An Aspiring Buddhist Monk Changed My Life By Introducing Me to the Art of DJing.

Paying it Forward, and Why I’ll Never Sell Some Things of Mine… By Ryan Ulbrich
Ryan U

Several years ago, just before the summer of my sophomore year, a teaching assistant, mentor and friend unexpectedly arrived at my apartment.

He’d come to say farewell before leaving for a Buddhist monastery somewhere in the countryside of France. He grew up in Cambridge, submersed in ivy intellectualism before attending our small southern college, and was about to cross the pond for a spiritual quest.

Back then, I spent hours after our activism class and on the weekends in awe of his ability to match separate sounds and varying tempos as an all-vinyl DJ.  It’s such a lost and vintage artform.  I was fascinated and learned every ounce I could.

I remember we had colored star stickers, the kind you’d get for accolades back in Kindergarten, and we’d put them on his records to label a beats-per-minute range. Different colors for different ranges. Doing so made it easier to mix and match on the fly during a performance. We’d wrestle through his collection, snapping our fingers with eyes closed, labeling track after track with those stickers. So many of them; hundreds in fact.  In doing so, I acquired a taste for euro-house, trance, and other minimalist dance genres. Then I’d watch him practice mixing for hours on end without an ounce of boredom in me. My own personal show. It was really beautiful.

A few years had gone by since our first class when I got that knock at my door.

There at my doorstep he stood, with loads of gear in his hands and at his feet.  And there at my doorstep he handed over to me every last piece of electronic music equipment he owned (including his entire record collection), as he was allowed no material possessions where he was going. None at all. He’d also need to assume sitting meditation for an undetermined amount of time outside the gates of the Zendo to pledge his commitment, and would “be back home sometime.”

Money for those belongings was not welcome.

Instead, he asked for only two things in return: for me to pursue the art to the fullest extent I could going forward, and to someday give those same pieces of equipment to another person in my life when my time with it had passed.

So, why does all of this matter?

Beyond the obvious lesson of paying it forward, and the experience of a jaw-dropping, dumbfounding act of generosity I just had to share, those turntables, mixer and records continue to be an avenue for bonding, and for teaching, and for a world of knowledge that was shared with me to then share with another.  It’s a muse for human connection–between him and me, between the crowds and me, between somebody else in the future, and me.  And it always will be.

Six years have passed since I left school in North Carolina, and just a few weeks ago I found myself opening for two world class DJ’s from Australia and Belgium (Aeroplane and Touch Sensitive), playing an opening set at DC’s most prestigious electronic music venue, U Street Music Hall, rated one of the best sound systems in America.  Some of my dearest friends were dancing in the crowd.

I’ll never know how the hell I ended up with such a surreal opportunity, but one thing’s for certain — be kind to others and practice random acts of kindness.  In fact, every once in awhile, be really kind to others . Practice really big acts of kindness. Find something special and material to share with somebody else — something that has a history with you.  Don’t ask to be compensated. Do ask for them to share it with another. It will improve you and bring the most unexpected joy to those around you.

Thank you, Mikhel Sohemme, for changing everything.

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