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Archive for the ‘Bhakti Yoga: Kirtan’ Category

Yoga Rock Stars

A Special Report by Anna Dubrovsky

This article was pulled from the Spirit Voyage Blog.

There’s a rave-like atmosphere in the ballroom of a Florida hotel and a group of musicians onstage, but this gathering of hundreds isn’t a party or performance. It’s a spiritual practice. The yoga conference participants singing and dancing late into the night are engaged in bhakti yoga, the yoga of joyful devotion to God.

Bhakti yoga isn’t a recent import. Many Westerners got their first taste in the 1960s, when shaven-headed Hare Krishna devotees took a bhakti practice called kirtan to the streets. Kirtan is the chanting of God’s names and attributes, often in call-and-response fashion. In 1969, Beatles guitarist George Harrison produced a recording of the Hare Krishna mantra, and bhakti debuted on Britain’s Top of the Pops. Around the same time, former Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert returned from India with a new name—Ram Dass—and the message that psychedelics were poor substitutes for divine love. He taught ancient Hindu chants to hippies.

Recent years have seen another surge of Western interest in bhakti yoga and particularly devotional chanting. Longtime “kirtan wallahs” such as Jai Uttal and Krishna Das (Americans both) have graduated from living rooms to concert venues that seat many hundreds, achieving the status of rock stars in the yoga community. These days, it’s rare to find a yoga conference without communal chanting on the program. The Omega Institute’s annual “Ecstatic Chant” weekend grew so popular that this year the retreat center scheduled two chant-a-thons. There are kirtan camps for those seeking in-depth study and kirtan ringtones for cell phones. The Canadian music company that manages Avril Lavigne and Sarah McLachlan recently signed half a dozen chant artists to its label. “It’s a bull market,” quips Shyamdas, who has led kirtan for a quarter of a century.

Why are a growing number of Westerns investing in bhakti? For one, it’s accessible. Anyone can sing to the Divine Being. The practice doesn’t require formal training. It doesn’t require physical flexibility. Unlike avenues such as asana and silent meditation, which call for persistence, chanting “can be immediately successful with just a little bit of good intention,” says Shyamdas, who points out that bhakti is by far the most popular branch of yoga in India.

“Success” is an experience that even longtime chanters find hard to verbalize. It’s heart-opening, they say. It’s elation and more. “I haven’t found a good way to explain it without people thinking I’m weird,” says Sharon Smith, a Connecticut yoga teacher and retired project manager. “You need to feel it a little bit. I don’t think you can talk someone into appreciating kirtan. It’s visceral.”

The yoga studio boom also has much to do with bhakti’s new fan base. More and more people are giving yoga a go and discovering the music that’s played in many classes. They buy chant albums and tickets to sacred sing-alongs. Miten, a British rocker turned devotional singer, says people often tell him: “I’ve started to get into yoga, and I heard your music, and I can’t stop playing it. I play it in my car. I play it to my kids. It just resonates. I don’t know why.”

It’s not only yoga practitioners who are tuning in. After NPR reviewed David Newman’s Lotus Feet: A Kirtan Revolution, the chant maestro heard from music lovers who’d never stepped inside a yoga studio. “They were just digging the music,” says Newman, whose spiritual name is Durga Das. “We’ll go to a yoga center to chant and the owner will say, ‘God, we’ve never seen these people.’ They are drawn to the music, and through the music they’re exposed to the vibration.” Krishna Das was greeted by 700 fans in Buenos Aires after one of his songs, “Jaya Bhagavan,” was used in an Argentine film.

Though rooted in India, the music of yoga’s new rock stars has an unmistakably Western imprint. The ranks of chant artists are filled with lovers of rock and jazz, bluegrass and reggae, folk and world fusion. “We were brought up with the Beatles or the blues or whatever, so that enters into our styles,” Shyamdas says. They may slip an English song into an otherwise Sanskrit set. They may swap tabla drums for bass guitar. They may even insert a sax solo. It’s not the stuff of Indian temples, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less spiritual.

