Kevin Griffin | Laughing Buddha

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Laughing Buddha

by Kevin Griffin

Rhythmic Rock with Buddhist lyrics. African, Reggae, Latin, and blues grooves with a positive and joyful message.
Genre: World: World Beat
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. Laughing Buddha
5:03 $0.99
2. Wake Up
4:31 $0.99
3. Kabir Says
5:32 $0.99
4. Metta Nova
5:06 $0.99
5. I'm Alive
3:37 $0.99
6. Ajahn Chah
4:19 $0.99
7. Vipassana Blues
4:38 $0.99
8. Refuge
3:26 $0.99
9. Enough
2:51 $0.99
10. Mountain Stream
3:09 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
The music on "Laughing Buddha" is steeped in African, Latin, and reggae rhythms, with versatile guitar parts, while the lyrics have Buddhist themes. This is music to dance to.

A portion of the sales of the CD will go to Abhayagiri and Amaravati Buddhist Monasteries to show my appreciation to the monks there who have been teachers, guides, and inspirations to me. The lyrics of Metta Nova and Refuge use translations from these monks.

Though I'm best known for my books and retreats bringing Buddhism and the 12 Steps together (One Breath at a Time is my best know book), I've been a musician for most of my life, playing lead guitar in all kinds of bands. The CD brings together that devotion to Buddhism with my love of music.

About Laughing Buddha

I started the process of recording the album “Laughing Buddha” in 2003 when I bought a 16-track Digital Audio Workstation, the Yamaha AW16G with money from my first book advance. For years I fiddled with tunes, eventually getting a Boss drum machines and starting to layer tracks. After my second book was published in 2010, I decided it was time to get serious and finish the project. I’d written a bunch of tunes, mostly with the idea of sharing them at the Spirit Rock Family Retreat, all with kind of light Buddhist themes and loads of rhythm.
For some time I thought I’d just release what I was recording at home, but eventually I decided I needed to do something more professional. That’s when I decided to try to raise money with Even before I launched the Kickstarter project, I went into Skyline Studios in Oakland, CA, near where I live in Berkeley, and started overdubbing vocals, the one thing I couldn’t get right with my cheap microphones at home.
I got enough money with Kickstarter to finish recording. I recruited Russ Lawton to play drums. Russ and I had been in Lofty’s Zzebra together many years before, and had stayed in touch. We have a shared musical vision based on that experience, and I knew he’d be the perfect drummer for the project. Nowadays Russ, who lives near Middlebury, VT, tours and records with Trey Anastasio of Phish, and it happened that he had a day off from touring before an Oakland gig, so he came and overdubbed drums on six songs. A few weeks later, I was on the East Coast, so I went to Vermont and finished the process.
I had two hand percussionists on the CD. The first was Cliff Brooks, a master percussionist in Berkeley, who is steeped in Cuban percussion and has written instructionals for Mel Bay. The other percussionist is Vicki Randle who played on the Tonight Show for 17 years. These days she tours with Mavis Staples and others as both a singer and percussionist, and she’s a singer-songwriter in her own right.
I was incredibly fortunate to get three world-class musicians on this essentially homemade album. Of course, once I got to Skyline, it was no longer homemade, and Bryan Matheson, the owner/engineer there, did a fabulous job guiding me through the mysterious world of 21st century recording. As someone who used to own a 4-track Teac reel-to-reel, working with Pro Tools is mindblowing.

