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Editorial Spirit

In Search of the MAHASIDDHAS: A Journey Through the Sacred Himalayas

Traditional thanka of the great Indian Mahāsiddha Nāropa (11th century)

India is home to one of the oldest civilisations in the world. For over 5000 years, this ancient country has produced a rich and diverse stream of wisdom traditions, many of which continue to exist till this day. For decades, scholars, archaeologists, philosophers, artists and scientists have turned their attention towards India to study and examine the vast cultural heritage of the country. My own interest in the history and culture of India goes back to the days of my childhood when I voraciously read ancient Indian myths and occult stories through comic books, graphic novels and magazines. As I grew older, my childhood interests metamorphosed into a serious pursuit of the history, culture, and most importantly, the sacred knowledge imparted by the sages and seers of my country.

I studied the history of Indian and European art and culture at the age of 19 at a Delhi-based art institute. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the limited amount of information about subjects pertaining to metaphysics and philosophy at the institute. That prompted me to start my own research into the vast and complex world of Indian religious and philosophical thought. Initially, I was merely interested in a comparative study of the diverse schools (darshana) of Indian philosophy, namely Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā, and Vedanta. Later, when I got acquainted with the philosophy of the Tāntric tradition I clearly understood that it resonated with my own sphere of thought and that I must dive deeper in its paradigm.

The Sanskrit word ‘Tantra’ is derived from the root “tan”, meaning “to spread”, “expand”. According to one common definition, in the religious sense, a Tantra is simply “a scripture by which knowledge is spread” (tanyate vistaryate jnanam anena iti tantram).  [1]  The world of the Tantras includes complex meditations, ritual techniques, mystic syllables (mantras) and other techniques with which an adept uses in order to attain spiritual realisation. It is also important to note that Tantra is not a singular tradition and the Saivas (followers of Shiva), Sākta (followers of the mother goddess tradition of India), Bauddha (followers of the Buddhist tradition), Vaishnava (followers of Vishnu) among others all developed their individual Tāntric streams based on the individual schools’ metaphysics and soteriology.

Although the last few decades have seen an incredible amount of quality scholarship on the Tantric traditions of India and the countries in which it subsequently spread, a lot of confusion still continues to exist on the internet and among lay people regarding the subject. The shameful exploits of the New Age movement, which left no stone unturned into making Tantra a sham by promoting erotic massages and ordinary orgasmic pleasure as a means to unlock “spiritual bliss”, can certainly be held responsible for a negative attitude towards this sacred tradition. Nevertheless, the limitless primordial power pervading through the sacred world of the Tantras has enabled the tradition to continue despite the negativity. Today the Tāntric traditions continue to exist almost unchanged and unbridled, especially in the sacred Himalayas.

18th century gilt bronze statue of Indian Mahāsiddha Virupa from Tibet.

As I noted above, the Tāntric traditions are many in number and the following sections of the article shall be concerned with the followers of the Buddhist Tantra, especially Tibetans and other Himalayan people. With a deep urge to explore and examine the practices of existing Tāntric lineages in the mountainous regions of India, my wife Viktoria (Visionis Phosphorescent) and I travelled extensively to many sacred and power spots of the region in search of the mystics and the wandering itinerant sadhus – the Mahāsiddhas. The word Mahāsiddha is Sanskrit (Tibetan: གྲུབ་ཐོབ་ཆེན་པོ, THL: druptop chenpo) for ‘Great Adept’. As the Buddhist writer and teacher Keith Dowman notes, the siddhas were:

“…mendicant yogins living with the people on a grass-roots level of society, teaching more by psychic vibration, posture and attitude – mantra, mudra and tantra – than by sermonizing. Some of these siddhas were iconoclasts, dissenters and anti-establishment rebels fulfilling the necessary function of destroying the rigidity of old and intractable customs and habits, so that spontaneity and new vitality could flourish. Obsessive caste rules and regulations in society, and religious ritual as an end in itself, were undermined by the siddhas’ exemplary free-living. The irrelevance of scholastic hairsplitting in an academic language, together with a host of social and religious evils, were exposed in the poets’ wonderful mystical songs written in the vernacular tongues, They taught existential involvement rather than metaphysical speculation, and they taught the ideal of living in the world but not of it rather than ascetic self mutilation or monastic renunciation, The siddhas are characterized by a lack of external uniformity and formal discipline.” (http://keithdowman.net/essays/introduction-mahasiddhas-and-tantra.html)

As evident from the aforementioned words, these great adepts lived at the fringes of society and held disdain for religious orthodoxy which created hindrance for actual spiritual growth of an individual. Many lineages that stem from these great adepts continue till this date in the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. The Dzogchen (Mahāsandhi) tradition which is preserved and practiced among Himalayan Buddhists till date harkens back to the time of yogin saints like Prahevajra, Shri Simha, Jnānasutra, Padmasambhava among many other powerful adepts who transmitted the non-dual gnosis of the Tantras to their fortunate disciples, who in turn preserved a long line of unbroken lineal transmissions which have now spread across the western world.