Anna Dubrovsky is a contributing editor of Yoga+. Last year, after returning from seven months of yoga study in Chennai, India, she settled in Pittsburgh, where she also teaches yoga.

Krishna Das:  Bhakti With a Dash of Blues
Krishna Das makes no apologies for the way he pronounces “Ram,” the Hindu deity who epitomizes virtue. He doesn’t pronounce the “r” the way someone proficient in Sanskrit would. That caused an Indian woman to leave one of his kirtans. She just got up and walked out.

“I understand there are people who feel that what happens in the West with chanting is ridiculous—what do we know about chanting?” says Krishna Das, the white guy from Long Island whose name is synonymous with Indian mantric music in America. “That’s really dumb. It’s like saying Westerners don’t have God in their hearts, because that’s what chanting is about. God knows what the heart wants and responds to the call of the heart. It’s not about music or pronunciation.”

“Dumb” is the milder of the four-letter words that dot his defense of American-style kirtan. Krishna Das—born Jeffrey Kagel—discovered devotional chanting in India in the early ’70s. He practiced it there at the feet of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, also known as Maharaj-ji. But the music he makes today borrows from rock and roll and country blues as much as it does from the temples of India. “As the mantras changed me, as they got deeper into me, they began to come out of me in a way that’s more natural to this incarnation. The chants took on different shapes—much more Western shapes. I didn’t do that on purpose. It was a natural evolution.” All One, his 2005 release, explores the Hare Krishna mantra from four diverse musical perspectives, including rock and South African township jive.

This weaving together of ancient mantras with modern melodies and instrumentation may offend purists, but it’s part of the reason why communal chanting is gaining popularity in cultures that prize individuality and secularism. “It’s only reasonable that people here would be attracted by the Western sounds because it’s who they are,” he says. The pressures of modern life also account for the expanding kirtan “market.” “It’s growing and will continue to grow because things are getting harder and harder in the world. I think it just reflects people’s desire to find some happiness, some rest, a sense of joy in life.”

Krishna Das spent the better part of his 61 years searching for happiness. He struggled with depression and drugs. He worked odd jobs and dabbled in music. In his 20s he met Ram Dass, the Harvard professor turned spiritual teacher whose 1971 best seller Be Here Now introduced legions of Westerners to Maharaj-ji and yoga. Krishna Das traveled to the foothills of the Himalayas to find Maharaj-ji. He spent almost three years there, basking in his guru’s unconditional love. Then, in 1973, Maharaj-ji died.

“I was really destroyed by that,” Krishna Das says. “Being with him was the only thing that made me happy. It was the most extraordinary, powerful experience I’ve ever had, on the physical plane anyway. When he died, I figured my only chance to be happy was gone. I went through a long, long, long period of very unconscious self-destructive behavior.”

It wasn’t until 1994 that a solution presented itself. “I was standing in my living room in New York, and I just realized I had to sing with people. It was the only way I could clean up the dark places in my heart.” He walked into a Jivamukti Yoga Center in Manhattan, where founders Sharon Gannon and David Life offered him a Monday slot.

His audience then was several yoga students. Today he packs houses all over the world, singing with hundreds and sometimes thousands. The man who jokes about being “Jewish on my parents’ side” occasionally bursts into a gospel classic—“Amazing Grace” or “Jesus on the Mainline”—as if to remind people that it matters not how you call out to God. It matters that you do.

He has found the faith he lost when his guru died. “By leaving his body, he forced me to find that love inside of me—or to begin to at least look for that love inside of me. That’s really the point: it’s not outside of us. Things outside of us can push a button for us and open us up temporarily. But ultimately we have to find that place ourselves. When we unravel our psychological issues and untie the knots in our hearts, and begin to let go of fear and judging ourselves and treating ourselves so harshly, then we start to move deeper within ourselves to where that love is.”

Deva Premal & Miten:  At Home in the World
Ask Deva Premal and Miten where home is, and you won’t get a short answer. The couple tours so tirelessly that the closest thing to home base is the apartment in Germany where Deva was born and her mother still lives. They keep clothes and other belongings there and return for a few weeks each year. “We actually consider the whole planet our home,” says Miten.

