At the court of the Dalai Lama
Phil Void's rock band has never made the cover of
'Rolling Stone' but in Dharamsala, the home of Tibet's
government in exile, they are hugely popular - even
his Holiness is a big fan. Clifford Coonan reports
Monday, 24 November 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 T
ibetan 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 foreign contingent divides into three groups.
The original hippies, blissed out on the mysticism
of the Himalayan town; the shaven-headed
Tibetan Buddhist monks from Europe or the US
attending Dharamsala's temples; and the tech-savvy
students working for the Tibetan independence

Dharamsala was established as a garrison town in
the 1850s under British rule. Plans to expand its
role were shelved after an earthquake in 1905 in
which 20,000 people died. Colonial-era
heavyweights are buried there, such as Lord Elgin
and Francis Younghusband, an explorer with
mystical leanings who led a British invasion
force in 1904 that massacred hundreds of Tibetans.

It was a sleepy place until 1959, the year the
Dalai Lama and his followers fled Tibet after a
failed uprising against the Chinese, who had
entered Lhasa in 1950 and deprived the Dalai of a
base. A Dharamsala shopkeeper wrote a letter to
India's President Nehru suggesting his town
would be a good home for the Tibetan
government-in-exile, and so it settled there.

It was relatively easy to gain an audience with
the Dalai Lama in his new home, so hundreds of
pilgrims from all over the world began to visit.
One of them was Phil Void.

The pilgrimage has become easier since then,
with roads improved and an airport built. But the
Dalai Lama no longer greets every traveller.
He does, however, grant an audience to all Tibetan
exiles who take the risky route over the mountains
to escape.

Yet when the Dalai Lama spots Void at a gathering,
he will walk over to tug his beard. The prime
minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile,
Samdhong Rinpoche, has also been known to give
the American's grey-flecked beard an affectionate

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.

In a travel shop, two Tibetan Buddhist monks
warmly embrace Void and say they are delighted
at the way foreigners are helping them. "They
play a very important role in the independence
movement. We know him from Voice of America
and we love his performance," said Rigzin Paldup,
from the International Buddhist School of
Dialectics in the town.

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 Dharma Bums


39 Orchard Lane Woodstock NY 12498 us