Krishna Das is a man who can speak volumes by repeating three words. With the power of kirtan, a form of chanting that’s at the root of his music, it’s easy to become hypnotized. His deep and soporific voice takes you on a ride along moving hums of the harmonium and quick muffled pats of the drum. The melodies are mesmerizing, but the words shouldn’t be underestimated by any means. Though there are only a few of them, they are the names of various gods, repeated over and over for inner peace. What was just music before now doubles as devotion.
Caught in between his arrival in St. Paul, Minnesota and a soundcheck, Krishna Das elaborates on the synthesis that is his music. St. Paul is one of the fifteen stops on his “Samsara by Bus” tour, the next one being Chicago. The tone of his voice through the phone is strikingly calm and relaxed for someone about to perform on stage. He says to call him KD, a nickname affectionately and widely used by his fan base.
KD’s work is often seen as a crossroads of genre, a place where sacred Eastern influences and lyrical Western influences blend. He describes his work in two ways: musically and spiritually. “The chord changes and the melodies are pretty Western. Along with the music, what we’re singing are certain mantras, called the names of God, the divine names.”
These devotional references are considered to have a lot of power. “It’s believed that they can actually help us release and get over a lot of the self-hatred and shame and fear and guilt and selfishness that we carry around with us,” KD explains, “and from which a lot of suffering arises.” Repetition defines the kirtan genre. The melody, lyrics and phrasing are all part of a cycle; an unchanging homage to a divinity.
There is a lot to do justice to in this sort of music, which can seem intimidating for kirtan newcomers. He quickly clarifies that chanting is something that should be sensed and not necessarily deciphered. “The real meaning of these names, these mantras, are not…can’t be known intellectually, they can only be experienced personally,” he insists. He fights for the right words to describe the inherent intimacy of chanting. “We can gradually let go of all the things that limit us, and we can begin to experience a more open space and a happier space.”
While this musical fusion certainly separates KD from most chanters, he insists that he’s not trying to create any sort of musical revolution. “[The fusion] comes naturally to me because that’s who I am. I was born in New York, but I lived a lot of my life in India. I really absorbed a lot there, and it comes out through the music.”
In fact, he believes that the sheer force of the divinity places it beyond melody. “Music,” he imagines, forming a metaphor, “is like the syrup that the medicine of the name is hidden in. The name, the repetition of these names is what makes this a spiritual practice. Music in itself is not necessarily spiritual.” Still, he also believes that the melody is “important for sure, because it helps us enter into that space.”
This accessibility is most likely why KD’s work is so appreciated and sought-after. His most recent album, 2010’s “Heart as Wide as the World,” is partially a deeper exploration into the musical aspect of his work. His past, which includes being a short-lived member of the Blue Öyster Cult, permeates the tradition even more so than before. He’s called it rock ‘n’ roll and sings in English, but the spirituality is still present. He insists that anyone can appreciate it, as “nobody could be alive unless they had this spark of the divine in them.” An energy from devotion and love radiates from KD’s voice over the phone just as it does on stage, and that’s something that no genre, note, language or hemisphere can take away from him.
June 23 at The Vic, 3145 North Sheffield, 7:30pm. $39.
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