The two have been traveling the world since 1992, when they left their guru’s ashram in Pune, India. They are the Johnny and June Carter Cash of sacred music, with more than a dozen albums and a fan base that includes both Cher and the Dalai Lama. “We swim in it, 24/7,” Miten says of their music. “It’s not to be famous. It’s not to make money. It’s not to sit in front of an audience. It’s to connect with our guru, and the way we do that is through our music.”

Their guru is the Indian spiritual teacher who came to be known as Osho. Deva was just 10 when her mother returned from a trip to India and introduced her to Osho’s “active meditations”—techniques that include dancing, Sufi whirl-ing, and humming. She became a preteen devotee, donning mala prayer beads and robes in the shades of a sunrise. Years would pass before she slipped into a pair of blue jeans. In her late teens, she left Germany and moved to the ashram in Pune. It was there, in 1990, that she met Miten. She was 20. He was 43.

Miten, whose Osho-given name means “friend,” came to Pune by way of England and a rock-and-roll lifestyle. In the ’70s, the singer-songwriter toured with Fleetwood Mac, Lou Reed, and Ry Cooder, closing many sets with a plaintive song called “Show Me a Home.” The business of music sapped his passion for music. After reading a book of Osho’s discourses, he sold his guitars and moved to a commune of devotees in England. “The pain I was carrying around with music suddenly evaporated as soon as I sold my guitars and stopped identifying myself as a musician,” he told Yoga+. “That was one of Osho’s great teachings. He helped many people drop the idea of who they were so they could actually locate something of who they really are. Suddenly I wasn’t a musician anymore. That was a great relief.”

Miten soon discovered that “the orange people,” as Osho’s robed followers were called, saw joyous singing as a spiritual practice. Their song-filled meditations reawakened his passion for music—and for life. It wasn’t long before he was leading the music sessions, first in England and later at the ashram in India.

Though Deva had studied violin, piano, and voice as a child, she wasn’t a singer when she and Miten met. She was studying bodywork at the ashram and, one day, recruited Miten for a practice shiatsu session. That sparked their romantic partnership. Their musical partnership took root later, when Deva asked Miten to listen to her sing. He put her in the band.

Deva shunned the spotlight until 1997, when she recorded a mantra album in her mother’s apartment. The Essence, which features the ancient Gayatri mantra, rose to the top of New Age charts. Unlike their earlier albums, it found fans outside the Osho community—in yoga centers. “We put The Essence out thinking that it would support our friends in their massage practices,” Miten says. “Suddenly it was like the world started pouring through our window. We began receiv-ing all these invitations to come play in yoga studios in America. We’ve gone from yoga studios to playing to 1,500 people in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Amazing.”

Deva and Miten’s music is an amalgam of sacred mantras and English songs written by Miten or musician friends. Their concerts are sing-alongs rather than call-and-response affairs. “The peo-ple who come to sing with us, they’re part of the band. They’re the choir,” says Deva. “That changes every night. It’s going to sound different and have a different flavor every night.”

Wah!:  “If It’s Playful, I’m There.”
Wah! is sitting on a lawn at the Omega Institute campus in Rhinebeck, New York. It’s the end of a four-day chanting festival, during which she took the stage half a dozen times. A stranger approaches and drops to his knees. He is a middle-aged man who spent much of the festival dancing ecstatically, smiling broadly, hands flapping like prayer flags. He takes one of her hands in both of his and touches his forehead to it. He’s in a good place, this one.

“We all need to get to a good place,” Wah! says when the man is gone. “Some people who have come to the concert are already in a good place, and other people are not. Let’s balance out those vibrations so everybody can feel the wideness of their own heart.”

Devotional chanting, stripped of musical and spiritual jargon, is just this: getting to a good place. No one leaves a Wah! concert with a heavy heart, shoulders hunched, or feet shuffling. Most people get what they came for, whether it’s solace, insight, inspiration, or a sweaty good time. “The mantras are designed to lead you into infinite space,” she says. But unlike many spiritual practices, chanting needn’t be approached with solemnity. “The music has emotional content. If it’s serious and drab and educational, I’m just so not there. And if it’s got a groove, and if it’s playful, I’m there.” Her music is sensual enough to accompany candlelight and playful enough to make a grown man shimmy. She lays down a groove that makes for a head-bopping drive home.