Traditional thanka of the first human Dzogchen master Prahevajra (Tibetan: Garab Dorje)

Our quest to understand the present state of the Mahāsiddha tradition in the Himalayas led us to the Ngakpa tradition, the origins of which are connected to the 8th century Indian Tantric Buddhist saint Padmasambhava. This great adept was responsible for the spread of Buddhism in Tibet, the Land of Snows, in the 8th century – a tradition which was named the “Nyingma” (“ancient” in Tibetan) school of Buddhism. During that early period of transmission of the Buddhist Tantras in the Tibet, the community of practitioners (the “sangha”) was divided into two branches: the “red” sangha of monastics with shaven-heads and the saffron robes (Tibetan: rab byung ngur smig gi sde) and the “white sangha” of Ngakpas with white clothes and long, plaited hair (Tibetan: gos dkar lcang lo’I sde).  [2]

Guru Padmasambhava (Tibetan: Guru Rinpoche), the 8th century Indian Tantric saint who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet

 The Tibetan word Ngakpa means “Māntrin”, or a “Tāntrika” in Sanskrit, i.e. a Tāntric practitioner. They are called the ‘white sangha’ (“gendun karpo” in Tibetan) as their Tantric vows (“samaya” in Sanskrit) entitle them to wear white shamtags (skirts), white, red and blue shawls of the yogic lineage and conch-shell spiral ear-rings; have long hair, often kept in a spiral atop the head; all of which represent specific aspects of the teachings. [3]

Unlike the celibate order of monks and nuns, the Ngakpas rely on “internal renunciation rather than on external renunciation” and are allowed to marry and have families.  This Tantric order founded by Guru Padmasambhava, who was himself a non-celibate, long-haired yogin, has continued to exist since the first wave of Tantric teachings that were spread in Tibet till the modern times.

A Ngakpa from Central Tibet, 1926

Traditionally,  Ngakpas are both healers and practitioners of the highest levels of Tantric praxis. On the one hand, a realised Ngakpa guru can perform ceremonies to pacify illness, disease and help in other worldly activities and be a master of the inner levels of Tantra and Dzogchen practices dealing with liberation on the other. However,  many people confuse them as “shamans” or just “lay practitioners” and oftentimes they can be belittled by those who are unaware of their history and importance as the torchbearers of an ancient Indian tradition. As the great Ngakpa lama Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche said, “for the ngakpa the purpose and final goal is enlightenment in order to liberate others and self. Usually in the shamanic tradition no one talks of enlightenment.” [4]

Ngakpas of Rebkong, Tibet participate in a Tantric ceremony

In our search for the existing Ngakpa lineages in the Indian Himalayas, we travelled to the sacred town of Rewalsar (Tso Pema in Tibetan) in Himachal Pradesh. Rewalsar is a small yet highly important town for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs alike. For the Buddhists, this place is considered to be part of the ancient kingdom of Zahor where Guru Padmasambhava practiced Tantra in the caves with the princess Mandarava acting as his consort. According to ancient legends, the king of Zahor and his ministers arrested Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava and burned him alive, but he transformed the pyre into a lake, and was found sitting, cool and fresh, on a lotus blossom in its centre. This lake is considered to be the Rewalsar Lake, ‘Tso Pema’, around which the existing town of Rewalsar was built. [5]

Rewalsar (Tibetan: Tso Pema) in Himachal Pradesh, India

Rewalsar is not only a sacred pilgrimage spot for Himalayan Buddhists, but it is also home to a few important Buddhist monasteries along with a community of lay practitioners and cave-dwelling hermits who have dedicated their entire lives into solitary practice of Tantric meditation.