Here’s some information about the different songs:

Laughing Buddha, the title cut, is an Afro-Latin groove with playful lyrics and a rocked out guitar riff. When you hear the guitar, you won’t be surprised when I say I was going for a Carlos Santana sound, one of my guitar idols.
I started writing this song as I was walking down the street and the bass line started playing in my head in time to my footsteps. I wanted to write something playful, along the lines of Wes Nisker’s “Smile Like a Buddha,” so I just started singing, “Laughing Buddha,” then I simply reversed the line. I love the way songs like Free’s “All Right Now” use the most basic phrase as the chorus, so I just took that line. As someone who’s more of a musician than a lyricist, I like to (playfully) argue that words aren’t important in songs—or maybe that the meaning isn’t important. So many songs just use sounds, like “Hey Jude” or “Miss You” by the Stones.
Of course, what’s at the heart of this song is rhythm. From 1977-1980 I was in a band called Zzebra (two “z’s) led by the Nigerian percussionist and saxophonist Lofty Amao. One of the founders of Osibisa, Lofty came to the States to form a multi-racial band that would realize his dream of a world music that would integrate African and Western musical styles. I learned a great deal from Lofty, and truly he is the greatest musical inspiration behind this album, but one of the particular things I learned from Lofty was to start musical arrangements with the bass. As a guitarist, I’d always oriented towards that as the center of a song, but I saw Lofty write songs with the bass line as starting point. So, that’s what I did with “Laughing Buddha.”
From there, it’s about layering rhythms, drums, multiple acoustic guitars, keyboards. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the interplay of all the rhythms. If you don’t listen closely, you’ll feel it anyway.
As someone who played in his first cover band in 1964 and started writing songs in 1969, I’m not ashamed to show my roots, or, frankly, to blatantly steal from classic rock. So, the second verse plays with Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
As a nod to contemporary music, I slip in a “rap” section—pitifully white, I know. The line about the raft refers to a traditional Buddhist teaching that we must cross the ocean of samsara, using the Buddha’s teachings and practices as a raft, to get to the “other shore” of nirvana.
The last verse is kind of my Zen Buddha—no longer laughing, now he’s empty and silent.
I love false endings on songs (although Bruce’s “one, two, three, four!” has become something of a cliché in his shows), so I lead into the coda with a “dive bomb” harmonic on the guitar, and then a variation of the groove starts. With the live band, this would be the jam. Zzebra used to do 10 or 15 minute songs with long solos and bridges and breaks, so this is a taste of that.

A couple words about my instruments. My main guitar is a Stratocaster that I bought used in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA in 1975. The owner of the store, Jack Griffin (his father and brother were both named Kevin), who was quite a salesman, told me it had been owned by J. Geils and used on one song in the studio (“Give It Up). It’s setup oddly, with a Gibson tailpiece and Shaller tuning pegs. The results is excellent intonation. But of course, I play it for the sound and the action. Nothing like a Strat.
The guitar I use for lead on “Laughing Buddha” and “Kabir Says” is a Korean knockoff I picked up at a little music store in Red Deer, Alberta in 1986 for $200 Canadian ($140 US at the time). It’s a “Targa,” whatever that is. But it’s a beautiful instrument, neck through the body, great action. I took it back to LA and had a locking tremolo system installed and then years later added a P50 Gibson pickup to the rear position. It’s my heavy metal guitar.
My bass has even more history, having been bought back in the mid-sixties. It’s a Guild with a ¾ neck. Easy to play, impossible to tune.

Wake Up, is a reggae song I wrote for my daughter when she was still asleep at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center Family Retreat in the summer of 2012. Here you start to see some of my agenda, blending diverse styles, so I inserted a doo-wop vocal and acoustic guitar that wouldn’t ordinarily have those sounds. You can hear the pure sound of my Stratocaster on the lead. Lyrically, of course, I’m playing with the idea of physical waking up as a metaphor for spiritual awakening.

Kabir Says is one of my older songs, written in 1982 when I got my first chorus and echo pedals for my guitar. The lyrics are inspired by Robert Bly's "Kabir Book," describing the struggles of a spiritual search. I didn’t expect to put this song so early on the CD, but as it developed in the studio, it sounded so good, I changed its place to be more up front. I’m particularly fond of the lead licks behind the vocals on the verses. There is some odd tonality in the chords, Bm-A-C#m-G, and it took me a long time to figure out how to make the harmonic transitions of the scales.

