If it feels good, chant it
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.” ◀