Tibetan flute player plays concerts by heart

Grammy-nominated Nawang uses his ‘gift from heaven’

Nawang Khechog, the first Grammy- nominated Tibetan musician, will be performing Saturday at the Makawao Union Church at a benefit for the Tashi Pendey Foundation, which helps Tibetan refugees and monastaries. Photo courtesy of Nawang Khechog

When he takes the stage, the rhythmic peaceful refrains flow through Nawang Khechog and his flute, and he never once turns to a score.

The internationally-renowned and Grammy-nominated Tibetan flutist, who studied under the Dalai Lama, doesn’t know how to read music anyway.

Every note that comes from Nawang on stage and in his recordings is original — with the exception of a handful of the more popular music that he has had “to learn from myself” and memorize from recordings.

“Sometimes when I really love some songs, then I say ‘I love this song,’ but I don’t know how to play it. . . . When I like it so much, I say to myself ‘I don’t know how to play that.’ ”

“The way I play my music is a small gift from heaven, or from the Buddhas or from the gods or whatever you want to call it,” Nawang said of his talents and music in an interview Thursday. “It’s a small gift given to me.”

Maui residents will have a chance to hear Nawang from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Makawao Union Church in the “Sounds of Tibet and Universal Love & Compassion” concert. He will be on stage with Maui musician Sal Godinez on piano.

The evening is dedicated to Maui’s late Tibetan Venerable Lama Dhondup Gyaltsen, with whom Nawang was acquainted. Lama Dhondup died May 25.

The money raised from the concert will go to the Tashi Pendey Foundation, which Lama Dhondup founded and supports Tibetan refugees and monasteries.

Tickets to the concert are $25 plus fees and may be purchased online at tibetanflute.eventbrite.com or at the door.

Nawang, who is the first Tibetan Grammy nominee, was born in Tibet but fled with his family to India, following the Chinese invasion of 1959. In India, he studied meditation and Buddhist philosophy and spent 11 years as a monk.

For four years, he studied under the Dalai Lama and as a hermit meditating in the Himalayan foothills.

Nawang is a self-taught musician and is known for his collaborations with Japanese recording star Kitaro, David Bowie, Dave Matthews, Alanis Morissette, U2, Pearl Jam and others.

He has played in great music venues, such as Carnegie Hall in New York, and opened the Earth Summit Precon meeting at the U.N. General Assembly Hall in 1992.

His break in music came in Australia in 1986, where he emigrated. At a concert of the three-person musical group Gowanda, Nawang went up to the musicians and asked if he could play with them.

They told him to show up at their next gig in Sydney. Nawang played one song on his flute; the band was supposed to back him up, but they were silent. He made a plea for peace in the world, a trademark beginning of his concerts, then played his song for about five minutes.

The crowd went wild.

“They really liked it, I had no idea, first time performing in public,” he said.

Nawang left the stage for the basement and did not know to offer the crowd an encore.

“Then I realized that there is something in me,” Nawang said, adding that requests to perform started flowing in.

Nawang is not nervous before he performs, saying he has enjoyed entertaining people since boyhood and called himself a “class clown.” The force that provides spontaneous, original music on stage has never failed him.

Before taking the stage, he meditates, “asks the blessing of a higher force” and then motivates himself by asking, “may I be able to play some music that is beneficial to others.”

“That’s one key thing for me,” Nawang said. “I don’t motivate by playing to become famous, make a lot of money. No. That is very small minded.

“But as Buddhist monk myself before, as a student of the Dalai Lama myself, so I have been trained and taught to think for the well-being of others . . . to try to channel yourself into universal compassion and universal love.”

He hopes that his music “may help others to bring some peace and happiness.”

“That is my hope, to be able to touch people and to . . . inspire them for kindness and for peace,” Nawang said.

In this concert, Nawang is trying help an old friend, Lama Dhondup. As Mandala Master at Namgyal Monastery, Lama Dhondup was among a small group of Tibetan monks chosen by the Dalai Lama to visit the United States in 1988 to construct the first sacred Kalachakra Sand Mandala in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History.

He moved to Maui in 1999 and spent many years teaching meditation and the art and spiritual significance of the Sand Mandala.

His close relationship led to the Dalai Lama coming to Maui in 2007 to give public talks, which were large enough to fill the War Memorial Stadium.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.­