Metta Nova, takes the traditional words of the Buddha's teaching on lovingkindness and gives them a Brazilian lilt. The phrase, “Even as a mother, protects with her life, her child, her only child,” always touches me deeply in the sutta when it’s chanted, so I wanted to bring that forward. This was a song I wanted to give to the Spirit Rock Family Program as one that showed the Buddha’s view that parenting expresses the most primal and fundamental form of lovingkindness. Musically I had a lot of fun with this song, starting with at the jazzy verse and chorus, modulating from minor to major, using all kinds of flats and sharps and diminished chords. The bridge took a long time to put together and kind of takes the whole thing into a different energy, more rock, I suppose, but still twisting and turning the chords. Here it modulates twice, full a whole step, then a minor third, which gives the whole bridge a rising tension. The way the bridge resolves back to the verse is one of those happy accidents that I discovered in the process of writing the song.

I'm Alive is a joyful, upbeat song about simply enjoying life. One friend of mine said, “For such a negative person, you sure write a lot of happy songs,” and I suppose that’s the point. In my early songwriting days, a lot of my tunes were self-indulgent, sad singer-songwriter things that would let me wallow in sorrow. That just doesn’t have any appeal to me anymore. I want my music to cheer me up, not bring me down.
In fact, the opening line of this song is an homage to one of Lofty’s Zzebra songs, “No Problem.”
The song started with the bass line, which really isn’t like a bass line at all. Again, I spent time trying to find the perfect rhythm guitar counter to the bass, everything crashing against each other in syncopation. So, when I came to the lead guitar line, I fell into playing something totally on the beat, very straight. I love this guitar line and how perfect it seems and how happy it sounds.
I’m very cautious about using harmony guitars because they sound so dated. I loved the Allman Brothers, but somehow that sound is very hard to do today, so I judiciously slip in more and more harmony as the song progresses. Although I think it has a bit of that Allman’s feel, Vicki Randle, the percussionist on the album said something about Jimmy Buffett when she heard it. Not what I was going for, but one thing I’ve learned is that everybody hears different influences in music.

Ajahn Chah, is another of my older songs, written back in 1980/81 when I was reading Jack Kornfield’s book Living Buddhist Masters (now titled Living Dharma since many of the subjects have died since then). The story of his teacher, the great Thai Forest Meditation Master Ajahn Chah, seemed to return over and over to one simple message: "Just let go." His name seemed rhythmic to me, almost like a chant in itself, so I wrote this reggae-funk tune about him. Originally the song had a couple other sections, notably a long, slow blues section in the middle. This was more of the Zzebra influence, as we had songs that would completely change tempo in the middle. When I returned to this song as the beginning of recording, it seemed to complicated. In fact, as a general rule, my songwriting has grown simpler over time.
This song surely shows the great influence the Police had on me. I still consider them the greatest post-60’s band. I love their sound and their influences; I love Stewart Copeland’s drumming and Andy Summers guitar playing; and I love Sting’s songwriting. The way they blended rock and reggae continues to inspire me. There, I’ve said it.
When I was recording this song, I would refer to the echoed-chorused chords that crash in from time to time as “the Police guitar.”
Again, I added a “rap” section, this one with some edge. I like the idea of the struggle to do it “right” as a Buddhist, and the wish to still rock out. Certainly, when I go on retreat, rock ‘n roll keeps playing in my head.
Another false ending with some volume-nob guitar licks, something I love that I especially relate to Jeff Beck, another of my guitar idols. The vocals on this coda are meant to evoke one of my other favorite bands, the Beach Boys. I dream of writing a song that has even a smidgen of Brian Wilson’s harmonic brilliance.

Vipassana Blues, is the third and last of the “old songs,” written in 1980 after my first meditation retreat and describing the rigors of silent meditation. I had expected a blissful experience, and what I got was pain in my body and non-stop thinking. It seems a lot funnier now than it did at the time.
I love the sound of the Strat on this one. Just a chance to play some slinky blues licks. The climax of the song essentially gives all the instructions for meditation.

