Craig Pruess: Music can be a powerful tool for social change

Craig sitar 2Craig Pruess is an American composer, musician, arranger and a Grammy Award nominee (in 1983) for producing and arranging the album “War of Love”. Craig’s life has been deeply impacted by Indian spiritual practices such Art of Living, Transcendental Meditation and rigorous training in Indian classical music. Thus, he has a special connection with India.

Music is a divine gift that can change your life and fill it with innumerable shades of happiness. My friend Ashwin Balchandran is an avid music lover and keeps gifting me music composed by talented artists around the world.

He gifted me a CD ‘Temple of Spice’ composed by Craig Pruess. I hadn’t heard anything so mesmerising in my life. I delved more deeply into his music especially meditational music and was floored by his ability to create music that touches your soul and immerses you in a world that is devoid of worldly worries; the kind of music that is perfect for meditation. Every morning I woke up with his music.

I was eager to get in touch with him to convey my appreciation. I mailed him and was delighted to receive an answer from him. Later, a great idea struck; I thought of interviewing Craig Pruess. Life is a bundle of surprises woven with moments of happiness. A couple of days later I was surprised to receive his mail and to my absolute delight he enthusiastically agreed to give an interview. I was suddenly in touch with a wonderful artist who had impacted my life immensely.

Craig composes music in a wide range of diverse genres: world music, sacred chants, modern film music, electronic & experimental music, western classical music, Indian ragas, meditation/yoga music and he is a versatile songwriter active in a wide breadth of styles. This gives Craig a sea of experience and also informs his new projects. Listed here is a bit about his work and achievements. You can also visit his website www.craigpruess.com 

www.gandaboys.com

www.heaven-on-earth-music.co.uk

www.facebook.com/craig.pruess

Record production and musical arrangement for Sir Cliff Richard, Massive Attack, Def Leppard, and Anu Malik .

Composing Feature film soundtrack music for “Bride & Prejudice”, “Bend it Like Beckham”, “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife”, “What’s Cooking?”, which opened the big US Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 2000 and “Bhaji on the Beach”.

Performed and produced World music (performed on sitar, keyboards and African percussion),

Arranging for international acts such as Massive Attack, Katie Melua, Manic Street Preachers, Def Leppard and Bond;

Television music (“Peak Practice”, “Five Days II” and “Moses Jones” (BAFTA and RTS nominated Best Original Music Score), and

Arranging, sitar and sound design work (for well known composers as Danny Elfman, Gabriel Yared, Patrick Doyle, Carl Davis, John Altman, Rachel Portman, and George Fenton);

Television and film advertising/corporate music (over 300 commercials to date);

Lecturing and teaching; concert performing (solo and with his own ensembles, Ganda Boys and At-Ma, but also with Mike Oldfield for the world premiere of “Tubular Bells II”, Sept 92, at the Edinburgh Castle);

Craig Pruess shares about his music, thoughts and life with us:

Me: Please share with our audience about your company, Heaven on Earth Music, and how you got close to Indian culture?

Craig Pruess: I founded Heaven on Earth Music in 1977 to be the home and conduit for my own personal brand of attunement music that I had been dreaming about. Early on, when I first came to the UK in 1973, I had a good advice (from my father in the USA) to protect my own copyrights. The year before, I had started daily yoga practice in 1972 (Transcendental Meditation) and it certainly had a profound effect on my approach to music. It led me to the study of Indian classical music, especially after my first month long visit to India in 1980 for a TM organised conference on Vedic Science. Amazingly enough, during this course in Delhi, I first met a young (24 year old), shy and beardless Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who 13 years later would become my spiritual master. I first heard him chanting Sama Veda at the beginning of every evening gathering, and it penetrated me deeply. I had this thought: “Here I am, I call myself a musician, but I don’t even have ONE clue how this sound works?” Wow! The power of the chanting completely captivated me, like I knew it, somehow. It vibrated every cell of my being. It was during this same month that I was able to find my beautiful Sitar at the Rikki Ram store in Delhi, which enabled me to start my studies in Indian classical music in earnest, playing every day.

“Afterglow, Happiness” (from “Temple of Spice”, Craig Pruess)

Me: The first CD that I heard of your Heaven on Earth Music output was “Temple of Spice”. I kept hearing it every morning. Would you like to share with our audience about how the sounds you create have such a healing effect?

