The following are tips and comments from Kirtan leaders I’ve shared space with, across the country, over the years.
“I’ll give you that love. That love is available to anyone,” said Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. I jotted that verse down during Gaura Vani’s kirtan at the last Texas Yoga Conference. In his storytelling style, he referenced Krishna’s words as the simplicity behind the opening of the heart.
That was my first kirtan (devotional chanting) with Gaura Vani. His voice, his words, and his rhythms, all moved me. They helped me to release the bindings that encase my own heart every now and then.
As C.C. White sings, “Kirtan Feels Good.” It also sounds good. I’m no opera singer. Never tried out for the school choir. Yet, when I practice kirtan, sometimes I hear my voice as I’ve never heard it before. I attribute any new and improved qualities to being in the zone, with my heart leading, rather than my head.
Betty and Bill are engineers from Ontario, Canada. When the workday is over, they become Shantimaya. They take traditional mantras and combine them with original music and melodies on harmonium and classical guitar. Many of their verses stem from the ancient Rig Veda and Upanishad scriptures, which Betty says, “contain messages of peace and love that are every bit as vivid and moving today as they ever were.”
Betty and Bill attended a weeklong kirtan training session with David Newman and later, Sean Johnson’s BhaktImmersion. “Spending time with these teachers, and with all the beautiful spirits who attended the sessions with us, is in itself the greatest inspiration of all.”
Betty believes inspiration is far more important than mastering the musical scales. “Music is intrinsic to the human experience and plays a role in every single human culture that has ever existed. The idea that music is an elite skill that only a privileged few should engage in is contrary to our nature. Kirtan is jamming for the spirit. We are all training together.”
Mike Cohen was a professional saxophonist in his teens and 20s. Then, he crossed over from the “performance” side to the heart-driven bhakti (devotion) of kirtan.
“Although I was a professional musician, during that time — and growing up — I had experiences of being judged, compared, and even shamed around my singing or musical ability,” says Cohen. “Partly this was a result of the time I spent at the Eastman School of Music, with incredibly talented musicians and singers. Like many, my inherent shyness, family history, and experiences with other musicians led me to feel I was just not cut out to sing. When I discovered kirtan in 2000 I began to drop this interpretation and was able to heal from a number of difficult experiences around voice and expression.”
Cohen, for whom public speaking caused panic attacks, now leads kirtan for large audiences across the country. Through his Kirtan Leadership Institute, he helps others to let go, access love, and build community. Several of his students are stepping into recording projects and three joined Cohen on stage at Bhakti Fest Midwest. Two long-term students recently released full-length CDs of original chants.
“Kirtan taught me to relax the notions of performance and the role of performer,” Cohen shares. “As a professional saxophonist, I was expected to show up as a ‘performer.’ Others showed up as the ‘audience.’ In kirtan, there is no audience – everyone participates. Everyone is in the band. Everyone shares their voice, and contributes to what is co-created.”
Advaita Acharya leads harinams (public chanting) in San Antonio. He reminds me of the Pied Piper. He is charismatic and has a knack for engaging people who’ve never experienced kirtan before. He brings the holy names to the masses at the River Walk, First Friday’s Art Walk, Luminaria arts night, and the Texas Folklife Festival. Advaita is just as captivating with his harmonium as he is with the mridanga (ceramic drum).
Advaita had no prior musical training before he joined ISKCON as a monk. “Very few of us monks had musical training prior to the ashram chapter of their life,” says Advaita. “Ashram life does that — pushes you into an infinite space of possibilities. After all, the desire to please others is probably the most undeveloped thing in this advanced, yet in many ways, crippled world.”
Leading kirtan from the heart is what it’s about. Not the diaphragm or a conductor’s score. “Kirtan in bhakti stems out of that desire to please Radha-Krishna, Sita-Rama….the divine, absolute truth,” Advaita adds.
Back in 2006 and 2007, Advaita lived at the Krishna bhakti center in New York City, along with Keshavacharya of Prema Hara. He acknowledges that the musical training of others may have rubbed off on him there. New York is also where he experienced his first ecstatic public kirtans.
Dave Stringer, who is offering his first Kirtan Flight School, once said, “Ecstasy is extremely contagious.”
Advaita passed that E virus on to me. I had been exposed to kirtan for about five years before his enthusiastic beats got me revved up enough to jump up and dance.
Keshavacharya, who will lead kirtan with his wife Kamaniya at Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree, Calif. echoes Advaita’s words about the source of kirtan. “We have to be pure to really sing from the heart. Pure in our thoughts, speech and actions — means a selfless, humble, and loving servant of God and everybody. Singing from the heart is the ultimate longing for Divine shelter and to become an instrument in God’s will.”
Advaita Acharya typically engages everyone in kirtan. He routinely will have each person lead one round of the Maha Mantra. As it’s getting closer to me, I oftentimes get a few pangs of concern. “Will I be off-tune? Will I hit the high notes?” In the meantime, my friend Mario (not his real name), apparently could care less. He screams and screeches out the names of the lord. This guy is the extreme opposite of Gaura Vani’s soothing and stirring elixir of a voice. But, after a while, I appreciate Mario’s wailing, as it is so filled with his devotion. He eclipses me completely.
In our society, we are so trained to color within the lines. Fit the mold. I attended a workshop with yogi/musician Suzanne Sterling a few years ago. She confessed that she was one of those kids that was mouthing the words, believing her voice wasn’t “good.” That’s the maya (illusion). No one has a “bad” voice.” But our society shames us and muzzles us. Today, Sterling has five albums and has created soundtracks for documentaries and yoga DVDs.
We need to push ego out of the way. Advaita says, “Ego is an expert trickster.” We just need to shut that door and open our hearts. “What’s on the altar of our hearts…like watering the root of the tree. … and this is the single way to please everybody / make them receptive to Kirtan. We can’t even attempt to please others unless there is bhakti or devotion.”
Sean Johnson and his Wild Lotus Band will lead daily workshops in Joshua Tree. He admits he struggled to find his own voice in his early days of kirtan and yoga.
“I wanted so badly to sound like my Indian teachers — to sound ‘authentic,’” confides Sean. “My epiphany came when I realized that the most authentic approach to sharing yoga is to honor its origins while simultaneously giving voice to the influences stirring in my own heart and soul.”
Sean’s student, Betty, says, “Anyone who leads kirtan has our love and respect. When participating in a kirtan, whether as a leader or a participant, ego melts away in an instant. The sense of connection and unity prevails. We have participated in many kirtans both from the stage and from amongst the participants. The feeling is similar, that of many souls gathered together and synchronizing their voices in a kind of spiritual harmony.”
Read more about Kirtan, Michael Cohen, Gaura Vani, Krishna Das, Sean Johnson, and Bhakti Fest.