Refuge takes the Pali chant that may be most common, and plays with a folky/reggae style. The words are offering honor and respect to the Buddha, and then taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha (community). I hardly changed the melody of the traditional chant at all, but by adding chords that move under the chant, created the sense of something different. Here, again, I’m playing with mixing musical styles. While the intro is clearly a folk style, when the bass and drums come in, you realize there’s a swinging reggae feel going on underneath it.

Enough is another tune I wrote at the Spirit Rock Family Retreat. I had heard Wes Nisker kind of chant this in some of his performances, and I thought, why not turn it into a song? I just started writing down “stuff” and rhyming. My favorite line is “Pet Tibetan tiger cub,” because that’s so over the top.
I was going for a bit of a bluesy, rockabilly guitar with the tremolo. The bass line is stolen directly from Sonny and Cher's "And the Beat Goes On," because it’s a great bass line, so why not recycle it?

Mountain Stream was written in the spring of 2013 at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, CO. I had been teaching in Denver where a friend gave me this amazing, custom-made 12-string acoustic that he’d bought forty years before from the legendary Berkeley luthier John Lundberg. As soon as I changed the strings and got it tuned up (which took about three days), this song came out.
My first songwriting was instrumental. In 1969 I learned some open tunings and heard John Fahey. I started imitating that and coming up with my own riffs. This song recalls those influences, with the low E strings dropped to D. The title, of course, was just a reflection of where I was when I wrote it, but it also happens to be the name of a Dharma center in Nevada City, CA founded by my friends John Travis and Heather Sundberg.

All music and lyrics by Kevin Griffin, except:
Metta Nova, music by Kevin Griffin, lyrics traditional Buddhist chant;
Refuge, music by Kevin Griffin, lyrics traditional Buddhist chant;
Enough, music by Kevin Griffin, lyrics Kevin Griffin and Wes Nisker.
The lyrics for Kabir Says were inspired by Robert Bly’s Kabir Book.

Translations of Buddhist chants by the monastics of Amaravati Monastery.

All guitars, bass, and keyboards, Kevin Griffin
All vocals Kevin Griffin, except Enough background vocals Kevin Griffin, Bryan Matheson, Winter Sichelschmidt, and members of Crush Distance
Drums, Russ Lawton
Percussion, Vicki Randle and Clifford Brooks

Recorded and Mixed at Skyline Studios, Oakland, CA. Bass, keyboards, and most guitar tracks recorded on a Yamaha AW16G at my home in Berkeley, CA.
Engineered by Bryan Matheson; Drums recorded by Dave DeCristo at Signal Kitchen Studios, Burlington, VT and Alex Riddle at Skyline Studios.
Produced by Kevin Griffin with Bryan Matheson
Mastered at, Emeryville, CA, by Albert Benichou

Thanks to Russ Lawton, Cliff Brooks, Gary Morrell, Wes Nisker, Alan Senauke, Eve Decker, Kent Welsh, Jeff Saltzman, Betsy Rose, Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Passano, Heather Sundberg, and the kids, parents, and teachers of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center Family Program. As always, thanks to my dear ones, Rosemary and Graham.
Special thanks to Lloyd Burton whose gift of a Lundberg 12-string inspired me to write Mountain Stream.
This album could not have been completed without the donations of 159 Kickstarter supporters. Thank you for your belief in this project.

In Memory of Abdul Lassisi “Lofty” Amao

Many of these songs were inspired by the time I spent with my daughter at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center Family Retreat between 2003 and 2013. I hope they are a reminder that spirituality includes rhythm, joy, dancing, and plain old rock ‘n roll.

Bicycle Buddha cover art by Anna Oneglia,
Front cover design by Nick Anderson
Inside cover photo by Keith Kefford
All songs published by Kevin Griffin Music, BMI. Copyright 2013
One Breath Records
For lyrics and much more, see



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