Craig Pruess: Since attuning to Indian classical music, I worked backwards to find and nurture common ground between my Western classical/modern music training with my knowledge of ragas. Gandharva-Veda (the ancient science and art of sound as preserved by the Indian classical music tradition) is part of Ayur-Veda, the science of perfect health. I have experimented with re-tuning Western instruments, and adopting the beautiful, rich, full overtone series in Indian instruments to blend with Western instruments and orchestras. In fact, it was a practical challenge for me, because around this same time, news started to filter through my colleagues in the mainstream music industry; I was asked to handle the Indo-fusion elements in many films and for well-known artists that wanted to incorporate this sound- bands like Massive Attack, Def Leppard and Manic Street Preachers (all chart-topping). Even Anu Malik, the Bollywood film composer, traveled from India to stay in my house and studio, where we created a fusion album, “Eyes”, which we co-composed (quite an experience, as he is a colourful and unpredictable character).

In 2002, I played a full blown sitar solo on a number one UK chart record hit, “Spirit in the Sky” with Gareth Gates. Then it progressed to me composing the music scores for two number one UK box office hit feature films, “Bend It Like Beckham”, and “Bride and Prejudice” (the latter with Aishwarya Rai), both Indo-fusion music scores, then later “The Mistress of Spices” (again with Aishwarya Rai). I became one of the “go to” guys for Indo-fusion music in the UK music industry.

When it comes to making my own recordings, my approach has always been to SINK into the recorded sound; any recording I make naturally strives to have a harmonious and integrating effect on me, on my body and emotions — to settle the mind, to bring expansion. That is my yardstick. I am an enthusiastic and positive person by nature (since boyhood), so naturally my music output reflects that, too. But I am a stickler in the recording studio to get things right, and to make sure all the frequencies in the music lean towards the perfect temperament — like the intervals and tuning of Indian classical music.

CP in studio

At home in Gloucestershire, overlooking the valley in the Cotswolds, working in the recording studio at home

Did you know that you pay a piano tuner so much money because, he puts all twelve keys EQUALLY out of tune? As a result, that means you can play Bach, Mozart, pop tunes and the Beatles on a piano/keyboard or guitar, but the pure intervals (like the sweet major third and the sixths) are compromised and the sound doesn’t have the same harmonious/integrating effect on your system. All of nature resonates in perfect harmonics, and plants grow best to Indian classical music. When I was training rigorously on sitar, sometimes I would not play piano for three or four days, and then coming back to it, those compromises sounded harsh and jarring to my ears.

The last factor that greatly affects my music is that I meditate every day. I have regular, disciplined times where I am immersed in my inner world, often regular periods of samadhi, which I find healing and integrating. This also means I can withstand intense workloads (such as big film projects) without burning out. Regular practice (sadhana) means that the silence from meditation practice starts permeating one’s daily activity. Coming out of deep meditation and then playing a single note on an instrument often has an exaggerated, expansive effect; like I can hear every layer, shape, colour of the sound and the subtle harmonics contained within. It’s hard to describe.

Me: What did you study at MIT?  When did you start composing music?

Craig Pruess: All the time I was playing music; what a great town Boston is for music! At MIT, I started in theoretical physics, with cosmology and astrophysics. I was a keen runner and tied the 400m record there. I also became interested in Jungian psychology, and then migrated during my third year from Physics to Philosophy of Science, as I was fascinated with what the great scientists wrote in their later years about the nature of reality and the workings of the universe.

Many of these revolutionary thinkers were taking a plunge into metaphysical considerations, too. Einstein met with Tagore! And Tesla met with Vivekananda! It absolutely fascinated me, and I wrote long involved papers on “free will” and “determinism” — something philosophers still debate over. The other thing about my years at MIT is that I got to know some amazing musicians in Boston — from Berklee School of Music, MIT or Northwestern University. I was playing in all kinds of different settings, even exploring experimental electronics in my last year and trying to control laser beams with sound.

During my years there, I became politically active, attending many of the lectures by legendary linguist, Noam Chomsky, which were a revelation to me. It was at the height of the Vietnam War, and there was real engagement from students all over the USA, lots of focus on international events and policies of the US government. That was an education in itself, and ever since I have always taken an “eyes-wide-open” approach to understanding the subtleties of current events, media bias and such controversial subjects as advanced Game Theory utilised in the foreign policies of super-powers.

