Buckle your bhakti belt! There’s a revolution under way in the land of American kirtan, and as yoga’s call-and-response form of devotional chanting evolves in fun and funky ways, it’s being wholeheartedly embraced by the yoga community and indie music fans alike. People whom you’d never expect to hang out singing chants to God have turned this type of traditional Indian chanting into the coolest form of music on the yoga block.
At a kirtan performance in Cleveland, Ohio, an electric bassist plays groovy, bluesy riffs to a chant called “Shiva Shambo” while a singer named Girish suggests that you “get up and shake your Buddha.” In Los Angeles, a dreadlocked dude named Joey Lugassy leads a Sanskrit chant to the Hindu deity Ganesha, then throws a pop-music curveball, weaving in a verse from the Beatles classic “Dear Prudence”. Under a hot-pink spotlight in the desert of Joshua Tree, California, during the Bhakti Fest kirtan extravaganza, Donna De Lory (who spent 20 years as a backup singer for Madonna) joyfully serenades the audience with mantra music and breaks into a sultry rap featuring Hindu names of the Divine Mother. A far cry from the dhoti-clad Indian temple singers who chant the names of God at ashrams and religious festivals, American-style kirtan wallahs (leaders) are reenvisioning—and perhaps reinvigorating—an ancient spiritual practice with the rhythms and grooves that were born on American soil. And although purists might argue otherwise, kirtan’s new generation of musicians believes that these genre-bending chants are still connecting our hearts to God—and spreading a compelling form of positive, spiritual music around the country and, increasingly, the world.
A Brief History
Although it’s difficult to trace the history of an oral tradition like kirtan, some scholars believe it emerged as a popular spiritual practice during the bhakti (devotion) movement that began in the 7th and 8th centuries and spread like wildfire between the 12th and 17th centuries. “Much of the kirtan explosion in America is inspired by what happened during that later time, and many of the songs we sing are inspired by music composed in that era,” says Russill Paul, a kirtan wallah in Austin, Texas, and the author of The Yoga of Sound.
“Through kirtan and other devotional practices, the bhakti teachers were echoing the fundamental premise of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, that spiritual realization does not require an external mediator. God is inside you. They used kirtan as a way to get in touch with God’s presence and showed everyday people that they could have the same levels of Self-realization and the same depths of mystical experience as a Brahmin performing sacred ritual or a yogi in deep meditation.” This approach was considered radical, he says: After thousands of years, the spiritual power of chanting was no longer guarded by a small elite; anyone could experience a love affair with God.
In The Shambhala Guide to Yoga, scholar Georg Feuerstein writes, “The path of bhakti yoga is constant remembrance of the Divine.” It is “the way of the heart,” intended to channel and purify emotions through singing, dancing, meditation, and other activities that can help us merge with the Beloved. Kirtan is one of bhakti yoga’s nine limbs.
Chris “Hareesh” Wallis, a scholar of Indian religions, says that most of the “lyrics” sung in medieval kirtan were names for God—sacred mantras that evoked devotion to a particular form of the Divine. Traditionally, the kirtan leader called out a series of divine names, and everyone responded by singing it back, again and again, over simple melodies and simple instrumentation. Some seekers chose to chant the names of a particular deity, he says, while others sang the names of different deities for different purposes—for example, Ganesha for auspicious beginnings or Hanuman for courage and devotion. It was said that the effects of chanting were multiplied when many hearts were calling out the same mantras at once.
Over the centuries, kirtan developed into many different forms, just like asana. Some branches of kirtan emphasized introspection; their slow, sweet melodies drew the singers into a state of meditative stillness, says Wallis. Other styles were celebratory, and participants would often hold hands and dance. So while purists may cringe to think about Westerners leaving their own bold imprint on kirtan today, “kirtan is a tradition that constantly reinvents itself,” says Wallis. We are simply witnessing another stage in the evolution of a sacred practice.
Kirtan began gaining popularity in the West in the late ’90s, when artists such as Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Wah!, and Dave Stringer—Americans who had discovered yoga and Indian chanting—began bringing kirtan to US yoga studios. They sang mantras and chanted the many names of God with small groups, just as Indian temple musicians have done for centuries, in the traditional call-and-response format. These American kirtan wallahs taught their fans about the musical branch of bhakti yoga through direct experience. Over time, the crowds grew, the music evolved, and the musicians multiplied.
Today, many American kirtans tend to look and feel more like pop concerts than spiritual gatherings. And the chants have evolved to include undercurrents of soul, rap, hip-hop, electronica, rock ‘n’ roll, and country. The distinctly American influence on traditional kirtan seems to be attracting crowds of people who wouldn’t typically find themselves hooked on yoga’s sacred chants. Do they understand the meaning behind it? Maybe, maybe not. But regardless, musicians like Jai Uttal, who was nominated for a Grammy in 2004 for his kirtan album Mondo Rama, believe that people can still experience kirtan’s benefits just by chanting mantra together as a community.
“It gives people a joyful, easy way to break down the walls around their hearts,” says Uttal, whose album, Queen of Hearts, showcases a blend he calls reggae kirtan. “All you have to do is create a beautiful melody and a really rockin’ rhythm section, and people start singing and dancing. Then the mantras, they get in there and do their own work and allow our hearts to be opened to the spirit that is always around us and inside us.”
