Heavenly overtones: What relevance can ancient vocal chanting techniques possibly have for a modern city woman? Dolly Dhingra was sceptical. At first . . .

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The Independent Culture
If you happen to be a bathroom singer and only croon in the insecurity of your own company, Jill Purce could provide your voice-box with much- needed inspiration.

She's a large woman with long flowing hair and a reassuring smile: the ideal earth mother. Her aim over the last 22 years has been to teach ancient vocal techniques, the power of group chanting and the spiritual potential of the human voice for both healing and meditation.

Her introductory weekends are for both professional musicians and complete novices. This particular workshop was held in Regent's College in Regent's Park, a serene retreat in the heart of London.

Seated on the floor with a candle lit, she gave a synopsis of voice through the ages and traditions around the world. She explained the Tibetan idea of the voice as 'an intermediary for the translation of spirit into matter and then for matter into spirit', the crudest example being sopranos who can shatter glass. She spoke of Hindu mantras: 'sacred sounds conserved in ancient languages that have the power to heal specific illnesses or problems caused by particular beings.' Some mantras are sounds or words that are no longer understood, but passed down in both spiritual and religious groups. By developing breathing and sound, we could learn how to give ourselves sonic massages.

Her talk caused me some unease - I sensed some boundary being crossed. I had read about such things in books on Sufism, and my parents had mentioned them when debating religion in India. But it all seemed a bit too raw for 20th-century London living. And for once I understood exactly why people might dismiss such things as claptrap - through fear.

Unlike most of the others, I had no understanding of what harmonics were. Jill attempted to explain: 'If you were to electronically analyse a sound, there would be a whole series of sounds higher and quieter than the ones you normally hear - these are harmonics.' The group eulogised their beauty: they were'unearthly' and 'magical'.

With a great deal of trepidation, I rather robotically followed her instructions to start chanting: 'Open your mouth as if you're hiding a plum in it and we'll go through the vowel sounds.' This was fine. 'Now close your and eyes and your ears slightly, and do it.' As we did this I worried about how long to continue for, paranoid that I might be the last to stop and open my eyes to a room full of people laughing at me. But they just exchanged contented smiles.

Chanting away apprehensively, concentrating perhaps a little too hard, I heard some strange sounds above the normal chant which seemed to drift around the room. Imagining that Jill had started playing a background music tape, I kept my eyes closed. The sounds became louder and more distinct. It all seemed rather strange and confusing and I became tearful, not knowing why. Panicking, I opened my eyes, demanding an explanation. There was none. Jill wasn't making a sound and there was no sign of technological gadgetry anywhere. As I shut my eyes, there they were again, dancing and whirling around in the air, like wind chimes - no, like heavenly music.

During discussions afterwards, I wanted to jump up and down and yell that I had heard God's voice but refrained, keen to find out what others had made of it. 'It's the sound of angels,' said Marc Soloway. As a sceptic, I consider it to have been a moment of simple and pure truth.

Introductory Weekends May 14-15, June 25-26 and July 9-10, Regent's College. Contact Christel 081-444 4855 or Jill Purce, 8 Elms Avenue, London N10 2JP.

(Photograph omitted)

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