Me: How did Art of Living change your life and inspire your music?

Craig Pruess: It was an even bigger jump than when I first learned to meditate. I had been doing rigorous yoga and meditation practice for 21 years when I first learned the Art of Living’s flagship technique, Sudarshan Kriya.

“Kundalini Activation” (excerpt, from “Sacred Chants of The Gayatri”, Craig Pruess & Andrew McKellar).

The first time I experienced this powerful breathing practice, I was transported into my deepest and most profound meditation ever. I felt like I was sitting on top of the Himalayas, with the whole world below me, as if I had been meditating non-stop for six months. I couldn’t believe it how the breath can be so transformative; such a powerful tool to reach deeper states of samadhi. In fact, what the years of meditation had done for the clarity and expansion of my mind, Sudarshan Kriya brought this same effect and depth into my body and my emotions. No wonder it has spawned the largest volunteer NGO in the world. We are all so blessed-out and grateful that we want to help the world as a result. It’s spontaneous!

Within a year of learning Art of Living, I trained as a teacher of the programme with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and since then, I have taught many courses in the UK and Europe, including starting the  prison programme here in the UK in 2003. After a year of working with my Ugandan colleagues, the Ganda Boys, I was happy to teach them the Sudarshan Kriya and they fully embraced this wonderful knowledge and the daily practice (they are such an inspiration to me).

Now courses are starting in Uganda, which are needed there, being one of the most powerful Post Traumatic Remedies in the world today. On a purely personal level, my whole family here at home practice, too, including my children, and I enjoy morning breathing, yoga and meditation practice with my gorgeous wife, Asta, especially after seeing off the kids to school and the house is quiet (before the music starts).

Overall, Art of Living approach reduces stress levels in daily living and makes everything a lot more fun and enjoyable. It makes me more productive and my musical ideas tend to come from a deeper place inside of me. Often, I can hear a whole piece, all the parts, all the words, in one instant. So, there must be some part of the mind and consciousness that is beyond the bounds of space and time, right?

Me: When did you meet Dennis and Dan? What inspired you to form Ganda Boys?

Craig Pruess: In 2008, I met Denis Mugagga and Daniel Sewagudde, two charismatic singers and sevaks from Uganda. It was around a conference table at the BBC in London and I had just received a new commission to compose the music for a prime-time BBC-TV drama series, called “Moses Jone”, which starred Matt Smith (just before he became Doctor Who), Shaun Parkes, Eamonn Walker and Dennis Waterman — an excellent cast. The producer was EMMY Award winning Cameron Roach, and he had me sit at the table with the script writer, Joseph Penhall, and their newfound advisors on Ugandan culture (Denis and Dan).

GB-1

Denis Mugagga and Daniel Sewagudde of the Ganda Boys

It was all a meeting towards writing four new songs that would feature as part of four live band performances featured in the filming — this was key to the drama, as the lead singer in the band (Eamonn Walker) had some dramatic scenes of confrontation with his adversaries at-large in the story. It was all about Ugandan musicians struggling to survive in London, yet tribal divisions back home in Africa spilling onto the streets of London.

The music score I created was modern “electronica” style with shades of African influences in the underscore, also touches of Miles Davis style muted trumpet, all to capture the urban feel of night-time London. It was beautifully shot by director, Michael Offer. So, here we are around a conference table at the mighty corporation of the BBC, having just met five minutes before, banging out songs on the table with an acoustic guitar, and creating new songs. We had to go in the studio the next day and record them, and that is when I realised how brilliant and original Denis and Dan were as singers and artists, magnetic personalities, just brimming with energy and music. When we formed a band after the filming was over, well, there was no stopping us!

In 2010, my soundtrack was nominated for a British Academy Award for Best Original Music (“Moses Jones”). The London Metro newspaper wrote: “Moses Jones pulses to probably the best music soundtrack of the year.” The soundtrack was also nominated for Best Original Music by the Royal Television Society in London in the same year. All the music and songs were recorded at my home studio.

Me: How has the journey of Ganda Boys been since its inception?

Craig Pruess: Denis and Dan already had eight big national radio hits in Uganda (2002 to 2008) before I met them. So, they were experienced artists, performers, quick and creative in the studio. On top of that, they both have a huge amount of natural charisma, on camera, in person and also in live performances. So, working with them has all along been exciting and stimulating for me.

Immediately, it was like all our collective abilities gelled; we could make new and dynamic music/songs quickly. The two of them have individual voices as two excellent lead singers, quite different, each of international superstar standard, in my expert opinion — with the added bonus of various and effective ways to blend their two voices in block harmonies, dual harmonies, rap, mouth percussion; the list goes on, it never ceases to amaze me!

Queen & CP 1

Craig meeting the Queen of Buganda, who broke all protocol and came on to the stage immediately after the last song of the concert to congratulate us!

Overall, one has to see it as a producer’s and songwriter’s “paradise” — two great voices!! And they will sing some traditional Lugandan chants to me. We start creating a new song, and then they ask me to write some English lyrics based on what the soul of the tribal chant means. I come up with straight song ideas and they effortlessly “Africanise” them. It’s great.

They step up to the microphone with no fear, no hesitation and just blow me away. They are the same on the stage, too. We had been rehearsing for three days with the full 65 piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London for a big concert, and were about to go on stage and perform our song, “Our Brothers”. It was a packed hall, full orchestra and me on grand piano when Denis had the shocking news that his father had passed away in Uganda suddenly (a wonderful man, and they were close). Danny, the conductor and I quickly gave Denis the option that he could defer his performance (he was lead voice on this song), but he went ahead and did it on stage with all his soul. It was moving. Three hours later, they were up in the air, en-route to Uganda, to organise the tribal funeral rituals. It is a rich and ancient culture there, so steeped in music, stories and dance.

Service work of Ganda Boys:

The other part of our Ganda Boys’ journey which has been so significant and special is the service work we do to help the rural communities in Uganda. Putting my sitar hat on for a week back in 2009, I was invited out to Lamu in Kenya to do a sitar concert in aid of the Millennial Goals of the UN, a campaign called “Stand Up Lamu”, empowerment for local communities and children.

Microfinance Community 1

Ganda Foundation micro-finance support for rural women’s groups.

Denis suggested I do a side trip up to Kampala, Uganda, and stay with his sister, Margaret. Although I had lived in Kenya for two years, 1971-1973, teaching at the Conservatoire there, I had never been to Uganda. Denis had arranged a short tour for me, accompanied by his brother, Andrew, where we visited a school in Lugazi (35km outside Kampala) and also the community hospital there.

I was completely shocked at their lack of resources, equipment, but inspired by the incredible motivation and dedication of the hospital staff and doctors. I called Denis up and said we must do something. Within weeks, we had formed our Ganda Foundation charity, and were shipping hospital equipment, like operating tables, to Uganda and doing fund-raising concerts in London in aid of the Lugazi Community Primary School, where we are currently building the area’s first computer lab building.

The future of a country is in its youth, and we constantly aspire over these seven years to think bigger and bigger about what we can do. Now the Ganda Foundation has support within the Parliament of Uganda, and we have done a big national concert in Kampala in the presence of the Queen of Buganda and government ministers, raise over $20,000 for her charity for young women. But, you know, you can’t really do this kind of work without being haunted by the thought that one could be doing more. That deep feeling of responsibility goes with it. It’s part of the journey. (The  Ganda Foundation is a UK based charity also working as an NGO in Uganda.)

Me: The genre of music composed by Ganda Boys is a bit different from Heaven on Earth Music, so how do you swap between these two genres?

Craig Pruess: The Stroud Sacred Music Festival is held every year in our local town in Gloucestershire, two hours drive west of London, within sight of the distant Welsh mountains. The Cotswolds here is a beautiful place to live and create music, and I’m grateful to be here with my family and my studio in our home. Many writers, musicians, artists and poets are attracted to this part of the world, so it’s a varied and culturally rich community.

On July 2nd and 3rd this year, 500 people gathered for the Sacred Music Festival. I was so pleased they had the Ganda Boys as their headlining act, and we were able to perform our songs, telling the story of our journey and our dreams. Then switching gears, we got everyone on their feet, singing, dancing, smiling, hugging and swaying. It is always wonderful to watch, how Denis and Dan engage and communicate with the audience. Everyone was blessed-out and so happy afterwards. It was perfect!

