"Om namah shivaya" as a pop hit? "Bolo ram" as a trendy ringtone? Well, things haven't gone that far, but mantra music is certainly bursting out of yoga studios, intersecting with cutting-edge music genres like world electronica, pop, and hip-hop—and hitting the dance floor.
Devotional mantras have been part of the yoga tradition for thousands of years, but Western mantra music, chanted today by such veterans as Jai Uttal and Wah! as well as by new artists like Lokah and MC Yogi, is expanding its horizons like never before. And, as these beat-savvy artists mix timeless Sanskrit mantras with inspiring English-language lyrics, the music is reaching beyond the kirtan (call-and-response chanting) scene and entering into the ears of all kinds of yogis and hipsters on the lookout for the next big thing.
"I feel we're on the precipice of a new movement of conscious sound and conscious music," says Nicholas Giacomini, the yoga instructor and devotional hip-hop artist known as MC Yogi. He's a prime example of the new movement. On his deliciously funky rap album, he mixes rap rhymes that recount the myths of Hindu deities like Ganesh and Hanuman with chants sampled from the recordings of kirtan greats such as Krishna Das. Performing live, MC Yogi gets a crowd pulsing their fists skyward to the beat and singing refrains like "Ganesh is fresh." When he says, "We're going to sweep the nation with this conscious music," it's not hard to believe him.
It all started a couple of decades ago, as the yoga tradition took hold in America and Europe. Western yogis began to experiment with chanting mantras in ways that reflected the popular music styles they grew up loving. Yogi artists like Krishna Das and Jai Uttal began holding kirtans at a handful of spiritual centers and yoga studios like Jivamukti in New York City. The sound was steeped in traditional Indian music, with prominent harmonium and tablas, but underneath, listeners could catch cadences, harmonies, and melodies derived from rock 'n' roll, mid-'60s girl groups, Motown, and reggae.
By the early 2000s, mantra singers such as Snatam Kaur and Deva Premal began to substitute soft New Age synthesizers for the Indian harmonium. The sound was less traditional, but the underlying mood of meditative devotion was palpable. It wasn't long before yoga teachers began playing this music in class, becoming the main channel through which this eclectic genre was heard.
Since then, mantra music has become an ever-expanding style, as at home on dance floors as in yoga studios. Jai Uttal, who has been a pioneer of the mantra-fusion movement and has experimented with all manner of styles in which to express his devotion to God, went so far as to release an album of club remixes of his earlier recordings. On his latest album, Thunder Love, Uttal has brought an entirely new flavor into the mix. Brazilian music, rather than Indian, becomes the"folk" music in the album's bold new synthesis, and Uttal skillfully blends this fresh strain of indigenous rhythm with production techniques and digital sound treatments that wouldn't be out of place on a Radiohead album. (He even goes out on a limb, multitracking his son's toy instruments and digitally manipulating his dotar, a Bengali stringed instrument.)
Even yoga teacher and performer Wah!, who is perhaps best known for her soulful rendition of the Gayatri mantra and other meditative music, is experimenting with electronic club rhythms. "A while ago I was listening to a lot of Asian underground artists like the Bombay Dub Orchestra, DJ Pathaan, and Talvin Singh. And I just felt, 'Oh, if only they had some real mantras in there,'" says Wah! So, she took matters into her own music, and the downtempo influence is notable on her latest release, Love Holding Love.
"My approach is exploring spiritual music through a lot of different styles," she says. "I used to play yoga studios with a percussionist playing small hand drums, but as I got onto bigger stages and into festivals, a hand drum just didn't cut it. To really fill up a big stage, I needed a full drum kit. And that brought other rhythms—hip-hop beats and disco. There's a feeling of celebration that's creating this new style of music. As the energy—the shakti—builds, you want to just bust out."
Hitting the Dance Floor
Another of Wah!'s key influences is producer and DJ Cheb i Sabbah, known for fusing traditional Indian music and spirituality with electronica on albums such as Devotion. In his music, contemporary synthesizers and bass guitars merge seamlessly with traditional performances by some of India's finest players and singers. "Making a good marriage of Indian classical music and electronics is what really brings it into today," says Sabbah.
The result is great mantra music that's as popular on the yoga circuit as it is in the club scene. "To me, you can't really separate the sacred and the profane. They're two sides of the same coin. And both Hindustani, or North Indian, classical music and Carnatic, or South Indian, music have always included devotional music. So who's to say what's spiritual and what's not spiritual?"
Uma Nanda Saraswati and Sri Michael Shlofmitz of the mantra duo Lokah play with the same question. They, too, have used electronica7mdash;along with digitized vocals—to get people moving to mantra. But they've also incorporated a heavy pop influence, with artists like Russell Simmons and Sting making guest appearances on their CD The Ivy Ceiling.
"I wanted to take my love of mantra and fuse that with music that is really hip, cool, and happening so that kids can groove," says Shlofmitz. "It's really appropriate in the modern era to bring ancient wisdom together with modern sounds."
But if you strip away all the futuristic grooves and textures from recent recordings by any of these mantra artists, you're left with the pure devotional essence of that person's voice. "If people feel the leader has a true spiritual connection, it doesn't matter what the musical flavor is," says Wah!, adding that you can feel the years of meditation in the voices of some kirtan leaders. When you've got that authenticity underpinning everything, there's no limit to where modern mantra music can go. And, once you hear it—or even better, move to it—it's hard not to be thrilled by this mantra-fusion scene. That must be why these artists are growing ever more popular, and traditionalists seem to forego negative comments. "The response," as MC Yogi describes it, "is just so overwhelmingly positive and loving."