by Sara Munro
"Whenever I hear a really exotic sound, I like to try to duplicate it, to experience what it's like," says the man with one name who sings with two voices.
His name is Arjuna, and the theme of ancient sound runs through both his vocal and instrumental artistry. Whether he's toning a harmonic, droning on the didgeridoo or evolving some integration of both voice and instrument, he appears to walk a sacred path to the regenerative healing power of a forgotten music.
"I play these really ancient instruments. I do a fusion thing with them," says Arjuna of his style, which is a dynamic exploration that includes mixing sound fossils he's uncovered from various cultures with contemporary music.
"These sounds have been neglected, but when you listen to them, they are powerful and relevant today," he says with conviction.
Portraying a deep passion and respect for the vibrational quality and power of sound, he explores the relationship between music, community and spiritual expression. His performances are ritual-like, with a sense of sacred space connecting performer and audience. With long, dark, wavy hair, peppered with a touch of gray at his temples, he even looks the part of the village shaman.
Despite having been kicked out of his junior high school choir, one of those traumatic events that can block creative people, music and performance have been a part of Arjuna's life for almost four decades.
Early in his performing career he persued film roles, but abandoned the acting life in disappointment because he was consistently typecast as a gangster. Later, he desperately wanted to be a jazz singer, but during a breakthrough recording session with another artist, he discovered his unique sound, a sound the artist said he did "better than anyone." Essentially, this experience freed him from the belief that he had to replicate a popular genre of Western music and place himself in the musical mainstream. He began to pursue what truly intrigued him, the expression of his own authentic voice.
Twelve years ago the Oakland native started singing harmonics, which he explains as "a multi-tone vibration you create with your voice. You sing two notes at one time."
The sound, made of two differently pitched tones, resonates in the bones of the head and is influenced by the exaggerated set of the lips. The singer changes the sound slightly, moving the tongue and altering the shape of the mouth cavity.
Harmonics is also known as tonal singing, overtone singing, or Tuvan singing, named after the republic of Tuva, which is located northwest of Mongolia.
Mongolians and the Tantric Gyuto Monks, once of Tibet and now of India, also practice this two-tone singing in their chanting. Habitants of the sparsely settled region developed this mysterious sound that vocally embodies the vast, empty space of its birthplace. Arjuna has studied the style of the Tibetan monks and the Tuvans and adapted them to fit what he refers to as "his instrument."
The distinctive timeless sound resonates like a jewel refracts light. Delicious, exquisite and exotic. Ancient as stone, rich with mystery and complexity, its vibration draws the listener into a place where the past and future disappear into the present moment.
Perhaps his captivation with the oddly familiar form of music fur to some connection with his ethnic roots and the land of his ancestors. Chinese blood mixes in his veins with that of his Caucasian and Korean ancestors. Consideration of this question sparks his curiosity, along with a shrug of the shoulder and an upraised eyebrow that indicates the possibility exists.
His interest with ancient sound only begins with harmonics. Arjuna has recorded ancient chants with a Tibetan monk willing to make them more accessible to the average person. He also has studied the recordings of Ishi, the last native man discovered alive in Northern California in 1911. After learning Ishi's chants and the myths of his people, Arjuna has brought them back to life by performing them on the anniversary of his death for the last seven years.
He points out that if he didn't tell you he was singing Stone Age chants you wouldn't suspect their antiquity."They feel very contemporary."
His fascination for instruments follows the same ancient thread. He plays the didgeridoo, and instrument native to the aboriginal people of Australia, the Tibetan horn, the Tibetan and Himalayan singing bowls and the mibra, a 22-key thumb piano from Zimbabwe.
"I tried traditional instruments, and I just couldn't connect with them. I'm attracted more to exotic instruments," he explains. The instruments he plays are not tuned to Western scales, and are beautiful and captivating for listeners who don't often have an opportunity to hear this type of music. "I opens up a whole different world of music."
Arjuna is concerned about the lost practice of group singing and music making, and the resulting collective community loss of the power of joining voices in song.
"People don't sing together any more," he says.
So compelled by music and harmonics, he has established groups in Baroquely and Los Angeles, and teaches and leads a local group of harmonic performers in Joshua Tree. He has made it his mission to teach the vocal form to as many people as possible in the next three years, and dreams of bringing all the harmonic singers together to experience the power created by thousands of voices.
"I Really think that people are waiting for this. It really has nothing to do with signing, but creating these Beautiful harmonics."
According to Arjuna, it's easy, and anyone can do it.
To hear Arjuna's music, visit his website: