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Monday, March 12, 2007

a kirtan primer

while skimming through my latest batch of downloaded podcasts, i came across a gem from NPR's weekend edition saturday. in the march 3rd edition, lynn neary interviews sacred music composer jai uttal about the indian meditative chanting practice called kirtan.

you can listen to that interview by clicking here:
Grammy-Nominated Artist Makes Music for Yoga

if you've never experienced kirtan before, you owe it to yourself to listen in. and who knows? i might even see you at the next chantfest at one of the local yoga studios :)

if you're unable to get to that link right now, here are a few excerpts from neary and uttal's Q&A session:

Neary: This is Jai Uttal, famous as a leader of kirtan, an ancient form of meditative chanting. He is also a Grammy-nominated artist and leading musician in the world music genre. Jai performs at yoga studios, spiritual retreats, and workshops. He also performs in concerts around the world. Welcome, Jai!

Uttal: Thank you, Lynn.

Neary: You are a native New Yorker; you grew up in New York City. How did you discover Indian music?

Uttal: As a young teenager, just from going through the record bins in Folkways Records down in the West Village, searching through all the world music albums I could find, and coming across these amazing records by Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, and the Bauls of Bengal street musicians of India.

Neary: What made you eventually decide to focus on spiritual music? Did you have a spiritual awakening that grew out of the music? or vice-versa?

Uttal: You know, John Coltrane is spiritual music. Roscoe Holcum from Kentucky is spiritual music. Indian devotional music is spiritual music as well. But any music that's really coming from the soul or from the heart connects us with the spirit.

Neary: First of all, tell us something about the origins of kirtan.

Uttal: It comes from the very, very old systems of yoga in India. We in the west very often misunderstand yoga to be a set of physical exercises. But yoga is a way to attune the entire system -- body, mind, spirit, emotions -- to the divine. And kirtan is a way of channeling the feelings in the heart that which are usually very unchannelable and using them as fuel to become close to God, close to the spirit.

Nataraj Nataraja Jai Shiva Shankara Nataraja
Nataraj Nataraja Jai Shiva Shankara Nataraja

Neary: Maybe you can explain what goes on in this chanting.

Uttal: Kirtan -- it's a musical form, but it's also a meditative practice. At the most basic level, what we do is sit and sing mantras, ancient sanskrit prayers, and sing them over and over and over again to a variety of different melodies. It can be very tranquil, it can be very sedate, but it can also be super-rocking and passionate and wild. But the mantras are repeated over and over and over again and something about that repetition just quiets the mind.
Kirtan is cool because you can sing love, you can sing anger, you can sing yearning, you can sing frustration, you can sing sensuality, you can sing everything and put it all into the same song.

Neary: When you lead a group of people in kirtan, is there a change in the room afterwards?

Uttal: It seems very different. It seems transformed. People walk into that room -- and when I say "people" I say myself also -- filled with all the thoughts and all the anxieties of the day of their life, of our life, and after a couple of hours of singing, makes everyone very open, very grounded, and at the same time, kind of euphoric.

Neary: How hard is it to learn how to do kirtan?

Uttal: It doesn't have to be fancy, it doesn't have to be super musical. It just has to be truthful.

(at this point, lynn neary asks jai uttal to lead her through a chant. he has her chant "ram", and she giggles self-consciously as she follows his lead.)

Gopala Gopala Devakinandana Gopala
Gopala Gopala Devakinandana Gopala

Neary: Does music help you practice yoga? Have you actually tried practicing yoga to the music that you've composed and does it help?

Uttal: It helps me. You know, some people like to do yoga in silence so they can really focus on their body and on what's going on. Myself, I can't stand focusing on my body when I do yoga because I started when i was 49 years old and it's too painful! So listening to nice music while I'm practicing yoga really helps me get into it.

Bolo Radha Ramana Hari Bol
Bolo Radha Ramana Hari Bol

Uttal: I have a teacher named Ali Akbar Khan, who is 85 years old and is considered perhaps the greatest living musician of India. And many people consider him one of the greatest living musicians in the world. One day I was talking to him and I said, "What does it feel like to play a concert and you are THE master?" He looked at me, took a deep drag from his cigarette, and took a sip from his scotch and said: "Music is like an ocean. The deeper I swim into it, the further away the other shore gets." He said it's very rare for him at a concert to have all the systems aligned -- his body, his heart, his soul, the sound system, the audience. He said, "When that comes together, I'm not there anymore; it's pure ecstasy."

Neary: Is that what you're going for? The pure ecstasy you're going to find on that other shore?

Uttal: (laughs) Yes!

Neary: It was great talking with you. Thanks for joining us.

Uttal: Thank you, Lynn.

Om Nama Shivaya Om Nama Shivaya
Om Nama Shivaya Om Nama Shivaya

jai uttal and the pagan love orchestra's mondo rama was nominated for a grammy award for best new age album in 2003.