When the Ganda Boys perform, I am playing the keyboards, guitar, some percussion, besides singing backing vocals. But, I also pick up my trumpet for various solos in our songs. In complete contrast, the next night, the Festival asked me to stage a performance of my million selling album, “Sacred Chants of Buddha”, as it was the organiser’s favourite album. For a couple of weeks, on and off, I rehearsed with an accomplished UK tabla player and world percussionist, John Stercyx, to get the ebb and flow of the “Buddham Sharanam” piece just right. We were joined by my long-term colleague, Paul Ellson, on a large, deep drum and a large crystal bowl that rang out a beautiful rich tone, which we built layers and layers upon as it was stoked into a rich ringing sound, even before I started the vocal chanting.

“Lift You Up” (from “Mountains of the Moon”, the Ganda Boys)

Half way through, we let the sound expand and settle at one point, in a beautiful “vilambit” (slow tempo), and I came off the harmonium and reached for my trumpet and played a long, slow and deliberate ambient trumpet solo, letting the tones ring around the big hall. I noticed that everyone had their eyes closed, immersed in the sound. When we finished the whole (non-stop) performance, we all sat in complete silence for over five minutes. You could hear a pin drop silence and no one moved! For this precious time everything was completely still, a rich nothingness. It was satisfying, and true to the spirit of Buddhist chants and the Silence of Buddha.

So, I write all this to convey that moving between my two main music spheres is natural and right for me — like moving between dancing (joy & connection) and meditating (peace, love and resting). They are two aspects of life, and I feel so fortunate to have both so fully activated in my music career at this time of my life.

Me: What does music mean to you? Please share your future plans.

 Craig Pruess: I could write a whole lot about this first question. Without making this piece too long, I want to share that these last couple of years, I have been asked to re-evaluate my previous albums, re-release them, re-master them, to create YouTube videos and that has been interesting to me.

Listening back, I can revisit the season, my feelings, aspirations and even the smells of that time. So, I have come to realise that my music output has become my personal diary. I don’t write a diary, I write music, and my life has been captured in my musical output. I spent many years training, getting intense professional experience with many top producers, film composers, award-winning film directors, thinkers, enlightened masters, master musicians and supportive close friends. At one point (shortly after completing my first Art of Living course!) I turned on the tap, and let it flow out.

I followed my deepest music muse and thankfully, I had the courage to believe in it, to trust it, and to let it lead me to wherever it would take me. Music is my life blood, my connection with my inner life and my connection to the whole world now!

One of the most satisfying things in my career has been connecting with people from all around the world who have felt and breathed in my musical creations, taken them into their hearts. This is amazing to me that I can share my own personal silence and my own deeper experiences with so many people (“Sacred Chants” series, particularly) and share my personal stories (songwriting, Ganda Boys) and convey my own inner visions (film and TV soundtracks). It doesn’t get any better than that.

Future plans:

About my immediate future plans, foremost, I am working with a new and emerging humanitarian media team for a global initiative for creating world peace through high profile concerts to raise funds for the education of refugees, homeless and the displaced. It is a specific and well targeted project. One of our Ganda Boys songs, “The Forgotten People”, is being used as a spearhead for launching this project, under the leadership of Claes Nobel, senior member of the Nobel Prize family.

We have a big launch in Hollywood on August 24th, with many VIPs and support from the industry, where we will show our filming in Munich with the refugee musicians, and also recording with 21 GRAMMY artists in Studio City, Los Angeles, in February 2016 — all contributing to the Forgotten People song. The Ganda Boys will perform at the event hosted by Motown legend, Smokey Robinson. 

Music can be a powerful tool for social change, and that, for me, is stepping up to the plate and doing what I can for lasting change in this world.

Some more videos

“Ever Rest” (from “Terracotta”, Craig Pruess & John Altman)

“One Love” (from “War of Love”, the Ganda Boys)

“Celestial Song” (from “Angel of the Earth”, Craig Pruess & Ilyana Vilensky) —

“Kiiri” (from “Mountains of the Moon”, the Ganda Boys)

“Ambuuse”  (from “Africa”, the Ganda Boys) — https://youtu.be/Rd7YygrFjL8

 

 

 

 

 

 

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