Wah! is her legal name, exclamation point and all. It was given to her by a yoga teacher. “‘Wah!’ is something you might say when you can’t say anything else, when it’s so incredible, so juicy, so indescribable, so beyond what you expected—that’s the expression: ‘Wah!’” Her discography, which includes ancient Sanskrit chants and ethereal English songs, tells the story of her spiritual transformation, which be-gan not in India but in Africa.

Wah! was in her teens when she traveled to Ghana and Nigeria as part of an American dance company. She was a musician, singer, dancer, and conservatory student at Oberlin College. She stayed in Ghana when her stint with the ensemble ended and lived in a shamanic shrine in the hills. “I had an experience in Africa,” she recalls. “People gather during sunrise, and they drum, and they dance—a swirling whirling dervish kind of dance—and then as the sun rises, if there are any complaints within the community, they’re brought before the elders. Once the problems are solved, you start the day. People go to the fields or make baskets.

“I just loved getting up before the sun and hearing the drums, getting together and starting the day with community,” she says. “It triggered something in me, some memory in me of what spiritual life should be. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but once I went to Africa, I went ‘Oh yeah, that’s right!’”

A government coup cut short her stay in Ghana. She returned to the States, finished her performing arts degree, and moved to New York City, where she danced and choreographed, composed and performed music, and tried to cultivate the sense of community she’d found in Africa. “I moved into a meditation and yoga center. It was ten to twelve hippies living together.” Wah! had learned the rudiments of classical Indian music at Oberlin and played for her housemates. They sat and listened to the complex melodies but didn’t participate. “My experience of wanting people to be involved kind of forced the simplification of the meditation music,” Wah! says. She switched to simple mantras and call-and-response. It worked. The audience became involved.

Today, Wah!’s music is a staple at yoga studios, and she performs in front of audiences that already know the words. She plays violin and electric bass, among other instruments, and her band bears a closer resemblance to R.E.M. than a Ravi Shankar ensemble. The only instrumental link to Indian music is the harmonium (introduced to India by the British in the colonial era). “I’ve been trying to weave together elements of pop within the chanting because pop is the heartbeat—the pulse—of American culture. Bhajans and chanting are the pulse of Indian culture, before Westernization. There’s beena lot of pop exploration and instrumentation exploration until I really found what I wanted. And I have found it.”

Jai Uttal:  In the Footsteps of the Minstrels
Walking through Jai Uttal’s northern California home, I pass more than 20 instruments. He introduces each one—the one-stringed ektar and the five-string fretless banjo, the droning tamboura and the wailing soprano 12-string guitar. “Each instrument has a different song, a different world that emanates from it,” he tells me.

Like his instrument collection, Jai’s musical repertoire is vast, spanning everything from rock to the Ramayana, an ancient epic Indian poem that he set to music and performed with the Chicago Children’s Choir. His CD Mondo Rama (one of dozens he’s produced) contains Brazilian influences, Hebrew prayers, Appalachian blues, Beatles psychedelia, along with Indian music and chants. Jai tours with his band, Pagan Love Orchestra, drawing audiences well beyond the New Age or yoga crowd.

He’s lived in India among the Bauls, the wandering street musicians of Bengal. He’s led kirtan in countries as diverse as Israel and Fiji. He has sung with great singers and those with no musical ability at all. To Jai, this is the epitome of kirtan. “Sometimes kirtan is gorgeous and sometimes it’s super rustic. It’s all kirtan. The heart of kirtan is the prayer—the repetition of the mantra, of God’s names, and the intention—being sung. But that singing can be two screechy notes or a gorgeous classical raga. Whether it’s sung, screamed, or cried, it’s all praise.”