In fact, many of the kirtan artists we interviewed for this story expressed a belief that there is something beyond the fancy staging and the funky grooves that keeps people coming back for more, even if they can’t quite articulate what it is. “People are unconsciously tapping into the vibration of the mantras,” says recording artist Reema Datta, a classically trained Indian American singer and yoga teacher who has released two mantra music CDs. “Once they get a direct experience of oneness from kirtan, they’re like, ‘Give me more of that!’”
Perhaps the positive effect comes from the vibration, or from the content of the chants themselves. As Ishwari, the lead singer of SRI Kirtan, observes, “A lot of secular music is negative: It’s about sadness, heartache, and loss.” Kirtan, on the other hand, has a positive vibration. De Lory agrees: “People don’t realize that pop music is full of mantras, but the mantras are things like ‘I want to party all night’ and ‘I want to rock your body.” Imagine if we were all walking around singing, ‘I am divine love.’”
Mantra’s Melting Pot
Kirtan festivals and week-long workshops are also helping pop-influenced kirtan gain traction. In 2010, Bhakti Fest—kirtan festival held in Joshua Tree, California—drew 3,500 people, and as many as 5,000 people are expected to show up this September. De Lory calls Bhakti Fest “the Woodstock of this generation, except this time it’s without the drugs.” Vendors peddle ruffled skirts, bell-bottom stretch pants, feather earrings, and vegetarian eats, while festival-goers chant together, lounging on blankets or beach chairs until the music compels them to jump to their feet and dance to the beat. Sometimes, the crowd morphs into a rave, and the psychedelic main stage, with its neon tapestries of Hindu deities, further enhances the groovy, pop-culture vibe.
Krishna Das says these large-scale festivals have their pros and cons. “There’s one section of people who will just be there for the mating and the dating and, let’s face it, the party. But there’s also a group of people who are coming for the bhakti, the real devotional offering, and the entrance into a sacred space. As time goes on, there will be a shift, and more people will feel a deeper thing going on and move toward that.” New World Kirtan podcast host Kitzie Stern, who has attended two Bhakti Fests, says she enjoys gathering with a “tribe” of like-minded people to “sing, talk, laugh with each other, and be filled up with love.” And attending a weekend kirtan festival is markedly different from attending a two-hour kirtan in a theater, she points out. “It’s hard to explain, but something really positive is happening in the collective consciousness,” when thousands of people chant mantras together for an extended period of time. “There is a really strong presence of spirit.”
Festivals like Bhakti Fest and Ecstatic Chant at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, have the added benefit of bringing together diverse musicians who are rarely in the same city at the same time, says Dave Stringer, an internationally touring singer. Because they get a chance to sit in on each other’s sessions and collaborate, “it’s already starting to shift some of the sounds,” he says.
In the meantime, workshops and trainings are nurturing a new generation of kirtan artists. Chant lovers can attend a kirtan-centric bhakti yoga retreat with Krishna Das or Sikh sensation Snatam Kaur. Other well-known wallahs lead weeklong kirtan “camp,” “colleges,” and other immersions where students learn how to play the harmonium, cymbals, or hand drums; pronounce mantras properly; write their own chants; and guide a group of people through a transformative musical experience. The alumni of kirtan immersions—which take place stateside and in locations like the Bahamas—include more than a dozen emerging chant artists. Partly because of these trainings, there are kirtan bands starting all over the country—”not just in the Northeast or on the West Coast but in Mobile, Alabama; Reno, Nevada; and Green Bay, Wisconsin,” says Stringer.
Of course, the eclectic, diverse, and constantly evolving styles of American kirtan are not without controversy. Leinbach says he occasionally runs into traditional kirtan practitioners who think Western innovators are trivializing the tradition or lessening its spiritual impact. “But I think there’s a huge amount of positive, heart-opening, unifying music happening,” he says. Many American trailblazers agree.
“Sometimes tradition gets frozen and rigid. It loses its flexibility,” says Sean Johnson, whose Wild Lotus Band became the first kirtan group to perform at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 2010. “Then a wave of pioneers comes along and shakes it up, and something new is created.” Not everything that emerges will stand the test of time or even qualify as kirtan, he says, but he believes that yoga’s sacred chants will benefit from Western innovation in the long run. “A lot of musicians are passionate about being bridge builders for kirtan by sharing the power of mantras through genres that speak naturally to Western ears.”
What’s the next step in America’s kirtan revolution? Russill Paul says, “People who are singing kirtan should spend time improving their pronunciation of the mantras. Some people say it doesn’t matter, but Indian mantra tradition is about the refinement of sacred sound. Americans have spent so much time straightening their spines and refining their practice of asana that many of them are on par with Indian hatha yogis. Now it’s time to straighten the spine of our mantras.”
“Chanting is a powerful spiritual practice,” says Krishna Das. “It can look like rock ‘n’ roll and sound like rock ‘n’ roll, but it isn’t.” If you practice kirtan regularly, with sincerity and open-heartedness, he says, “every repetition of these mantras will have an effect and will bring real fruits to your heart, sooner or later.”