Om on the roam: sacred music in a contemporary world

  • Author: Jahnavi Harrison

"Sacred music is no longer confined to temples or limited to the fringe groups of Hare Krishna devotees marching down busy metropolitan streets with their cymbals and drums. Kirtan - devotional chanting - has gone mainstream, fusing with gospel and bluegrass to create new sounds and textures for today’s generation, everywhere from clubs to yoga centres."

-(Jahnavi Harrison - a practitioner of kirtan, while on tour in the USA with As Kindred Spirits)

Susheela Raman (pictured above) commands the stage, throwing her curly hair back and raising the edges of her velvet cape as the full band thunders away behind her. This could be any other concert on a Saturday night at the Southbank Centre in London. Only one thing is a little unusual. The mixed crowd - everyone from young hipsters to older Indian couples are singing along with an ancient Tamil prayer: ‘Vel, vel, vel, vel, Muruga! This is the title track from Raman’s new album, an instant hit with critics. Like her past output, it fuses the ancient and sacred with contemporary songs about love and life.

Across the pond in the United States, a similar thing is happening. In a packed LA club, a huge crowd jump wildly as a band of young musicians dressed in colourful dhotis deftly beat out infectious rhythms on clay khol drums, and sing ‘Sri Krishna Govinda!’ ‘GOVINDA!’ the crowd scream back, as a DJ begins to mix in a funk-heavy beat.

These are the Mayapuris and Gaura Vani, who along with Nitin Sawhney, DJ Cheb i Sabbah, Trevor Hall, Michael Franti, Jai Uttal, Matisyahu and MC Yogi form a wave of contemporary musicians who are reframing the sacred music and messages of India for the Starbucks generation. Most of them may not characterise their music as spiritual - a whiff of preachiness can be enough to turn fans away in droves, but the spiritual thread in their work is undeniable.

Om on the roam

The trickle of sacred Indian music into the modern Western consciousness is nothing new. In the early ‘70s the Beatles were already spending time with gurus Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, soon sparking an interest in ragas and Sanskrit prayers - something that can be heard here on ‘Within You, Without You’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’.

Likewise, the rest of the world became more and more fascinated with the lifestyle and philosophy of yoga. It’s often said that what America does, the whole world follows, and this holds true in the case of what is known today as ‘yoga music’. With the rise in popularity of physical yoga practice, the yoga of sacred chant - kirtan, has followed closely behind.

In the early ‘90s several Western kirtan singers began leading evenings of sacred chant - often in New York City. These three are now arguably the most famous in this genre in the Western world - Krishna Das, Shyam Das and Jai Uttal. Each have a different musical flavour, but attract equal numbers of people to their call and response chanting events.

Jai Uttal’s music is probably the most musically fascinating - fusing Sanskrit chants with funk, bluegrass and reggae, laced all the way through with the Indian music Uttal studied with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. These days, more and more musicians find deeper spiritual meaning in creating their music through the kirtan filter. MC Yogi is an LA rapper who found yoga and now raps about Krishna and Ganesh instead of champagne and parties.

In California, a Glastonbury-style festival called Bhakti Fest now takes place twice a year, attracting thousands of kirtan fans. Kirtans are happening on any given night on both American coasts - in yoga studios, mainstream music venues, and even bars!

Mantra Revolution

As Kindred Spirits and the Mayapuris are two bands signed to the Mantralogy label, a new division of the well-established American punk rock label Equal Vision. Since the founding of the project four years ago, the label’s bands have been touring the world, taking their fresh, unique brand of mantra music to clubs, yoga studios and music festivals all over the world.

Gaura Vani, co-founder of Mantralogy and the lead vocalist in As Kindred Spirits, set up the label to promote spiritual culture and ‘transform the ecology of people’s hearts.’ After growing up in Hare Krishna temples and attending gurukula in the holy town of Vrindavan, India, he came back to America as a teenager, ending up as a Hollywood actor.

When the inner emptiness became too hard to ignore, Gaura switched gears and became a monk at a Hare Krishna ashram. Eventually he found himself working in a government cubicle, producing films for the United States Customs and Border Patrol. In his spare time, he immersed himself in the practice of kirtan, recording two best-selling albums in his home studio. He simultaneously formed As Kindred Spirits, made up of other young musicians, artists and dancers that had a similar love for mantra music.

On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, the Mantralogy team organised an event called Chant 4 Change. Held at Washington Memorial Cathedral, within sight of Capitol Hill, it featured some of the most well-known names in the Western kirtan world, like Jai Uttal, Dave Stringer and world famous yoga teacher, Shiva Rea.

Third Culture Kids

Outside the yoga world, which for many is totally unknown, most artists being influenced by sacred Indian music are ‘third culture kids’. Nitin Sawhney and Susheela Raman were born to Indian parents in the West, exploring their kitchari of musical influences and philosophies. Raman’s music has over the years been informed by the Baul vocals and instruments of Paban Das Baul, Tamil devotional poetry, and Hindi Meera bhajans, all the while gaining critical acclaim and loyal following. Nitin Sawhney boasts a reputation as one of the most sought-after composers and musicians in the world, with varied projects which usually find critical and mainstream success.

There are also artists outside the Indian music tradition who are bringing these influences into their music for deep reasons. Trevor Hall plays a unique mix of reggae and acoustic rock. Through visits to India and spending time in yoga ashrams, he began to integrate the philosophy and musical sound in his songs.

When asked how this is relevant to an average young American, he said ‘I feel youth are hungry - they are spiritually hungry. Not a lot of us know where to go to get that food. It’s nice that I’m able to maybe introduce them or inspire them. I’m not a preacher; I can’t teach them. When I was young, I heard Bob Marley singing about spirituality. George Harrison - look at what he did. He sang one song and it just spread like wildfire.’

In New York city, regular workaday bankers, teachers, artists - you name it - have been joining in with a project called the Mantralogy Street Team, which brings kirtan out into the streets. Just like 500 years ago in Shri Chaitanya’s time, participants feel that sharing sacred music in this way brings it alive, and creates a visible, audible revolution.

Bhajans at Breakfast

I almost fell off my seat in Starbucks the other day, when I suddenly heard Vaishnava Janatho, a bhajan sung by Lata Mangeshkar, playing through the sound system. It turned to be just one track on a Starbucks compilation album World Is India, alongside Panjabi MC, Tabla Beat Science and Pandit Ravi Shankar. In some ways this is as Indian as it gets. There, spirituality is hard to extricate from everyday life and everyday music and as the rest of the world gets into everything from Bollywood workouts to AR Rahman - sacred music seems to follow.

And this is perhaps how it should be - from the street, to the temple, to the stage - sacred music has many homes, but its enduring quality lies in its eternal relevance. As we continue to question who we are, how we fit into this world, music, like every other medium of artistic expression, addresses these essential questions, allowing us to make a space for the sacred amidst everything else.

Jahnavi Harrison is a multi-disciplinary artist, specialising in vocal music, Kirtan meditation, and Indian devotional dance.

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