Singing to God: The Resurgence of Kirtan

Chanting, kirtan, devotional music — by whatever name you call it, the lure of ancient call-and-response singing in the name of God is on the rise.

“Chanting wakes up our hearts,” says kirtan singer Luna Ray, who opened the On the Wings of Ecstasy devotional singing festival at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat in January. We’re waking up all over, if the size of audiences at kirtan events are any indication, from hundreds at the ashram’s festival to Bhakti Fest in California, where 3,000 participants spend four days immersed in yoga and kirtan.

“Swami Sivananda put a lot of emphasis and importance on kirtan as a spiritual practice,” says Rukmini, teacher and senior staff member at the ashram. “Here at the ashram, we start each satsang with silent meditation and continue with singing. It’s another form of meditation.”

Indeed, the practice of kirtan allows our emotions to be transformed into devotion, Rukmini says. Furthermore, “It is open to all and it doesn’t require any qualifications. You don’t need to have a strong physical body like in hatha, or a very focused mind, like Raja Yoga.”

Those who practice kirtan have an opportunity to lose themselves in the love of God, and still can live in the world, she says. But even as all the festivals attract more and more participants, chanting isn’t just some form of entertainment, she points out. “We forget that it’s a very important spiritual practice.”

For Luna Ray, considered one of kirtan's rising stars, devotional singing was the route that opened her voice and gave her life meaning. “Chanting is for everyone and as a spiritual practice it was an awakening, it called to me,” she says. “I have a devotional spirit; I chant every day.”

Because there are more yogis — it’s estimated more than 18 million people now practice in the United States — there’s more exposure to mantra music, she says. “Mantras can create an energetic effect. When people sing, the more we respond. We can shine and be authentic.”

The glowing and growing reception in the West to kirtan might be due in part to the devotion of a handful of pioneers, among them Krishna Das, who grew up on Long Island, went to India in the 1970s and became a disciple of Indian sage Neem Karoli Baba. His mellow voice and love of the music has been instrumental in the rising surge of kirtan.

“It has left the churches and the yoga studios because it’s such a simple practice,” he told the New York Times in 2009. “It’s not about belief in any religions, so people are coming from all walks of life.” His annual Yoga of Chant Retreat at the ashram brings followers from around the world, who connect with his easy manner and soulful musical style.

Chanting appears in a variety of cultural forms, many of them on display at the ashram’s music festivals and concerts. Snatam Kaur is one of the leading and most inspirational singers of the Sikh tradition, who regularly performs at the ashram. A favorite of television personality Oprah Winfrey, her crystal voice is so compelling that Kaur's albums have charted on New Age Retailer’s Top 20 lists every year since 2004.

At the ashram’s On the Wings of Ecstasy festival this January, Sikh kirtan teacher Satkirin Kaur Khalsa performed the sacred songs of the Shabd Guru. With 18 kirtan CDs to her credit, the devotional singer is also founder of the Naad Academy of Gurbani Kirtan, offering classes and workshops in the music, singing, pronunciation, rhythm, and ragas of Gurbani kirtan. The steady practice of singing Gurbani kirtan can heal and awaken the highest source of truth and love within every human being, she says.

From another tradition, Rabbi Andrew Hahn, a scholar of Jewish philosophy, has gathered a following charmed by music he makes under his stage name, Kirtan Rabbi. Influenced by the music of Krishna Das, he speaks of the vibrational qualities connecting Sanskrit and Hebrew. “They’re meant to be sung,” he tells the audience at the ashram's festival. His kirtan is infused with Hebrew words and Jewish thought.

Fusing ancient and modern, Davod Azad has brought Persian music to kirtan and international music stages around the world, as well as the ashram’s festival. The Iranian master musician is a vocalist and composer, and an accomplished instrumentalist. Audiences are mesmerized by the unusual rhythmic structure of the songs and the unique instruments, among them an oud, a pear-shaped, string instrument with a large, round soundbox, that spawned the guitar after it was taken to Andulalsia by Iranian musicians around 700 AD. He also plays a hypnotic circular drum, the daf, known for its symbolism and sacred character, a unity of mineral (metal rings), plant (wood frame), and animal (skin) elements.

“These are very spiritual instruments, saved by Sufis for mantras only,” he says. “Then about 40 years ago, they began to be used on stage and now there’s a revival.“ His mastery of the music included study of the ancient singing and playing styles. “I copied many great masters and then I found my own fingerprint,” he says, including a unique style of wordless singing based on the tahrir form, meant to resemble birdsong.

Invited to many international music events, Azad brings his music around the world because “ancient Sufis believed music is our language and the spiritual music, the selfless music reminds us of that period of our being,” he says. "For me, music is not the target. Music and myself are a tool. The message is love and peace and compassion.”

Gospel has its place, too, in this array of devotional call-and-response music. Canadian musician Ken Whiteley was drawn to this type of music since childhood, highlighted by a Staples Singers concert when he was 13 and the start of his meditation practice at age 23. “Ever since then I’ve meditated on a daily basis,” says Whiteley, who received his yoga teacher training certificate from the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat at age 60. “Singing gospel is a vehicle to facilitate spiritual participation; there’s an opening of the heart when we sing together.”

Music has the ability to communicate in ways words alone don’t often have, he believes. His gospel concert, a raucous event that closed the festival, was ample evidence of that. Pounding out the tune on his vintage metal resophonic guitar, the audience was on its feet, responding to each refrain, echoing his conviction that “people are looking for something more meaningful.

The ashram's music festival shows that the practice of devotional singing is universal, Rukmini says. “Swami Vishnu says that man is an erotic creature. He loves to love and to be loved and music is one form that allows us to express this emotion. People love all types of music, and being involved in a spiritual practice allows you to channel that love into divine music, singing to God. We can see this with so many millions practicing yoga today and now there’s this huge movement of singing mantras, of kirtan. This is very good news.”

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