Sacred Guru Padmasambhava cave located on the hills above Rewalsar
Yogini Ani Bumchung (Centre), one of the seniormost hermit practitioners in her cave in Rewalsar with the author’s wife Viktoria Polikarpova (R) and their yogin friend Senge Drayang (L)

Our search for a genuine Ngakpa guru led us to meet Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche, a long-haired, white-clad married lama (Tāntric guru) who has made Rewalsar his home after living and practicing in Tibet and Bhutan for decades. Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche comes from the high grasslands of Kham in Eastern Tibet and belongs to the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism. His spiritual consort, Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo, is a female Ngakpa, or a “Ngakmo” and they have a son named Tenzin Thinley. Both practitioners belong to unbroken lineages of Tāntric Buddhism coming from India into Tibet through Guru Padmasambhava and other great masters of that time.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche at his shrine room in Rewalsar, India

Together, they highlight the very ideals of the ancient Mahāsiddha tradition and live at the fringes of society instead of a monastery and teach ancient meditation practices to those who seek them without expectations of fame or material gain. They are both masters of Dzogchen meditation and maintain a loyal group of students whom they teach philosophy,  metaphysics, rituals and meditation praxis based on the needs and existing level of each individual. For beginners, basic mind training and preliminary practices called “Ngondro” in Tibetan are stressed before they can take the path of the higher Tantric and Dzogchen meditation. Lama Jigme readily teaches the Ngondro of his tradition with painstaking detail to students who are willing to step on the path of Tantric practice. In fact, the Ngondro enables students to get an entire gist of the Buddhist practice, ranging from its basics to the highest paths of non-dual meditation techniques that involve complex visualisations, mantra recitations and rituals.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo engaged in a Tantric ceremony

While most westerners and sometimes even lay Himalayan Buddhist practitioners think of lamas as shaven-headed and monastic, the reality is far from the truth. Lamas are not supposed to be just monks; married, householder Ngakpas are also equally eligible for that title. Ngakpa lamas like Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort embody the ideas of Buddhist Tantric practice that emerged in India and were later transmitted to Tibet.

Our search into the Ngakpa lineages was more than fruitful as we were able to encounter a living Tantric couple who hold within the deep expanse of their mind sacred wisdom which has been taught and preserved from the time of Sakyamuni Buddha to the later awareness holders of the Tantras. It is important to note that enough emphasis is laid upon maintaining secrecy over the inner symbolism of iconography and practice, not because Tantra is a ‘cult’ as many think, but to safeguard the meanings from beings who could potentially harm and misuse the teachings.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo with the author Ankit Sinha and his wife Viktoria Polikarpova after the conclusion of a Tantric ceremony at their shrine room in Rewalsar

Indeed, the Tāntric tradition has been able to survive and sustain despite all the foreign invasions in India and the political upheavals in Tibet mainly because of the same ideals. If the teacher-student tradition would have been forsaken and the secret teachings sold like confectionery, there is no doubt that a vast number of lineages would have died out long ago.  So, one must acknowledge the role many of these masters have played in preserving an authentic tradition and presenting it practitioners of the modern era.

May these teachings continue to benefit beings for countless aeons!

Sarva mangalam bhavatu!

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Bibilography:

[1] N.N. Bhattacharya, “History of the Tantric Religion” (1982), page 20

[2] Kyabje Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche, “An Historic Description of Awareness Holders of the Great Secret Mantra who are Resplendent in White Clothes and Long Hair” (2004). https://enricokosmus.com/2012/06/13/an-historic-description-of-awareness-holders-of-the-great-secret-mantra-who-are-resplendent-in-white-clothes-and-long-hair/

[3] Ngakpa Ga’wang, “An Introduction to the White Sangha of Ngakpas and Ngakmos” (1997) https://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php?title=An_Introduction_to_the_White_Sangha_of_Ngakpas_and_Ngakmos

[4] Jeffe Cox, “The Ngakpa Tradition: An Interview with Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche” (2016) http://padmasambhavagururinpoche.com/the-ngakpa-tradition-an-interview-with-khetsun-sangpo-rinpoche/

[5] Rigpa Translations, “Great Treasure of Blessings – A Book of Prayers to Guru Rinpoche” (2004), page 28

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Ars Moriendi Interview

Ars Moriendi: VEERA KAAMOS PITKÄNEN speaks on allegory, Lucifer, and artistic isolation

It is a great pleasure for us to have Veera Kaamos Pitkänen as our first artist working in the visual medium featured on the new Covenant Magazine. With her first German exhibition impending, and the recently released masterwork accompanying the Finnish language version of Johannes Nefastos’ book Argarizim, published by Viides Askel, still fresh in the minds of many, we are catching Veera when the flame of inspiration is burning brightest. Sit back, and relish her truly elucidating answers in the first edition of our series of artist interviews: Ars Moriendi.

