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