I just finished teaching a 20 hour module on Kirtan and Mantra singing with Sheela Bringi for a Yoga Teacher Training at Sage Yoga in Boise, ID. The Yoga Teacher Training was headed up by Marisa Weppner who just released her book: Vinyasa Yoga Made Simple which focuses on (among other things) getting you to feel your practice more than make it look a certain way! Our Kirtan training module included Raga singing, listening practices, rhythm training, pronunciation tips, ‘anatomy’ of Kirtan, stories of deities myth and mood, mantra practice, a Concert, a Sonic Yoga experience, historical education, and all in the context of one question:
How do I start a Kirtan Band?
Last November Sheela and I were in Boise at the same venue doing a 10 hour training on the same content. Several months later we got a call from Marisa. She expressed that after the 10 hours of study she felt that people definitely needed more training and she asked us explicitly: what do we need to start a Kirtan band? We planned every section of this module considering this question and came up with a great answer.
One of the Earth’s greatest songwriters once said in response to a question like this:
“All you need is 3 chords and the truth!”
Taking a page from Baba Bob Dylan’s book on music, we boiled down a recipe.
What you need to start a Kirtan band:
- Time [in the form of Rhythm]
- Melody [in the form of notes from a musical scale or Indian Raga]
- The Truth [in the form of Mantra or other text that conveys the mood of Praise]
You need to have time to practice by yourself and in a group. You need to consider that ‘time’ is the essence of music and without it part of the magic of Kirtan is lost. Time is what gives Kirtan it’s mesmerizing quality as the chant is repeated to pulsing rhythms. Time is what refocuses the mind when the tempo in Kirtan speeds up and demands that you stay present to give through your voice and heart what is in you to give. Time is what you experience as disappearing as your temporal identity is challenged and trance like states of consciousness are brought forward through the practice. While trance is not the main aim of Kirtan it certainly happens and many people report how wonderful it is that they lose their normal sense of time for an hour or two while in the practice.
Time in Kirtan is indicated by the singer and marked by the drummer. The singer indicates the time with their voice by how fast they enunciate the words at the start of a sung phrase. The drummer marks the time by playing their instrument at the indicated tempo of the singer. Drumming can be as simple as a repetitive, straight forward, on the beat hand clap and as complicated as the wild sounds of the Indian tabla drum which whirl around the time with off beat, syncopated rhythms. No matter what it looks like, if you want to start a Kirtan band, you need Time.
A melody is a series of musical notes sung together in phrases much like a sentence. Like a sentence, melody has motive and ideas that convey the inner thoughts and feelings of the composer. Melodies in Kirtan can range from very simple utilizing fewer notes – like the folk artists of Bob Dylan’s time – to very complex and greater number of notes as in the melodies of Indian Kirtan informed by Raga.
Raga is the melodic framework of Indian Music. The beauty and appreciation which arises in the mind and heart of the enjoyer of Raga is quite high and ecstatic. Raga is translated as ‘color’ or ‘passion’. Raga is that which colors the mind of the listener bringing about the preexistent qualities of the Raga through feeling and evocation. Ragas are based on ‘parent’ scales and move in particular shapes from note to note to elicit their moods and states of being.
Kirtan is a folk form of music that arose in India as a populist movement that brought the possibility of relationship with the Divine Presence out of priestly exclusivity and into the streets and homes of India. As this happened the melodies while being informed by Raga did not stick to all of the prescriptions and forms of Classical Raga. Melodies were simplified and the strict forms of Ragas broken, yet in many cases, the essence of Raga still left in tact.
You do not need Raga to start a Kirtan band. You can use any melodic framework to convey the essential moods and states of being you experience in Praise of the Divine. What the study of Raga does is put you contact with Tradition and the Roots of Kirtan. You can of course do it any way you like.
I don’t want you to believe me. I want you to find out for yourself. What happens when you sing? What happens when you sing in a foreign language? What happens when you take the time to learn the meaning and purpose of that language and the words you are singing?
We love Bob Dylan’s words because he possessed the ability to contact truth and use English to tell it (not a small feat I must add).
The ‘words’ of Kirtan come from Sanskrit and other Indian Languages. In the last 25 years as Kirtan has spread to the West and been popularized by non-Indian singers, more languages have been introduced. You can for sure use any language to start a Kirtan band. I also think there is a great deal of value in using your native tongue to express moods of praise for, or any considerations you have on the Divine Presence. That said, the language of Sanskrit has the inherent quality of being phenomenological. That means that the ‘word’ or ‘name’ is the ‘form’ of that which it is sounding out. This is a fancy way of saying that the vibrations made by the human voice when speaking Sanskrit are WAY closer (like totally in contact with) the “thing” being spoken or sung. What does this mean and why do you care? I encourage you to find out for yourself.
The ‘words’ of Kirtan are sometimes a mantra and sometimes text from a poem or song about a deity from the Hindu pantheon. Mantras are sets of sounds and words that invoke the presence and power of Deity and magic. The poems and songs which Kirtans arise from are composed by Saints and Sages in the high states of Praise which they found themselves in through living a life of practice and worship. The essence of the mantras and poems or songs sung in Kirtan is ‘Praise’.
Kirtan means Praise. There is a power in singing praise that touches the heart and breaks down boundaries and beliefs. Singing praise challenges us to look into the nature of our identity as separate beings. Singing praise puts us in a tacit knowing that there is a vast and unspeakable intelligence of the Heart that every living thing in creation shares and has access to. Singing praise might just change your life.
At the end of 20 hours of training, each and every participant successfully lead Kirtan in small groups of 3 or 4. It was ecstatic and full of feeling and life. I am ever humbled by the process and gift of music and relationship with the Divine Presence.
By: Brent Kuecker – Yogi. Musician. Educator.
Join us at Udaya Live, Yoga and music festival in 2 weeks! Resort retreat style, all inclusive Yoga Festival with Kirtan every night!