If it feels good, chant it

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Michael Wade Simp­son For The New Mex­i­can

The voice is deep, res­o­nant, bari­tone — a man singing, “Pranawun Pawanaku­maar khala paawake gyaana ghana.” The au­di­ence is in­vited to re­peat, “Jaasu hridagya aa­gaar basahin Raama sara chaa­paa dhara.”

There is a sim­ple melody, the moan of a har­mo­nium, and some tablas of­fer­ing rhythm as the song, “Hanu­man Prayer,” gets go­ing. The man sings out the lyrics and peo­ple sing back — hun­dreds of them, thou­sands. This is kir­tan, the yoga of sound. The singer is Kr­ishna Das, the su­per­star of chant. He ap­pears at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Thurs­day, April 1.

Das, born Jef­frey Kagel and raised on Long Is­land, be­came Kr­ishna Das dur­ing a pil­grim­age to In­dia. Af­ter drop­ping out of col­lege and play­ing with the mu­si­cians who later be­came Blue Oys­ter Cult, Kagel was hang­ing out with a group of friends and LSD afi­ciona­dos who de­cided to go hear a talk by the Ti­mothy Leary pro­tégé Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass. The year was 1968. Ram Dass, who went on to be­come a well-known Amer­i­can spir­i­tual leader (the au­thor of Be Here Now), had re­cently un­der­gone a life trans­for­ma­tion in In­dia af­ter spending time with the guru Ma­haraj-ji. Drawn to the fas­ci­nat­ing ideas and sto­ries of this for­mer Har­vard pro­fes­sor and con­tro­ver­sial pro­po­nent of ev­ery­thing psy­che­delic, Kagel spent a year liv­ing and trav­el­ing with him in the U.S. be­fore head­ing to In­dia on his own.

Kagel also be­came a devo­tee of Ma­haraj-ji, a teacher of Bhakti yoga — the yoga of de­vo­tion — and lived near the guru from 1970 to 1973. One day, Ma­haraj-ji told Kagel — now go­ing by the name Kr­ishna Das — that is was time for Das to go home. Das had liq­ui­dated all his pos­ses­sions be­fore head­ing for In­dia, and he didn’t have a clue what he would do back in the States. Al­though the teach­ings were all about be­ing of ser­vice to oth­ers, Das con­fessed in his fi­nal in­ter­view with his guru that he was afraid to go.

Once back, he said, “I painted houses, be­came self-de­struc­tive, and got in a lot of trou­ble. Be­ing with the guru had been the only thing that had ever worked for me.” When he got word the guru had died, he said, “I crashed.”

Chant­ing, which had been part of the daily prac­tice in In­dia, “a way to get into the flow,” re­turned to Das’ life just as he was hit­ting bot­tom. “I reached a point where I had to help my­self,” he said. “I re­mem­ber, I was in my room in New York, struck with the re­al­iza­tion that if I didn’t chant, I would never clear away the dark places in my heart.” He started singing dur­ing kir­tan ses­sions at a yoga stu­dio near his home and has been chant­ing ever since.

“Just the vi­bra­tions in his voice have al­ways brought peo­ple flock­ing,” said Lorin Par­rish, owner of Body, the yoga spa, café, and com­mu­nity cen­ter in Santa Fe. “It doesn’t mat­ter what your spir­i­tual ori­en­ta­tion is, it’s just the act of chant­ing.” Par­rish has been chant­ing with Das for 30 years. “He’s aged beau­ti­fully; he’s at such a joy­ful level now,” she said. “To me, what’s so spe­cial about Kr­ishna Das is that he’s very real, very West­ern, very ac­ces­si­ble. He doesn’t have an In­dian-sound­ing voice — his res­o­nance, his vi­brato, he just sounds West­ern, and peo­ple can re­late to that. He’s our num­ber-one best­selling artist. We use his CDs for yoga classes, and we even play them in the mas­sage rooms.”

“Chant­ing grounds you,” Das said. “Yoga, med­i­ta­tion, chant­ing — they all give you tools to deal with life in a dif­fer­ent way. In the ’ 60s, things were ex­plo­sive — we took a lot of drugs — but in the last 30 years, we’ve learned that it’s more about chang­ing our in­ner lives.

“The lyrics we chant come from Hindu tra­di­tion. We say the names of God. We may not know what the words even mean, but it feels good. That’s why I do it.”

Das’ self-in­vented ca­reer has led him from the Ji­va­mukti Yoga Cen­ter in Man­hat­tan to yoga stu­dios, fes­ti­vals, and the­aters all over the world. His record­ings in­clude more than a dozen CDs, as well as books and DVDs. His rock ’ n’ roll back­ground has served him well. Over the years, Das has en­listed gui­tarists, drum­mers, and other mu­si­cians such as Sting, Mike D from the Beastie Boys, and drum­mer Jerry Marotta (Hall & Oates, Peter Gabriel) to add to the sound. A new CD, Heart as Wide as

the World, has taken Das back into the stu­dio, where he blended English lyrics with rock-style in­stru­men­ta­tion to come up with a new di­rec­tion.

“Most of my CDs have been recorded live — they’re ex­pe­ri­en­tial,” he said. “But this time I wanted to go into the stu­dio, to have the free­dom to play with stuff.” ◀

Kr­ishna Das

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