Jai, who grew up in Manhattan, began studying classical piano at the age of seven and went on to learn old-time banjo, harmonica, and guitar. He was a musical experimenter from the beginning. At 18, he moved to California to become a student of India’s “National Living Treasure,” Ali Akbar Khan, from whom he received traditional voice training. You can detect this influence in Jai’s trademark vocals which, the first time I heard them, sounded to me like the yearning of my own soul. Says Jai: “I honestly feel that, since I was a teenager, all my music has been directed—even if not totally consciously—toward inner healing, finding a place of wholeness.”

At 19, Jai traveled to India. As with many of his generation, the journey was transformational. He met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. (Jai Uttal’s Sanskrit name, Jai Gopal, was given to him by a yoga teacher before he met his guru. “I guess that’s why I’m not a ‘Das,’” he jokes, referring to the fact that Krishna Das, Bhagavan Das, and Ram Dass were also devotees of the Maharaj-ji.)

Jai also steeped himself in the spiritually ecstatic music of the Bauls, an experience that has shaped his life. “Before I ever went to India, among the albums of Indian classical music I had was one called The Street Singers of Bengal,” he says. “This record was so moving, I had to meet the Bauls.”

The origin of the name Baul is debated, but one interpretation is that it comes from the Sanskrit word batul, meaning “divinely inspired insanity.” Jai tells the story of going to Shantiniketan, a town in West Bengal, where he heard they were living: “After several days of asking around and not getting anywhere, I was in a chai shop when this old man, wearing a patchwork dhoti and bells around his ankles and carrying a one-stringed instrument in one hand and a little drum in the other, came in. He played and asked if anyone had any money. Afterwards I followed him. We came to a little mela (a gathering): Onstage was this big family, all sitting down except the lead singer, who was dancing. On the floor were all the grandmas and grandpas, the little babies, all generations, playing cymbals and singing with him. It was just great. And the guy gets off the stage and it turns out he’s Lakshman Das Baul, one of the two well-known Bauls on the cover of one of Bob Dylan’s albums!

Jai met him and then others. “We really connected with one guy, Baidyanath Das Baul, who started coming to our house and then gave us lessons four times a week. We knew no Bengali and he knew no English, but we began to have this amazing relationship over music, singing, chai, a little food, all kinds of instruments.”

Jai became friends with other Bauls, too, and traveled around with them. “I had written some Baul-style songs with English words, and I would play some of them. What a rich and beautiful time it was.” It was also inspiring musically. “The music of the Bauls is simple but full of passion,” says Jai. “The words are very metaphorical. The imagery is rural, rustic. But their tone is one of busting out, breaking through the rooftops of heaven.”  

Adapted from Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Path, by Linda Johnsen and Maggie Jacobus. Published by Yes International Publishers, www.yespublishers.com. Reprinted with permission.

Wallahs to Watch

Seán Johnson
When Seán Johnson evacuated New Orleans in August 2005, he took a few changes of clothes, his harmonium, and a box of music and mystical poetry. Hurricane Katrina hit the next day. Unable to go home, Johnson embarked on a kirtan tour to raise money for hurricane relief—and to collect himself. “The kirtan was very therapeutic,” he says. His music is as much a product of his New Orleans roots as it is of formal study. “There’s music in the water, in the air, in the heat and the humidity here, and in the way people walk and talk,” says Johnson, who grew up listening to jazz, hip hop, and rock, and sang in the city’s children’s choir. In college he studied the singing style of his Irish ancestors and got hooked on Middle Eastern music. Later he apprenticed with South Indian musician and author Russill Paul. “When I lead kirtan now, it’s a really rich brew of all these traditions.” Home Base: New Orleans, Louisiana

Snatam Kaur
Snatam Kaur’s day begins at a time when many musicians are heading to bed. At 4 a.m., she and her husband begin morning sadhana, two-and-a-half hours of Kundalini Yoga and chanting and prayer in the Sikh tradition. When she’s on tour, they’re joined by bandmates and crew. “As an artist, a lot of my inspiration comes at that time, a lot of the tunes and ideas for future albums,” says Snatam, who has churned out six solo albums since 2002. “It’s my well that I draw from.” Snatam’s parents turned to Sikhism shortly after she was born.