Veera, you and another Finnish artist, Noora Ylipieti, have an exhibition opening next month in Berlin. ALLEGORIE seems like it is going to draw on themes that would have been important to create together. Is the work you’re going to display something that was made in collaboration, or will you two be showcasing pieces that share common themes but were created separately?

Noora and I communicate quite a lot, so in this way our creative processes are certainly entwined, and the lines between what is “hers” and “mine” do at times become blurred. We have been working within similar thematic fields for this exhibition, each coming from our own angle. As the artistic process is always an intimate and sensitive thing, we do not share a working space.

This becomes interesting in that our medium and working methods are opposite. Noora paints mainly on acrylics, so her reaction times are a lot shorter than mine. The process for her is more “bodily”; she paints many layers and her work goes through visible changes which she often shows me prior to being finished.

This contrasts to my own working method – paper collage – which is incredibly slow and isolated. It obsesses over detail. I spend a huge amount of time reading, in contemplation and research about the tiniest of meanings, shades of colour, symbols and the rest is somehow ‘knowing’ what to do. I never show a work in progress to anyone, nor speak about it prior to letting go of it. I can’t. It’s too personal. My work seeks the spirit which has become obsolete in our times. This search is present in everything I do.

Lately this has gone more and more in depth to the study of Renaissance art and its particular symbolism, which I use as a basis in many of my later works.

I could loosely summarise that Noora’s work is humorous and wild; it uses fresh and crazy colours, whereas mine naturally takes on sombre, serious moods and earthly, Saturnine tones. But perhaps that is a testament to our temperaments. In this way I’m more introverted. For some reason they work together, perhaps as we both use a fair amount of intuition.

Because of this deeply personal attachment to your work do you ever feel that your work is only for personal digestion, and actually not meant for sharing at all? Do you ever find difficulty with the concept of sharing in a gallery space?

Perhaps if people were to see only the artist when they look at a work of art, I might find the idea of exhibiting my work unpleasant, as I’m a fairly private person. Art is – or should be – like a mirror. A good work of art reflects back our own experiences and innermost thoughts, finds our secrets, gently takes us captive. A work of art must be able to stand on its own, this is what I always hope for. In truth, I find the concept of pushing my ideas onto the audience quite invasive. I would rather they form their own thoughts and opinions of matters. This is infinitely more interesting for the concept of the artwork; the more it becomes read in varying ways, the unfolding of it. If I was worried about being misunderstood, then perhaps I would give explanations. But my work is not about me; the aims of it are higher and more profound than that.

I think the meanings behind my work – the process and what I take from it on a spiritual level – are meant for me alone, as is the case for all things of that nature. I do not usually share the innermost, subjective meanings because the paths which are necessary for my development as a professional and an individual may not be identical to those of others. I hope that my work encourages the audience to contemplate.

I usually publish my pieces on my website, unless I’m working towards an exhibition – as is the case now – and thus choose to keep the lid on things until the opening day. But regardless of the platform I choose to exhibit my work in, I do think it will still keep the intimacy of my thoughts and processes.
There is of course then the fact that certain things are just a part of my chosen profession as an artist; there are many unromantic sides to it.

I’d like to talk a little about your process for the Finnish language reissue of the Star Of Azazel’s esoteric text Argarizim. Because the complexity of the Dantean allegories in the writing of the book, there must have been a large wellspring to draw inspiration from. Did you look to Dante for inspiration there, or did you pull more directly from Nefastos’ writing?

I’m quite fond of Italian poets, and in this Dante is no exception. For the illustrations of Argarizim I re-read the Inferno in order to inspect its structures and moods, so certainly Dante was very present throughout the process. Particularly striking to me has always been the beginning of the text, wherein the narrator suddenly becomes lost in the dark wood, facing beasts he can not evade. These apparitions made their way to my illustration “Mirage”, which bears certain reminiscence of myself and Nefastos.

I was fortunate enough to be in close contact with Johannes during the entire illustration period. This was no small task, as it took around eight months. At that time I was living in Sweden, so we kept in contact via letters. Looking at it now that feels quite correct – that it was such a challenging and time consuming project. After all, one can’t rightly express hells too easily!

