I’ve been listening to Krishna Das on and off for five years as part of my wife’s collection of music she uses in her yoga practice. Going to a live kirtan is a totally different experience from listening to a CD. Well, duh! However, the offset is even more than is obvious to a casual reader here who might have experienced something like this with their favorite musician on CD vs. live. Kirtan is a participatory activity and when you get in a room with hundreds of people being led in call-response chants by a charismatic leader, it can be an incredible experience.
For those of you new to this entire genre, kirtans like these consist of a leader calling and the audience responding in unison with a musical background to hang it all on. The words one chants have meaning (usually the names of Hindu gods), but even if one drops the meaning, the psycho-physical effects of chanting are quite real. Getting your head vibrating with a bunch of other people in a room is way cool, and yes, it has a spiritual dimension if you’re open to that. But it’s great even if you’re not.
Both the kirtan Krishna Das (KD) led here in Connecticut over the summer and the one we just attended in Northampton reminded me of the presentations I used to do on my personal history growing up with a learning disability, finding technology, and making a life for myself with my new-found self-confidence and new tools. KD was lost, went to India (along with Ram Das, Richard Alpert), started to find himself and came back here on a mission to spread the word on finding one’s self through the practice of kirtan. Just as my story was never offered as a formula for others to copy, KD tells his story to give context to why he does what he does, not as a formula for others to follow. He is so humble, honest, and self-deprecatingly funny in his story-telling that even if you find the whole “Hare Krishna” angle a bit too new age, he pulls you in with the “nice Jewish boy finds self in India” angle. Krishna Das is the real deal, and he’s an expert at sharing it. He’s also a fine musician and arranger and his music, while seemingly just a vehicle for chanting, is uplifting and contagious.
Frankly, I was quite skeptical about kirtan a year ago, and I could easily see going to one of these events and feeling judgmental of folks who seem to be able to turn on an ecstatic reaction at the drop of a hat. However, as one stops judging them and starts thinking only about one’s own experience, it’s a lot easier to get drawn in. This is powerful stuff if you’re open to it, and even if you just approach it as sociological field work or are just curious, the music and chanting is contagious.
On the other hand, I feel like a bit of an outsider, akin to Jody Foster in the movie Contact where, at the end, she, the scientist doesn’t have the emotional or linguistic tools to talk about the experience she had. Well, I’m just a “regular guy” who went to a few of these things, was open to them, and got sucked in. No, you won’t find me at JFK with an orange robe, a cup, and a shaved head with a knot of hair on top singing Hare Krishna and trying to convert you, but you might find me listening to a Krishna Das CD in the car and blissfully chanting the responses to KD’s calls.
When we first saw Krishna Das in Washington, Connecticut it seemed that about half the audience knew what they were getting into and the chanting was quite good (the more the better). In Northampton, a much higher percentage of people knew what they were getting into and were familiar with KD’s music. They were younger and less inhibited (college town) so the chanting was much better, and the better it got the more stoked KD and the other musicians got. I’d go see KD anywhere but if I had a choice, I’d rather see him in a context where more folks participate.
Left to right: cymbals – Nina Rao, bass guitar – Adam Bauer, tabla – Arjun Alan Bruggeman, harmonium – Krishna Das, violin – Genevieve Walker
You can get a taste of his kirtan by listening at his web site. The Greatest Hits of the Kali Yuga (CD/DVD set) has both an excellent CD and a biographical DVD on Krishna Das. We have all of his CDs; my current favorite is Pilgrim Heart.
For a bit more, see Krishna Das at Wikipedia.