She learned kirtan from her mother and musical improvisation from her father, a former manager for the Grateful Dead. Her kirtans include Gurmukhi chants drawn from Sikh scriptures and English aphorisms composed by her spiritual teacher, Yogi Bhajan, who brought Kundalini Yoga to the West in the 1960s. Between chants, she teaches yoga and meditation. “I look at each concert as a full experience of healing. The words that we share are considered to be a technology of transformation—almost like opening up a medicine cabinet.”  Home Base: Espanola, New Mexic

Wade Imre Morissette
Wade Morissette had just started college when his roommate handed him a copy of The Mystic Path to Cosmic Powers. He dropped out; cosmic powers intrigued him more than environmental law. Over the next decade, the Ottawa native traveled to India four times, studying with yoga masters and spiritual teachers, including K. Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. At the Osho meditation resort in Pune, he was given the Sanskrit name Atmo Sargam, or “innermost scales of music.” Morissette had grown up in a musical household, studying piano, guitar, and a West African hand drum called djembe. His twin sister, Alanis, had risen to stardom singing about heartbreak and revenge scenarios. “Getting that Sanskrit name lit a fire under me,” he says. He resolved to seek God in song. “At the end of the day, it is a practice. At the end of the day, I’m really not trying to sell records.”  Home Base: Vancouver, British Columbia

David Newman aka Durga Das
Less than two months after taking the bar exam in 1992, David Newman opened a yoga center in Philadelphia. He’d give it a year, he figured, and fall back on his law degree if Yoga on Main failed. “I never had to go back to practicing law,” he says. Krishna Das and Bhagavan Das came to sing at the studio, reawakening Newman’s passion for music. Their guru, Neem Karoli Baba, “installed himself in my heart,” says Newman, and chanting became the keystone of his yoga practice. “The kirtan represents my inner world, and my musical presentation represents my present incarnation as someone who’s crazy about guitars and loves the singer-songwriter idiom,” says Newman, who fronted bands in high school and studied music in college. His nontraditional presentation has found fans in kirtan’s birthplace. Recently he signed a deal with a New Delhi–based record company to distribute his music in India.  Home Base: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Shyamdas
In 1972, a teenage Stephen Schaffer traveled to India seeking Neem Karoli Baba, aka Maharaj-ji. He returned eight years later as Shyamdas, “servant of God.” In the intervening years he’d found not only Maharaj-ji, but also a master of devotional yoga named Goswami Prathameshji. “He was the best kirtan singer I ever met,” says Shyamdas, who lived in Prathameshji’s home and sang in his temple. Shyamdas spends more than half of each year in India, studying the languages, literature, philosophy, and music. He has written or translated more than 20 books about the devotional path, which are published by an Indian press. He’s a scholar who downplays the virtues of scholarliness. “Kirtan isn’t about how much you know, that’s for sure. Kirtan is about how much you feel.”  Home Base: Upstate New York and the Vrindavan area of India

Dave Stringer

Dave Stringer didn’t go to India in 1990 to find a guru. He went because he was broke and couldn’t refuse a job shooting films for the first Siddha Yoga ashram. “All the images of people sitting in meditation ‘blissed out’ were actually a turnoff
for me rather than an enticement,” he says. At the ashram in Ganeshpuri, the skeptic became an enthusiast in short order. “The experience of chanting, which was at first total nonsense to me, was strangely compelling, not only musically but in terms of how I felt—completely ecstatic,” says Stringer, a trained jazz musician. About a decade after returning to Los Angeles, he traded his career in film editing for one in kirtan. “I don’t ask people who come to my kirtans to believe in it. I ask them to suspend their disbelief for a long enough time to give it a go and see what happens.” Home Base: Los Angeles, California