A very clear difference between Dante’s hell and my own is the population. Dante’s is full of people and acts as a warning. My own is a vast, dead space with no one but yourself. This is the loneliness of Lucifer, bound in darkness. I made the illustrations rather large, which makes them open up quite differently when seen as originals. Good for the artworks but for printing, a real challenge. The folk at Viides Askel did a really good job though.

The distinction between your underworld and Dante’s is interesting. Is the dilemma of Lucifer a primary source of inspiration to you in other work? (Perhaps you just relate to being stuck alone in a cold place! Hahaha)

Mythologies, symbols and esotericism found the stone upon which I build all of my work. I work with archetypes on a large scale, rather than with just one. Lucifer was an important figure in the Argarizim period, but there is always a kind of evolution to one’s work. I have periods of working with one core thought intensely, and then it begins to change and morph into something new. So you could perhaps say that the face of Lucifer has undergone a change. For example, I consider Venus as a representative of the same energetic ideal. This has lead me to consider colours differently, more closely related to the way they were thought of in the era that gave rise to the western high painting medium.

It is true that I am attracted to the myths wherein there is – in my opinion – a seeming misinterpretation, or figure of a scapegoat. There’s usually so many layers in these stories that contemplating them may be good for my creative work, but admittedly also on a personal level. Usually, a kind of impossibility persists in these; that there is no way of knowing for sure. I find this grey area, this mystery, to be very fascinating. To seek always that contact point between the known and the unknown, between our world and the next. That point then adopts a symbol via which I represent it. Sometimes these are existing concepts, other times, personal interpretations which come from contemplation, reading or dreams.

As the ideas in my work evolve, so too do my working methods. I used to work with drawing and painting, but for the past few years collage has become my main medium, even if I’m still mostly recognised for my drawing. I still hold true to the same ideals regardless of my medium; if I can not create an artwork by hand, I will not make it at all. Digital manipulation is just not my thing. Of course in our day, this puts quite a hard limit one oneself, so there’s difficult technical restrictions which could be quite easily overcome were I to use a computer in my work. But I don’t want that, it’s the challenge which forces one to think and solve. This leads to growth, evolution and understanding.

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Veera Kaamos Pitkänen & Noora Ylipieti: “Allegorie” 
June 5-23,2018 @Galerie Pleiku, Berlin, Germany.
Open Tuesday to Sunday 12:00-18:00. 
Exhibition opening on 5th of June 18:00-21:00.
Welcome!
 
The artists will be present at the gallery for the duration of the exhibition.

VEERA KAAMOS PITKÄNEN
FACEBOOK
INSTAGRAM

Categories
Interview

CROOKED MOUTH on seeking one’s roots, lost identity, and finding meaning in a meaningless world.

Music and art represent so much more than simple entertainment and expression. In a society that leaves us to fend for ourselves in a kill-or-be-killed wasteland, sometimes it’s all we have. Often times these mediums serve as a vehicle for much higher truths. Truths that can guide one through the labyrinthine corridors of life. Truths that can answer deep questions and reveal hidden natures.

CROOKED MOUTH is the personal folk music of Ian Campbell (HARROW), and the voice of a disillusioned spirit seeking higher meaning in a meaningless world. How do we navigate the world stuck between time, place, and substance? What is at the root of our identity? And what can tradition offer us in the modern world?

In a one-on-one interview with Dylan Atkinson (DSCPLN, Amphisbaena, Rites of thy Degringolade), the two metal guitarists-cum-Canadiana dark folk musicians discuss how the process of discovery deepens by translating a personal, historical journey into music.

Can you give us the origin story on Crooked Mouth?

I actually started it in 2011 when I moved way up north to work at a Fisheries & Oceans [salmon] spawning channel as a maintenance guy. The only thing people do up there in the winter is keep the channels from freezing over, as they are full of salmon eggs. So a lot of breaking ice and plowing snow in minus 40 celsius! I had a lot of free time and brought all my music gear with me. My studio is very portable, so in the evenings I would just write stuff and demo it. A lot of it was based on nature worship almost, because I was living completely alone in nature with only 2 other people in 100 kilometers. In the mornings I would literally talk to the ravens, hear the wolves and linx, watch the full moon in the clear night sky. Some of the riffs were intended for black metal songs, but when transcribed to acoustic guitar I liked it better that way.

