mental background is very tense, but when people sleep, it’s nearly zero. Overall, I’m more of a night person – it’s good for a person to be alone.”

“I’ve lived many unconnected lives,” says Tegin when asked about his 1980s musical career. Playing the music of Jimi Hendrix, then avant-garde jazz, then industrial music inspired by the Swans, was entirely separate from Phurpa, the musical collective and performance group. It began in 1995 when a prostitute delivered a cassette to Tegin from a random guy. This cassette contained a recording of monks singing in a temple of Bön.

“Bön is just a name. The meaning of the practices is the same. If doctrines are powerful enough, they’re universal and can settle in other cultures.”

He tried singing along with the monks and was surprised to find that he couldn’t. “At that moment I understood that it requires great artistry to maintain such a powerful sound,” says Tegin. “I started learning how to sing like this, then it spread to some kind of mental and physical discipline. But initially it was just a coincidence.”

When asked about sources of information on Bön in 1995 Moscow, he frowns: “If you wanted to learn about the ancient Egyptians, you could read a thousand, contradictory books. But if you can find a good picture of the Pyramid of Khafre and look at it for a long time, you start to feel, to gain knowledge through the method of contemplation.”

According to Tegin, Bön is not a doctrine, but a set of magical practices from the historical region of Bactria, in Central Asia. “It was also practiced in Russia, particularly in Siberia. Bön is just a name. The meaning of the practices is the same.” For Tegin, principles are the main thing: “If doctrines are powerful enough, they’re universal and can settle in other cultures.”

Has Tegin created his own version of Bön, or does he stick to the ancient principles? “If we speak separately about me and the ancient principles, we fall into dualism and disbelief,” he says. “A modern man becomes buried under books, information or teachers – he doesn’t take responsibility. I take responsibility.” Tegin maintains that canons are simultaneously changeable, easy to follow, and designed for people lacking knowledge. Once a canonical message is understood, he says, a canon can be modified and interpreted in various ways.

Musical interpretation for Phurpa members means singing in deeper voices than the Tibetan singers. Tegin says that a lama from the Himalayan Nyingamapa Gompa in Manali, was shocked upon hearing Phurpa perform and invited Tegin to the temple to “be his favorite student.” He declined, because he doesn’t practice Lamaism and had no interest in uprooting and going elsewhere to study.

Tegin is the founder and only permanent member of Phurpa. Some members have left, seemingly dissatisfied with their time in the group. A former member told me: “If you’re going to write about it, don’t forget that the Phurpa project is not related to the Bön tradition, despite what everyone says. And just to be clear – I’m not a participant in Phurpa, and I don’t care.”

There are currently three people in Phurpa, led by Tegin. “The performance differs depending on the group size: with two, it’s more dynamic; three creates a more objective figure, like a triangle,” says Tegin. Tegin frequently uses the word “objective” to describe how his music is unconnected from his personality: “This music arises from a special state of mind. It’s based on objective forms in overlooked categories, primarily connected with the manifestation of power.”

“It makes no difference if we’re singing in the kitchen or on the stage. If nobody came to our concerts, we'd sing anyway.”

The project is named after Phurpa Drugse Chempa, one of the five tutelary deities of the Father Tantra in the Bön tradition. Phurpa members have a distinct style of tantric singing or chanting called “gyukye” (rgyud skad), from the Tibetan words “rgyud” (tantra) and “skad” (sound of the voice).

Phurpa performs on stage with limited light, a black rag and its members in costume. “We sing mantras for ourselves. For me, it makes no difference if we’re singing in the kitchen or on the stage. If nobody came to our concerts, we'd sing anyway.” Every concert or, as it’s also called, ritual, fills the space with vibrations which reverberate even after the sound has been turned off. “By using these vibrations, we organize the different waves in our reality,” says Tegin. “But honestly, if I weren't doing this, I wouldn't listen to it, because it's humiliating.”

To join Phurpa, according to Tegin, you should have a genetic predisposition and free time. While practicing, members sometimes stand on their heads, to help their lungs and vocal cords work “more effectively.” They drink black tea with sugar, mutton fat or full-fat milk, and hot red pepper during performances. These exercises change the physiology of the voice in about a month. A singer’s mentality is also modified: “If you sing only one note for six hours, while hyperventilating, you acquire inner discipline,” says Tegin. The technique requires about a year to perfect.

Tegin says he can teach nearly anyone to sing, but it’s crucial that a person possesses inner depth. If there’s emptiness, the voice is a pointless instrument, “a submarine in the Karakum Desert,” Tegin said in a previous interview.

How much has Phurpa changed in the nearly 20 years since they started? “When you enter a swamp, you start drowning, going deeper and deeper,” reflects Tegin. “It doesn’t happen because you want it to. It just happens. If you were ever interested in being a social gentleman, it goes away in time. Like dry leaves falling away and leaving only a tree trunk.”

There is one decided change – Phurpa is now well received worldwide. This is thanks to Stephen O’Malley from Sunn O))), who took Phurpa as an opening act on his 2015 tour, and released “Trowo Phurnag Ceremony,” recorded at Melodiya studio, on O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint. Phurpa will perform with O’Malley at Geometry of Now, Moscow’s weeklong series curated by Mark Fell – Tegin will sing slow mughams while O’Malley drones. Phurpa is also to appear at this year's Primavera Sound festival. 

Although Tegin admits that Western sound engineers are more qualified and Western audiences are more progressive, with a “more plastic state of mind,” he finds one great advantage to Russia – a wildness or kind of freedom. Nevertheless, humanity, according to Tegin, is nearing complete failure. Western civilization, with its total comfort and totalitarianism relationship dependent on the banking system, is obscurant, and in Russia the overall level of knowledge, formed by politics, media and environment, is simply low.

“I’m not a politician, and I’m not a missionary,” says Tegin. “I’m just a terrorist who knocks the essence out of a person after a two-hour performance. Afterward, some emptiness, some white sheet remains.” His side-project, Corps, is focused on a similar thing – pure sound. Tegin builds instruments from scrap metal and dons a gas mask on stage, but, as he notes, it’s the same sort of shamanism. “This is interesting for me, he says. “It’s not a simple day job for a salary.”

I ask him whether he continues to work with his wife, Svetlana, a successful Russian designer and founder of the Tegin fashion house. “Yes – she shares ideas with me, I write music for her shows and do some of the physical work: building a lighting set, communicating with a sound engineer, etc.” No task is too menial, he says. “I’m serious about working with Sveta. I treat it respectfully, putting in all my knowledge and abilities. The same goes when cooking breakfast for Sveta and my daughter. Whatever you do, whether you whittle or tie your shoelaces, it should be the same. There is no hierarchy for me.”

The most important thing for Tegin is the ability to remember. “I believe that we can’t really learn anything aside from what we already have. We just have to pull it out of ourselves. I extract memories from my bones and sinews.”

While realists can easily find reasons to criticize Tegin’s ideas, others may learn from them. Phurpa is more than a musical project, it’s Tegin’s lifestyle. Could it possibly be replaced with another life philosophy? “It’s like love. If you wait for it, it won’t come,” he says. “This is the beauty of our existence. When you start polishing your life, built around comfort, there is no travelable road. It's not interesting. Anything might happen.”

Phurpa will be performing on the opening day of KRAKE Festival in Berlin, Monday Jul. 24.All photographs courtesy of Elena Pinaeva via Phurpa.