Benjy and Heather Wertheimer, aka Shantala
They met 10 years ago at a songwriting workshop in Portland, Oregon. (He recites the exact date without the slightest pause.) She was a part-time folk singer as well as a therapist and yoga teacher. He’d opened for Carlos Santana, scored music for the internationally syndicated soap opera Santa Barbara, and studied classical Indian music with masters Zakir Hussain and Ali Akbar Khan. In 2000, the year they wed, Benjy was invited to play an Indian stringed instrument called esraj during the shavasana portion of a workshop by Anusara Yoga founder John Friend. Live accompaniment to yoga practice became a specialty of the Wertheimers, who record and tour as Shantala. The couple has released two chant albums and tours for about nine months of the year. “One of the great joys is coming back to the same locations year after year and seeing how the community is growing,” says Benjy.  Home Base: Portland, Oregon

The Yoga+ Playlist  By Shannon Sexton

“Ganapati” by Ragani, from Best of Both Worlds
“Ganapati” is my first pick because it invokes Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. In India, it’s traditional to sing a Ganesha song at the beginning of kirtan. Ragani, an American woman, studied Indian classical music with Swami Rama and other masters. The arrangement incorporates Indian and Western instruments, the traditional call-and-response format, and non-traditional techniques like harmony. Her velvet voice is spellbinding.

“Angels’ Waltz” by Sada Sat Kaur, from Angels’ Waltz
Sung in the centuries-old language of Gurmukhi, this “Govinda Hare” chant is a perfect driving song—especially for an energy boost. Kaur’s commanding vocals may inspire you to belt out your own.

“Hari Krishna” by Sheetal, from Love of Ages
A heart-searing song that opens with Sheetal’s haunting improvisational vocals and morphs into a longing lament. The steely quality of her voice is typical of Indian classical singers (though Sheetal is first-generation American). This slow tune is arranged in an eerie minor key.

“Govinda Jaya Jaya” by Donna De Lory, from The Lover & the Beloved
Donna De Lory was one of Madonna’s backup singers. I like her breathless vocals and artful electronica arrangement. It’s a modern take on an ancient chant. One medley weaves English lines about love into the chant until it becomes a melodic tapestry.

“Aja Uttama” by Dave Stringer with Karnamrita, from Divas & Devas
This is a fun duet. Dasi Karnamrita’s classical Indian vocals are complemented by Stringer’s soulful, bluesy American voice. They play off each other really well. It’s an uplifting bhajan (devotional hymn).

“Aad Guray Nameh” by Snatam Kaur, from Celebrate Peace
There’s a peacefulness and purity to this song—almost like a hymn. Kaur starts off by herself, and then a chorus joins her. The chorus becomes bigger and bigger, and the harmonies become richer and more layered until, suddenly, I feel like I’ve been transported to a heavenly, ethereal church.

“Govinda Hare” by Krishna Das, from Pilgram Heart
Some chants are imbued with a natural sweetness, and this is one of them. Das says that one of the words in this Krishna chant, “Prabhu,” is a very sweet, intimate way of saying “Lord.” He writes: “In this song, we sing to the great Friend, to the feeling of love that we have for our best friend.” It’s a song filled with longing.

“Amba Parameshwari” by Shantala, from The Love Windows
To me, this soothing song to the Divine Mother feels like a spiritual lullaby—very calming and comforting. Heather Wertheimer’s angelic vocals enhance the mood.

“Namah Shivaya” by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, from Pulsation
Drawing from the oral tradition of the Himalayan sages, Pandit Tigunait preserves the meter of this Shiva mantra, so it’s one of the most classical kirtan songs on our list. The chorus sticks to the main mantra, Namah Shivaya, while Tigunait varies his call with Sanskrit names of the Divine. It’s a booming, energetic chant.

“Hari Om Shiva Om” by Deva Premal, from Embrace
This chant honors Shiva and Vishnu, Premal explains in the liner notes, and “is
a celebration of the masculine principle.” Her rich, sensual voice brings it to life, and the atmospheric, Eastern “cool jazz” arrangement, layered with gentle percussion, bansuri flutes, and textured harmonies, casts a spell on me every time.

For music from these artists visit Spirit Voyage Music

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Sitting in the audience, I am filled with such a sense of belonging and joy and a tingling in my fingertips and toes that lets me know there’s some kind of magic in the room.  I look around me and the other 300 people in the audience look the way I feel – blissed out.  The music is like light pouring through my body, the musician’s are world-class, and an angel’s voice is filling my ears. 