The following summer I took a lot of the demo songs, re-recorded them with a few extras, and made the first Crooked Mouth full length. It was very improvisational at that point. I would hit record as see what happens. It wasn’t until I started getting into the traditional stuff that I started doing more structured songs. I always loved folk music from Cascadian black metal side projects, but as I got deeper into folk traditions more and more I really started to appreciate the raw simplicity. Now I see the purity and honesty in that form of music.

DSC_0482_

There is something so great about a living folk music that we just don’t have anymore. It used to exist in country music: it would explain the entire life cycle of a human being. There is something so profound in that.

It’s really pop music’s job to distract you from the hard truths in life. Meanwhile this music is trying to confront you with these things. Not in a theatrical way that’s trying to shock and offend you – I think it’s trying to deal with real subjects and have some kind of positive outcome. You need songs about reality and hard truths because eventually those things are going to happen to you.

Do you think people are craving something like that. Something more legitimate that the mainstream isn’t offering?

We see that in counter-culture, or not even counter-culture as it’s almost become mainstream for people our age to be disillusioned with the digital and material world. We’re witnessing the death of the baby boomer dream in our generation. I suppose it’s only natural for us to seek things with a more authentic feeling to them. A guide with where we can go in our own lives. People have been through these things before, and maybe we can take some wisdom from them. We don’t really have any societal structure for that anymore. Nothing that serves people to be happy at least. A lot of people don’t even have a family structure. You’re a lone unit.

The title of the album is “Decay”. You live on the West Coast. History is viewed by many as a westward progression and now there literally is no where else to go. Have you thought of it this way?

Absolutely. I often think about where I want to go in my life, and pine for a day when there were unexplored place in the world where a man could make something of himself. The title “Decay” works in the sense of the decay of Western civilization and whatnot. But I was thinking more along a string of my own thoughts that developed over a few years.

I was visiting some friends down in Olympia Washington, and started contemplating some of the place names down there. Olympia? The mountain of the gods. These people had great aspirations for where they were going to live. If you give a place that name, it has to live up to one of the highest ideals that a culture has for a reference point. It got me into the heads of the people that settled this place. I was looking for some kind of counter perception of the modern idea of settler culture as “evil settler white people” trying to kill everything in their path. If we’re being very honest and not judging history by today’s morals, I think the most honest way to judge history is by what was going through those people’s heads themselves. They weren’t necessarily consciously and maliciously thinking they were wiping out indigenous culture, and I’m not at all trying to apologize for that. A lot of these people were farmers oppressed in the places they came from, and out of desperation they decided to leave everything they ever knew. For a place they didn’t even know what looked like, as pictures didn’t even exist. It was a very epic thing they did. They had dreams to build a society on liberty instead of hereditary rights and religious division. So “Decay” is based on how today has completely decayed away from those ideals. We don’t have a narrative on anything aside from produced consumable goods. I say in the title track that if those people could see our times just how disgusted they would be and wonder how things got to this point.

Photo 2017-11-20, 1 02 01 PM (1)
There’s a certain wave of people contemplating “What would my ancestors think about how I’m living right now?” The questionable state of affairs is beyond deniability. Is that important and how does that change things?

I try not to be too judgemental about the average person just trying to live their life. Not everyone can have the experience that could open their eyes to these ideas. Maybe it’s better to live a life of enjoyment? I try not to wallow in a mentality of “humans are such scum”, as it doesn’t really help me personally.

Describe the name Crooked Mouth? When did you make that decision?

It’s a direct translation of my last name Campbell, which was two Gaelic words “Caim Beul”. In my mind, the Crooked Mouth thing actually goes back to my Grade 8 English teacher. He was a huge nerd like me, lent me Dungeons and Dragons books, got the class to draw characters and comics. In role call he blurted out that “Your last name means Crooked Mouth!” and it just stuck with me all these years.

Thinking about Decay’s album cover, there is an old photo on the front and the back is you standing in front of a power station. Is that a conscious old vs. new theme already?

I hadn’t thought of it that way. That back photo is from my hometown Squamish, BC where I grew up for a lot of my formative years. The 2nd half of the album is based around a disillusionment I had living in Squamish. At first I was really in love with that town, but over the time I lived there it got the creeping influence of the city and the culture really changed. I saw this happen. So the song “Farewell to Brackendale”: is the neighbourhood I lived in, and is based on me uprooting and moving to the big city.

Starting a new life is in contrast to an overall historical theme?

The whole album is based on that! It’s supposed to start with my ancestors coming over from Scotland, and bring that idea of adventure coming from a place like Europe to a new land. Then contrast that with my own lust for going somewhere unexplored. I was trying to bring that sort of archetype into the modern world. The personal vs. the historical.

