Kirtan Music is Our Connection to the Divine
Kirtan is a devotional form of music that uses a call-and-response format between both other performers and the audience. Chanters often call upon the names of Hindu deities, as well as concepts such as love and peace. It often feels like a concert as musicians play everything from traditional Indian instruments to bass guitar. Audience chanting is encouraged, but not required. “People get up and dance. People are sitting on floors if they can, sitting in chairs if they can’t,” says Sydney Roberts, who provides vocals and harmonium for the Atlanta kirtan group One Voice. “People are just being embraced by this wonderful vibration of the mantra.”
The fact that much of kirtan is in Sanskrit can be daunting for Americans. Roberts says most kirtan bands attempt to offer explanations before beginning a chant, and some are performed in both English and Sanskrit. Many musicians, according to Blue Spirit Wheel musician and vocalist Ian Boccio, work diligently to make the music accessible. “You want people to chant these sacred mantras, and you don’t want the music to come in and interfere with that,” says Boccio. “So some people combine the chanting with folk music. Some people combine it with electrontica. For me, I happen to be a big fan of 70s heavy rock. I played rock and roll for 20 years, so that’s the music I really know.” Kirtan is often practiced by the same people that practice yoga, so many yoga studios or ashrams offer kirtan. Roberts says the Atlanta kirtan scene is centered around the ChantLanta Scared Music Festival, held in March. This year’s ChantLanta drew nearly 1,000 people over the weekend, according Boccio, the event’s director. He explains that the festival, held annually since 2010, had two basic missions.
“The first is to increase awareness of chanting practices and sacred sounds practices, generally of stuff that is happening in Atlanta already. It’s not intended to provide something that you see only at the festival. You can go see that person again,” says Boccio. “The second purpose of it is to take this blissful energy that we generate with chanting and direct that towards helping people. We worked with a bunch of different people in India and Africa and local people in Atlanta, as well. We’ve helped charities to raise over $37,000.” This year’s event raised $7,000 for Safe Girls Strong Girls, an organization that provides camp CADI for girls that have experienced sexual abuse.
Boccio also organized a sober 2015 New Year’s Eve celebration that featured a mix of area kirtan band members in the North Georgia Kirtan All Stars. He hopes to repeat the free public event in 2016. Many people say they have felt a vibrational benefit from kirtan. Shonali Banerjee, who, with Jocelyn Rose, forms the Atlanta Mantra Ma group, says the first time she heard kirtan was in New York more than 15 years ago, when she was struggling with being an actress. “I was at a really difficult time in my life,” says Banerjee. “It was just so awesome to sing. I felt it was a way of connecting to myself. I don’t know, it’s probably why people go to church and sing. Everybody’d just be singing, like full-out singing. It just made me feel better about my situation. I can sing and connect.”
Banerjee now uses kirtan to help others. A yoga teacher and yoga therapist, she chants at the beginning and end of yoga sessions and uses kirtan as complement to other yoga therapies for physical and mental healing. She says the chants take a person’s focus off their pain and help them open to beneficial energies; also that chanting also uses breath, which is a direct connection to the central nervous system. “If you think about a mother singing to a baby, you’re offering that sense of comfort and protection,” says Banerjee. “People who are in these stressful situations, when someone chants to them, they immediately soften.”
Banerjee says the energy of a chant helps regardless of language or beliefs. “If you’re working in Sanskrit, the chants, they have archetypal energies. If you’re chanting to a specific Hindu god, like Ganesh, he’s the removal of obstacles and helps bring auspicious beginnings. You don’t have to be a Hindu. You can still open up to that energy of removing obstacles.”
ISTA’s Cromwell agrees people don’t have to understand Sanskrit to receive the myriad benefits of kirtan. “When Sanskrit is pronounced correctly, what it does is it produces different little activations within the roof of the mouth. They affect the chemistry and the neurotransmitters within the brain,” says Cromwell, who annually produces Cymatics, The Science of Sound and Vibrational Healing Conference. “When you’re speaking Sanskrit, it’s actually changing the brain. Of course, if you understand the Sanskrit, that’s a mega bonus, but really it’s the phonetic importance that you’re after.”
Cromwell recalls her first kirtan event. “I felt like the words were clearing out the things in my head. In my mind, the Sanskrit vibrations were careening into the caverns in my mind, cleaning out the little dust bunnies,” she says. “Not only did I feel clearer, I looked brighter…even though at the time, I didn’t know what I was saying.”
Spirituality is also a large part of kirtan, according to local practitioners. The concept of bhakti, a Hindu religious philosophy that is the mental and spiritual state of being devotional and loving, is often linked with yoga and kirtan. “It’s a very joyful, heart-centered path of yoga that is generally considered a path of compassion,” says kirtan musician Phil McWilliams. “Kirtan’s very much tied in with that, because the idea is that you’re singing from the heart.”
He says that as a bhakta performing kirtan, he facilitates a deep personal experience for listeners. “In the moment when you’re singing from that place, bhakti holds within it this extreme peace, with a kind of joyful feeling in the moment that’s beyond description; that’s beyond motive,” notes McWilliams.
Roberts agrees, saying, “Truly, to me, it is a connection to the divine. It is a connection to God.”
Sarah Buehrle is a freelance writer based in Greater Atlanta. You can follow her at linkedin.com/in/sarahabuehrle.
Theres a lot of kirtan going on in and around Atlanta these days, so Natural Awakenings rounded up a handy little reference to all that’s going on in the world of this inspired world of meaningful music.
People, bands, organizations and resources:
- Shonali Banerjee and Mantra Ma: ShonaliYoga.com
- ChantLanta: ChantLanta.org
- Mandara Cromwell and the International Sound Therapy Association: istasounds.org
- Ian Boccio and Blue Spirit Wheel: BlueSpiritWheel.com
- Phil McWilliams: PhilMcWilliamsMantra.com
- Sydney Roberts and One Voice: Facebook.com/OneVoiceKirtan
- Swaha Productions’ newsletter: swahaproductions.com
- Community Kirtan Atlanta: Facebook.com/groups/465486283660827
- Candler Park Yoga: CandlerParkYoga.com
- International Sound Therapy Association: istasounds.org
- Kashi Atlanta: KashiAtlanta.org
- Plumtree Yoga Center: PlumTreeYoga.com
- Stillness Yoga & Mediation Center: StillnessYoga.com
- The Center for Love and Light: Facebook.com/TheCenterForLoveAndLight
- Vista Yoga: VistaYoga.com
- September 10, Blue Spirit Wheel playing with One Voice, Selah Center
- September 24, One Voice, Heron House, every fourth Saturday
- October 27, One Voice, Vista Yoga
- October 21-23, The Sacred in the Ordinary Weekend Retreat: A Weekend of Meditation, Mantra & Yoga with Meryl Arnett and Shonali Banerjee