Kirtan music can thank savasana for its rapid growth in the music world. Not long ago, before Deva Premal, Jai Uttal and Krishna Das were everyday names in the yoga world, yoga teachers began to use this once obscure music tradition at the end of class to help yogis settle into savasana. Little by little, curious students, intrigued by the powerful and spiritual sounds of the mantras put to song, began to inquire after the artists. Sure enough, the artists and their musical tradition took hold in the yoga world.
Fast forward to today: 20 million Americans have been bitten by the yoga bug, and while only a sliver of that demographic has made kirtan an integral part of its yoga practice, the musical tradition has undoubtedly crossed lines that once segregated it the sphere of cultish, spiritual music. From Bhaktifest to Mantrafest and well-packed venues for Premal, Das and others, kirtan is enjoying a growing popularity. “The mind and energy body need to be attuned that there’s energy in this music…,” said Paul Temple, of BrightStar Live Events, a Boulder, CO.-based promoter for kirtan music. “If you listen to kirtan the way you listen to rock-and-roll, it doesn’t always permeate.”
Kirtan is based on the tenets of the ancient Vedic tradition, which hold that sound has the power to heal, transform and connect us to the divine. Kirtan artists, by way of the music, the mantras and the chanting, create just that energy – one capable of transforming. Kirtan artists may increasingly dabble in “English” kirtan, but the genre is best experienced in its ancient form of sanskrit.
“It’s the science of the mantra,” Temple said. “…so when we say shanti, shanti, shanti,…the sound creates an energy of peace. It is creating an energy that is specifically manifesting that intention.” A kirtan song devoted to Ganesha, for instance, may facilitate breaking through obstacles; one devoted to Shiva, perhaps awakening in listeners a divine spark.
Kirtan artist David Newman says the power of kirtan transcends the ethereal and taps into the physical. “Kirtan actually produces a physical reaction,” he said. “Kirtan is a practice and it’s a music through mantras which its intention is to connect a person to a higher self. People are longing for that experience. It brings people together spiritually in music in a way that is very accessible.”
The chanting, the repetition and vibrational energy of kirtan is, at its very core, capable of bringing the mind into a certain state. “Mantras are vibrational. They were created just for that purpose in the language of sanskrit…The language itself has a power to it.”
Many cities have talented local kirtan artists that play at yoga studios and other venues for $10-15 suggested donations. As its popularity grows, tickets to see some of the more well-known artists seem to be hitting rockstar prices. Artists like Krishna Das and Deva Premal have staked a solid foothold in the industry and are able to command top dollar. Tickets to see Krishna Das can go for over $40. Premium tickets for Premal’s upcoming November concert at the Mesa Arts Center in Phoenix go for $110. Considering the philosophy and spiritual practice from which kirtan sprung, those kinds of prices can be hard to swallow.
Still, few kirtan artists get into the industry for the dollars, according to Temple. Most kirtan artists practice their musical craft primarily out of devotion rather than moneymaking aspirations. Those who have found a niche may do relatively well financially, but they still contend with the considerable expenses of travel, labels, distributors, etc. For many artists, the experience and art they offer as well as the personal growth they derive from the music is reward enough.
Do you have a favorite kirtan artist? Do you find the prices for some to be prohibitively expensive?