Decay CD cover

Let’s go back to the cover, where did you find this picture?

It was in a book on logging called “The Loggers” that my grandpa owned. It must have been a popular set of books at one point. It was at my parents’ house and I decided to read through it one day. The image of the logger that high up on the tree doesn’t even do the original picture justice. It has a lot of layers of metaphor to me. How on one level it obviously speaks to environmental destruction (a theme in all my music), and on another level it is a tiny man literally against the forces of nature. The last head being cut off of everything natural and growing, the last bits are being taken away.

Tell me more about Kilburn Campbell. I love the long, ballad style. Who was he?

He was my grandfather. He was born in Saskatchewan after the family had been a couple generations in Canada, and that song is his experience in WWII where he was a frontline artillery soldier. After the war he was so disillusioned with humanity and shell shocked. He then moved to BC and took up being a logger to get as far away from people as possible. Starting anew.

Live we’ve seen you play the full ballad, but I also wanted to ask about another song I’ve seen you play called “Here Comes The Navvies”, which sounds so familiar like a traditional. Do I know this? Is it a traditional? But it’s not a traditional is it?

Not in the sense of it being very, VERY old. It’s actually from the 60’s from The Ian Campbell Folk band. That worked out well …

So it’s Ian Campbell covering Ian Campbell?

I guess so, hahaha! He was one of the main singers involved in the English Folk Revival back then, and he was very highly regarded in that scene. But a lot of people have no idea who he is. I’ll often play music at an Irish/British folk music session here in town. One of the leaders is from Birmingham and I was talking to him about that song. And he responded “Oh! I remember Ian Campbell. I used to see him play in the pub every Saturday night in Birmingham”.

For a sound that I feel is really rooted in traditional music, we can’t even really call you “neofolk” anymore. Although you don’t necessarily do a lot of folk traditionals and write more your own stuff.

I love playing old songs for sure. It’s hard to believe that all the best old traditional songs don’t already have the definitive version. Even in a neofolk context in this scene, multiple bands have done it already. But what can I really add to the tradition at this point? During my ambient performances I’ll do “I Lay Stretched At Your Grave”, but even then there are perfect versions by Dead Can Dance and Witch-Hunt (Blood Axis and In Gowan Ring) that are really great. I have to feel like I’m adding something to the song to be able to play it like that. I did “Here Comes the Navvies” because many don’t know who the old Ian Campbell is and hopefully I can expose him to more listeners at the very least. Often I get my fill of playing traditionals playing with the English/Irish jam at this old Irish music store. We go around the room and everyone names a tune: If you know it you play it and if you don’t you don’t. There’s a lexicon of old music that everyone there knows.

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You grew up in multiple rural small places, and specifically Squamish has such a strong presence in your music. What effect does that place have on you?

It was fairly small, but not totally podunk. The thing that changed everything was the Winter Olympics in 2010 in Whistler [which was only half an hour away]. It brought in all the big-box stores and literally put Squamish on the map for people from the city that never knew what it was. Money starts flowing, the yuppies start moving in as they do, and now all you see there is moms in yoga pants pushing their strollers going back to their condos. Squamish used to be a logging town, extremely blue collar. The kind of place where when you walked down the street people greeted each other and said “hi”. Originally I fell in love with this blue-collar, friendly place, and everything changed.

The hand of the city keeps creeping farther and farther in. People who can’t afford to live in the big city any more bring their attitudes and problems to these outer communities. It’s getting to the point where someone like me doesn’t know where to go anymore. I can’t stay here unless I want to just spin my wheels my whole life. The rat race has gotten into every corner.

You talk about your family and history on this album quite a bit, and you name the band after your own name. Does music come from your family? Did you learn music from your folks?

Oddly enough, recently I found out after my grandfather on my other, non-Campbell side passed away, that he used to play accordion all his life. Then I really thought about it, all my cousins and family on that side are all musical just like me. At his funeral there were photos of him playing accordion surrounded by others with guitars and other instruments. If there is a musical gene then it comes from him.

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This question is an interesting one, because both my parents are kind of the black sheep of their families. My mother had this adventurous spirit that moved her out of her small town. My dad has had a falling out with his big family of brothers. They were almost like exiles from their immediate family, and they raised me apart from all that drama. So I never really had a family upbringing that wasn’t just my mom and dad. In that way I think the impetus of this album and the exploration of ancestral themes is me trying to find some idea of where I do come from. Trying to root myself.

