S.E.V.A. is an acronym meaning “Spirit Evolves Via Awareness”, as well as a Sanskrit word meaning selfless service. The project—the result of collaboration between Matthew “Mumbles” Fowler and Dahvin “Gone Beyond” Bugas—is an attempt to approach themes of a self-conscious spiritual nature through the medium of instrumental hip-hop.
Based on that promotional information, I was fully prepared to dislike S.E.V.A. on the grounds of being one of those exercises in self-righteous spirituality that usually bores me to tears. Certainly, there is nothing to bring out the humorless self-importance in a conscientious musician like channeling their chakras. But a funny thing happened on the way to the temple: somehow Fowler and Bugas managed to make the seemingly-incongruous combination of Eastern rhythms and hip-hop production mesh really, really well.
The album begins with “Spirit Evolution”, a monologue by Swami Akshara, which introduces the notions of religious truth—“supreme understanding”—that permeate the album. The truth of spiritual advancement upwards to enlightenment through synthesis, the contemplation and acceptance of the multiple facets of existence, is the underlying conceptual structure on which the album is constructed. The fusion between disparate musical modes gives the album its bite. Although “Event Horizon” begins with mellow acoustic guitar and Indian percussion, it soon evolves into something significantly more complex, by incorporating jazz improvisation on the organ and scratches by Sanjay Schmidt. The tablas and the guitar don’t disappear, but the overall composition becomes something significantly more heavy, akin to Herbie Hancock jamming with DJ Premiere at the Holiday Inn Bangalore.
“Suspended Animation” introduces a mournful, blues-influenced jazz guitar that reminds me slightly of John Scofield but, more to the point, a more contemplative Carlos Santana. The beats, when they join the guitar, are seriously heavy and continue to change in subtle ways throughout the track. The overall effect is very similar in execution to something DJ Shadow might do, which is high praise indeed.
“In the Tiger’s Mouth” brings back the Indian percussion, along with slight Arabian influences as well, with tenor flutes and more tablas, but again, morphed into something that most B-Boys would easily recognize as a breakbeat jam. “Stonehenge” is a truly heavy piece that builds on an intensely intricate breakbeat to induce a trance-like repetition. The mood is continued on tracks such as “The Tides of Titan” and “Collective Thoughts”.
The spiritual narration never quite disappears. Swami Paramatmananda shows up to deliver a reading, and Gangaji shows up on “Sun Shining / Devotion”. But the inclusion of these spiritual monologues does not undercut the music. S.E.V.A. are smart enough to introduce ominous undertones of menace and considered gravity. Faith is a complex organism, and you don’t have to be Kierkegaard to regard the act of spiritual fulfillment with some degree of tentative trepidation. By incorporating hints of this anxiety and despair into tracks like “Collective Thoughts” and “Soul Surgery”, the duo manage to encompass a far more balanced appreciation of mystical rapprochement, and the fear and trembling that accompany any spiritual undertaking.
With the S.E.V.A. project, Fowler and Bugas have achieved a rare trick—writing convincingly about the religious experience while maintaining their musical integrity. Considering the popularity of all things Eastern in modern hip-hop, this album could have appeal beyond the limited world of backpack cognoscenti and into the larger stage of beat freaks of all stripes. That the music just happens to carry a cohesive thematic narrative on the difficult matter of religion and the evolution of the spirit is a plus.