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Fans Bend an Ear to Soundtrack of Yoga

Fans Bend an Ear to Soundtrack of Yoga

Author: Alona Wartofsky
Publication: The Washington Post
Date: November 28, 2003
URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17672-2003Nov27.html

Last time devotional singer Krishna Das played the Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in Chelsea, its "Light" studio was more crowded than a subway car during rush hour.

So was the "Love" studio holding the overflow. And the hallways, and even the sidewalk outside.

All of which might be surprising to those of us -- most of us -- who have not heard of Krishna Das. But to yoga devotees all over the United States, Krishna Das is revered as an artist with the extraordinary ability to lift his audience as it joins him in chanting kirtans, the names of Hindu gods.

"His kirtans are the closest thing to a love-in," says Laughing Lotus co-director Dana Flynn. "His presence gives you permission to be yourself. It opens your heart, it clears your mind, and you get a glimpse of our connectedness. . . . Even though chanting can seem like it's about the singing, it's really about the gathering. It's about the community of people that want to celebrate."

Krishna Das, 56, has released five albums of spiritual chants in the past seven years, and in the process he has become the soundtrack to yoga practice in the United States.

As yoga has become increasingly popular, Krishna Das has become its musical star, leading Yoga Journal to label him "the Pavarotti" of kirtan. Both his latest, "Door of Faith," and 2001's "Breath of the Heart" were produced by the much-sought-after Rick Rubin. Krishna Das performs approximately 120 times a year; small private sessions for celebrities such as Madonna and Sting (the latter returned the favor by providing backup vocals), as well as larger public events that draw audiences of a thousand or more.

His kirtans, chanted in the ancient Sanskrit language, are haunting and hypnotic. Das does not limit the accompanying musical soundscapes to traditional Indian instrumentation -- along with esraj, tabla and dholak, there's an array of Western instruments, including violin, harmonium, cello, piano and organ.

"He's got a mystical element to what he does that touches people," says Danny Goldberg, whose Artemis Records distributes Krishna Das's recordings on the Triloka label. "He's really deeply immersed in what he's doing, and it comes across as similar to the way great gospel music affects people when it's coming from the heart."

Mitchell Markus, who founded the Triloka label with Krishna Das in 1990, says his kirtans are so compelling because they are so personal.

"He actually is doing it for himself. He is not performing," says Markus. "He is reaching out from his personal perspective to that deity which resides inside of all of us, and so the audience is connecting with him in that place. . . . In terms of his recordings, I don't think I've ever been involved with a recording where an artist who, within the confines of a record, was able to open up and bear his soul that way."

Krishna Das -- or KD, as he calls himself -- lives in a centuries-old cabin in Upstate New York that is cluttered with the treasures of a life dedicated to music and religious faith. The living room is filled with music -- both the Smithsonian box set "The Blues" and "The Okeh R&B Story, 1949-1957" are out and open, as if he's in the middle of listening to them.

In his bedroom, a maroon cloth covering one wall serves as a backdrop for a shrine to his faith: photographs of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba -- known as Maharaj-ji -- as well as renderings of the Hindu monkey god Lord Hanuman, candles, incense and a two-string ektar KD found in an old hut in the mountains of India. The name he was born with was Jeffrey Kagel, and he grew up in Queens and later in Long Island's Roslyn Heights. His father was an attorney who later became a psychoanalyst. After his parents divorced, his mother returned to school and took up teaching. Jeffrey was 16 when they split up, but even before the divorce, he had set himself apart as a disaffected suburban kvetch.

"I was basically frustrated and depressed, angry," he says. "There was a real darkness, a real unhappiness. I always felt like there was some kind of part missing."

His salvation was his music, and he would devise reasons to stay home from school on Tuesdays, when a local rock station would count down the Top 50 songs. "Music was so important to me," he says. "Saved me so many times . . . from having to look at myself, be alone with myself." A year before graduation, an ankle injury cost him a basketball scholarship to Brandeis University. Instead he found himself on Long Island at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where, he says, he "majored in basketball and drugs" and heard a lot of terrific folk music. After that, he drove a school bus, dabbled in singing folk and country-blues, and lived in a cabin in the woods owned by friends he describes as "Jungian acid-head mountain climbers." Seeking something, he experimented with drugs and read books about enlightenment.