Doesn’t that come full circle right back to music providing some kind of sign posts for living? Looking for something to push you in the right direction and not seeing anything in your immediate vicinity.

Exactly. My family has been cut off from multiple points of our lineage over the past hundreds of years.

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How do you feel about our fledgling little dark folk, neo folk, and similar scenes going on right now? Is there anything in the Pacific Northwest going on? How do we as Canadians fit into this whole thing?

A lot of guys on the west coast are less concerned with exposing their music to a large amount of people. It’s a lot more insular. A lot of them are content to just play the fests that happen there, release things on smaller labels, or just do things DYI. It seems like maybe our group of people (Crooked Mouth, Night Profound, DSCPLN, etc.) are a bit more ambitious to make a bigger mark. We travel to play places and seek to bring our music elsewhere. Not that I mean to degrade anyone who doesn’t share that ambition.

With “Decay” I really wanted to make something that had some kind of Canadian specific flair to it. In the way that King Dude and the like have the Americana vibe. I mean “Canadiana” isn’t really a thing you can put your finger on, so it’s not as easy to represent that sonically. I tried to do it more thematically. But at the same time I’m not singing about maple leaves or hockey! I suppose you have to dig a little deeper to see where I’m coming from. Some people will be able to decipher it.

It makes sense! We’re not going to sing about “Europa” or try to sing songs like Johnny Cash. So you look around as a Canadian, we’ve been around for 150 years so there must be something to sing about. What is it? There’s the struggle with what are going to do with Canadian-ness …

From what I gather it’s always been there. Taking Canadian literature classes in university it’s all you ever talked about … What Does It Mean To Be Canadian? Basically the only solid answers anyone will ever give you is what we are NOT. We aren’t American. We aren’t this and that. What are we …?

You can’t define something negatively and if you spend all your time thinking about it you won’t spend any time doing. What is it about our culture? Here we are existing, but what are the components of that. Are we unaware of ourselves? The Americans seem pretty keenly aware. But then again nothing has really existed like our society. Are we Britain’s poor cousin?

As Canadian neofolk: What are we going to sing about? The Americans don’t have to think about how they’re going to make an American sounding neofolk band. There is a full tradition to reference, even down to a basic guitar playing pattern. Boom, chicka, boom … American.

America seems to always have had a strong sense of who they are as a whole, by the American Revolution. It binds them together and defines their identity in opposition to the British Empire. I went to Montreal for the first time recently, it felt like being in a different country. Might as well have been in Europe. The idea that there is ONE Canada at all isn’t really true. There are the Maritimes, the Prairies’ cowboy culture, Quebec is completely different. These are places with more of a tradition to draw from. We’re also a mosaic of separate cultures allowed to exist and practice old traditions, who all settled in different parts of the country. So to try to define a unified Canadian identity by traditional means just isn’t possible.

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Since this interview took place almost a full year since the publishing date, Crooked Mouth has released the highly championed Forget Not tape on Les Fleur du Mal Productions. Currently he is finishing up on a split release with DSCPLN and working on material for another full length album.

Photography credits: Ilana Hamilton Photograph & Factotum Photography

CROOKED MOUTH

BRAVE MYSTERIES

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Premiere

AOS SI unveils “Oratio Draconis”, an unheard offering of Other-Worldly Music

After whirling whispers, swirling rumours, and teased samples, it is the pleasure of the Covenant to share a first glance at the premier offering from Aos Si: a video for “Oratio Draconis” from the upcoming new album titled “Otherworldly Invocations: Vol. 1”, out soon on DUMAH Records.

Sayeth Aos Sí vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Cú of the song and its vision:

“The Dragon is one of the most ubiquitous mystical creatures. Archatypically a coincidentia oppositorum; the Destroyer and Creator of man. The Dragon has woven itself into the navel of our ancestors minds and has presented itself to me in trance as Quetzalcoatl, playfully wayward in a torus Taijitu. We honor and revere.”

This video is the manifestation of yet another conspiracy between a Covenant circle band, and long-time collaborator, Mexican visionary mastermind, Cold Poison.

Let your prayers rise and fall into the Dragon’s trance!

Aos Si is the mysterious and self-described Ætheral Otherworldly Music emanating from the inner Covenant – Equally ancient yet free from the bounds of time and place.

AOS SI
COLD POISON 
DUMAH RECORDS