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Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Monk goes techno send positive vibes through music
The biggest surprise of the interview comes after we’ve wrapped it up. Half way through asking Richard Jones for his contact number I stop myself and mutter, “Oh. I guess you don’t have a cellphone, being a monk…”
But Jones, aka the techno monk, shocks me. “I got my first smartphone in December,” he beams, reaching into the pocket of his monk’s habit and fishing out a Samsung.
“Oh cool, do you have any apps on there?” I say, “Anything religious…?”
“Yeah I’ve got the Bible app on here and the Daily Missal…”
Perhaps for a man who is a committed Benedictine Monk and also records techno music, that shouldn’t be surprising.
Jones is a full-time monk but he’s not cloistered. Five years ago he joined the Benedictine Order, the idea had struck him at the age of 25 when he had become engaged to a young woman and was sent by his church to a retreat on a quest to discover whether the two were really compatible life partners.
They were, but Jones suddenly experienced a conversion. In his words “believing that God is really real.”
At his local church in Guayguayare in south east Trinidad he began making enquiries about how he could best serve God.
How do you become a monk?
“Well, you apply!” Jones laughs. For him it wasn’t a Damascene conversion, he had been born and baptised into the Catholic faith, it was more of a life progression.
Are there exams?
“You have a formation period of two years where you live an old-fashioned lifestyle and you don’t go anywhere outside the monastery, you learn about the Desert Fathers.” Third century Christian hermits who lived in the desert in Egypt.
The life of a monk at Mount St Benedict is much as one might expect from reading the Umberto Eco novel The Name of the Rose.
Up at 5.30 am, morning prayers at 6 am, a simple breakfast, simple lodgings (a room with a bed, desk, wardrobe and sink, but blessed with a beautiful view of the mountains.)
Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are strictly observed but luckily for him, no vows of silence. When asked if he got enough “in” before his vow of chastity, he confirms that the memories will carry him a long way. If he gets any groupies as a result of his new musical career, he says they can come by the monastery to see him, but just to pray.
Duties include working in the monastery gift shop or the yogurt factory.
The habit is optional. After a papal conference in Rome in the 1960s, known as the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II, the rules for monks were relaxed somewhat. Monks can now leave the cloisters, for example, and interact with their local community.
“Vatican II changed the whole face of the church,” Jones says.
Jones was talking to the T&T Guardian in a small studio above a shop on Frederick Street owned by music producers Lyndon Andrews and Anthony Brotherson who run the recording company 5Z1.
The two producers normally record gospel, soca and dancehall and are excited to be working with a man who they believe is the first monk in the world to be performing in dance music. When one thinks of monks and music one thinks of the haunting Medieval melodies of Gregorian chant. In the early 90s German dance duo Enigma put chanting over a drumbeat and titled it Sadness (Part I) achieving a worldwide No 1 hit.
But here were have a monk poised to record a whole album.
His musical education began at the monastery.
“My superior, Abbot John Pereira asked me if I was interested in learning to play an instrument, because our prayer involved a lot of singing so it’s always good to have musicians. I started off playing piano at a school and I started writing with a piece of music writing software called Finale.”
His music teacher realised he had talent after he recorded a classical record and introduced him to Andrews.
“I like techno!” Jones says, and again his infectious laugh rings out. “I liked clubs before,” he clarifies. “The Lair in Barataria. Liquid in Barataria. A club upstairs at Gulf City Mall in San Fernando.”
Andrews plays one of the tracks they’ve been working on, called Sky. The lyrics begin “This world is falling apart. There’s no way I could ever love another. We keep looking up to the sky.”
It has a Progressive House, EDM feel. It could be played in a Las Vegas or Miami club. Andrews name checks David Guetta as an influence.
Christian Rock bands use a “cool” approach in an attempt to appeal to younger people and draw them into Christianity but when asked what he wants the music to do, Jones describes it saying “it’s something to entertain, release me because I get to express myself and also to pass on a positive message.”
The T&T Guardian photographer arrives and gets Jones jumping about the studio like a mad monk. Perhaps it’s all the hours of quiet meditation that have created pent up energy, he’s a live wire, bouncing around.
I put it to him that the perception of monks is that they’re supposed to live a puritanical life.
“Monks were real hardcore from ever since they began,” he explains. “Cloistered and contemplative. They used to say even if a monk has to go out of the monastery for an errand or anything when he comes back he can’t tell anybody what he saw out there in case he contaminated the other monks. So that’s how it started but gradually, throughout the years the whole monastic way of life has come out and become more active in outer society.”
And what’s he going to do now he’s made the tunes?
“I wanted to make dance music with a positive message. There’s dance with various moods. In all genres there are songs and artists with positive messages.”
An eight track album is in the pipeline. Six tracks have been laid down and are being mixed and the plan is to release the tracks on iTunes and market it on social media.
There’s also a project for young people, “my retirement plan,” Jones says. “It’s called YES, Young Ecumenical Sound. I call it my home ministry.” The plan is to encourage talented young people into music.
Is he trying to convert people?
“Yes, but it’s a bit technical,” he says, “there are so many different denominations, I don’t want to convert people to mine specifically, I want to convert people away from a more destructive lifestyle.”
Amen to that.