Kagel was raised as a Jew -- "I'm Jewish on my parents' side," he jokes -- but found Reform Judaism unrewarding. "It's not full of spiritual practices that help you find peace of heart and overcome the problems in life. It's just about family and culture, which is fine. But I needed something else."

Then in the winter of '68, he met the famed American spiritual teacher Ram Dass, and his life instantly changed. "I realized whatever it was that I was looking for. . . . All of a sudden I immediately knew that it was real," he recalls. "Because when I walked in that room with him, I could feel it. I realized that real happiness was possible. That real satisfaction was possible. That it was possible to enter into a way of living or state of mind" - - he's struggling for words -- "state of mind is too limiting . . . that it was possible to live just like you know it really should be." Two years later, at age 23, Kagel arrived in Northern India, where he lived in an ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas and studied under Maharaj-ji. There he learned the practice of kirtan and acquired the name Krishna Das, which means "servant of God" in Hindu.

After more than two years, his teacher instructed him to return to the United States. Krishna Das was apprehensive. What would he do? How would he adjust to life in America?

"I was freaked," he says. "Two and a half years in India, I hadn't worn a pair of pants or a pair of shoes." But it was time to go. "I said, 'Maharaj-ji, how can I serve you in America?' He looked at me and he went, 'Bah! If you ask about service, it's not service. Do what you want.'"

As he was saying goodbye, Krishna Das realized how he could serve his beloved guru. "When I was bowing down to him for the last time, all of a sudden I heard in my head, 'I'll sing to you.' . . . Then I felt good. I had something I could do."

It took him a long time -- nearly 20 years -- before he was really ready. In the meantime, he co-founded the Triloka world music label and formed a devotional group, Amazing Grace, with Jai Uttal and other musicians. But he wasn't truly ready to sing yet. "I was singing, but it wasn't working. It was more like pouring salt on a wound," he says. "I had too much stuff to process. For the next 20 years . . . I dealt with my dark side . . . all the emotional stuff, all the pain and betrayals and the anger and hurts that I was carrying around inside me." Nine years ago, he realized he was ready. He started singing in New York's Jivamukti Yoga Center, and this time, he felt that his kirtan was right -- it felt right coming from him, and it felt right to his audiences.

"People seem to get an incredible amount of comfort and joy and peace. . . . But that is not why I sing. I sing to bring peace to my own heart. But the intensity of that spiritual practice . . . allows that moment to open up for people and to deepen," he says. "I don't think it's so much different that Springsteen sings a song like 'The River.' In his words and music, he embodies the lives of people and he lifts them up. It holds them up to the light where grace can touch them. So when people come to sing for an evening of chanting, they're not coming for entertainment. They're coming to enter into this place in the heart. If they wanted entertainment, there's a lot of other things they could be doing. It's participatory, and the motivation for doing it is to enter deeply into ourselves. So I'm entering into myself; they're entering into their selves, but ultimately there's only one of us."

And perhaps what's most appealing, he says, is that you don't have to be religious or spiritual or anything, really, to get something out of it. "Nothing's required," he says firmly. "People who do hatha yoga are not necessarily religious people. Most of them are doing it to get the best butt in town, you know, or for their health, or because it helps them calm down a little bit. And that's not overtly religious in any way. These practices work because these practices work. They work from wherever you are. . . . You don't have to believe anything. You just have to do them."

He is barefoot, wearing sweat pants and a flannel shirt and leaning back easily on his living room couch. And it's clear that however strange his journey may have been, Krishna Das Kagel is in a comfortable place -- on his couch and in this world. He tells a funny story about an e-mail he got after he recorded a track with Sting. It was from someone who had bought the album but had a problem with it. "They didn't know they were writing to me necessarily, so they wrote, 'It's so great that Sting is finally singing the names of god, but if you could only shut that guy up with the big booming voice. What is he doing? Why is he covering Sting's vocals up? Get him off of there!' "

Krishna Das laughs heartily. "Okay, sure. Next CD."

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