That was in March of 2007 in the audience of Snatam Kaur’s Kirtan concert in Washington, DC.  Snatam Kaur is known within the yoga and healing community for her crystal voice and the powerful experience of her Kirtan concerts.  Kirtan is an entirely different kind of concert experience.  It’s not so much a performance as a journey into the self through the experience of listening and singing.   Kirtan is a practice that started in India thousands of years ago, but in the last decade has become a phenomenon across the United States and has transformed musically to appeal to the ears of American audiences.  

Linda Johnsen, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hunduism, recently released a book called Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Path where she chronicles the Kirtan movement in North America and tracks the evolution of some of the most popular Kirtan musicians including Krishna Das, Deva Premal, Bhagavan Das, Snatam Kaur, Ragani, Jau Uttal, Dave Stringer and Wah!  These well-known musicians travel the globe sharing the experience of Kirtan, and with each pass through a city, their concerts grow.  It’s been an amazing experience to see most of these musicians in concert and I am always amazed at how their audiences expand not just in size but in demographic.

Deva Premal, the best-selling Kirtan artist today, visits North America annually and draws audiences up to 1,000 in larger cities.  As Johnsen said, “Some musicians take the world by storm.  Deva Premal captured it with the soft breeze of her pure voice.”  Her Kirtans are a profoundly moving experience.   In Premal’s concerts, she asks that no one applaud.  As much as people love the music, she tells them to love the silence between the music.  And at her concerts, you learn the beauty of that silence where you can feel the reverberations of her voice flowing through you in the silence. 

There is a strong friendship that grows between Kirtan musicians.  You’ll often see them come together for spiritual retreats or Kirtan festivals.  Snatam Kaur and Deva Premal have shared stages from Oregon to Sweden.  Krishna Das, Wah!, and Snatam Kaur will be performing together at a festival of 700 voices in Connecticut on March 22nd.  In May, the Omega Institute in New York hosts an Ecstatic Chant weekend with many musicians including Jai Uttal, Snatam Kaur, Donna De Lory and Dave Stringer.

I had heard of Dave Stringer’s legendary touring schedule as the Kirtan wallah (performer) who has seen the inside of more yoga studios than anyone in the country.  Time, Billboard, In Style, and Yoga Journal have all recognized Dave Stringer as a top player in American Kirtan. LA Yoga Magazine says Dave has a “volcano of a voice.”  When I showed up at his Kirtan concert in 2006 in Northern Virginia, I was feeling the mid-week blahs from too much work.  Dave seriously rocked out – and he took all of us with him.  The audience of about 50 sang our hearts out.   When he returned for another performance last October, the audience had more than doubled.  It was a packed house, and once again he carried us with him in the progressively building nature that is the trademark of Kirtan music. 

In Kirtan, everyone sings.  GuruGanesha Singh, a Kirtan artist and incredible guitarist who accompanies Snatam Kaur on her tour, always says “In chanting, there are no bad sounds.  In Kirtan, everyone’s voice is nectar.”  And sitting in the audience, singing along, you can really experience just that:  your own voice becomes as beautiful as the performer’s.  All of the voices merge together to become one voice.  It is the experience of sacred sound that makes Kirtan a transforming spiritual experience

I would urge anyone who hasn’t been to a Kirtan to give it a try.  Kirtan artists tour all around the world these days.  You can find tour information at Spirit Voyage’s Ticket Booth 

Snatam Kaur is one of my favorites.  If you haven’t heard her music, you’ll be in for a delightful surprise.  People who have heard her albums are always amazed at how small she is when they see her on stage because her voice has so much richness, but I think it’s very fitting.  She has an angelic innocence about her that carries through her voice with pure clarity.  Valerie Ortiz, who saw Snatam Kaur’s concert in Virginia in 2007, summed it up perfectly when she said, “Snatam’s voice just opens your heart wide open.  And then all you are is love.”

Linda Johnsen’s book Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Path and the music of Snatam Kaur, Dave Stringer, Wah!, David Newman, Krishna Das and many more Kirtan artists are available at www.spiritvoyage.com

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