Short selections from various chapters:

Prologue excerpt:


   Go into any yoga studio, health food store, or New Age center and you’ll likely find the exotic sounds of kirtan wafting through the atmosphere. Whether it’s Krishna Das crooning in his own inimitable style, Jai Uttal delivering his particular brand of East-West fusion, Vaiyasaki evoking the emotional moods of Medieval Bengal, or Sean Johnson serving up the spicy grooves of a New Orleans melody—kirtan is leaving its mark.

   Its new Western form is intriguing, making prodigious use of well-established Indian motifs along with the sounds and sensibilities of diverse ethnic cultures; it combines the music of the ancient world with the tones of modernity.

  In this book, we are introduced to kirtaniyas (i.e., lead kirtan singers) who hail from Jewish and Christian backgrounds, and others who have Sikh and Hindu roots. We meet a wandering musician from the islands who saw in kirtan his native Carnival made divine, and an Israeli who became a Latin pop star by way of devotional chanting. We talk to West Coast seekers who have made kirtan the central focus of their lives, and to urbane New York intellectuals who have done the same; we even walk through life with a New Zealander who revolutionized Eastern Europe by chanting for Gorbachev. Young and old, rich and poor, male and female, black and white. The diversity of those touched by kirtan is astounding.

   . . . In Judaism, the hazzan, or cantor, is a type of kirtaniya, directing all liturgical prayer and chanting in synagogues around the world. If no cantor is available, a less qualified “kirtaniya” is called in—known as the ba’al tefilah. This person then chants the prayers, and the congregation repeats his every utterance, as in a traditional kirtan. The basic practice comes from a principle found in the Bible (Psalms 150.4-5), “Glory ye in His holy name. Praise Him with the timbrel and dance: praise Him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise Him upon the loud cymbals.” If that’s not kirtan, what is? Indeed, one of Judaism’s greatest mystics, the Baal Shem Tov, might be considered the ultimate kirtaniya—his very name means “Master of the Good Name,” and he encouraged his followers: “Chant, chant, chant!”

  Jesus, coming from the same tradition, taught his disciples how to pray: “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” This was the basis of early Christianity. In his Epistle to the Romans (10.13), St. Paul writes, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Baptist choirs and church singers take this mandate to heart, often with marked enthusiasm, embodying the essence of Indian kirtan parties.

   Calling on the name became a formal part of the Roman Catholic Church during the days of Pope Gregory I (circa 540–604 C.E.). Even so, the Gregorian chant is only one of many, with the Christian tradition claiming hundreds of thousands of “mantras”—which are often recited in responsorial fashion, like kirtan. Along similar lines, Christian mystics have given the world the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me”—a continuous mantra-like incantation whose practice resembles japa, repetitive rosary chanting, in the mood of Indian sadhus.

   The Muslim Qari are those who professionally recite the Koran. In tone and passion they easily bring to mind kirtan singers. Though demonstrative singing is not generally permitted in mainstream Islam, chanting to Allah is, and it is viewed as a particularly effective form of prayer. In fact, the Qari are kirtaniyas whose chanting is called tajwid—which is Arabic for “vocal music.” The ninety-nine names of Allah, called “the Beautiful Names,” are chanted on beads, inscribed on mosques, and glorified in countless ways.

   In particular, the Sufis, Islamic mystics, seek to evoke God’s presence by uttering His names. This is called “Qawwali,” a form of sacred Islamic vocal music originating in Pakistan and India—an art form or ecstatic ritual based on classical Sufi texts. One of its primary functions is to guide its listeners—those who delve deeply into its poetry and meaning—to a state of ecstatic trance (wajd), much like expert kirtaniyas of old.

   In Japan, followers of the Shinto religion engage in ritualistic chants, known as norito, which is their version of kirtan. Buddhist hymns are referred to as shomyo. This is a form of kirtan as well. In India, kirtan is a way of life. Sikhs, for example, view kirtan as central to their religious practice, as any google search on kirtan quickly reveals. Naturally, all forms of Hinduism make use of kirtan, too, and this is true whether we’re talking about South Indian Ramanujites or Gaudiya Vaishnavas in Bengal; Marathi devotees who glorify God as Vitthala, or Devadasis who sing to their beloved Jagannath. Call-and-response chanting is the very basis of religion, and it was developed into a meticulously well-defined system of knowledge in India, as this book will soon show.

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