Hindu music featured at templeWritten by David Yonke Editor, ToledoFAVS.com | | David.Yonke@ReligionNews.com
Something old — ancient would be more like it — is new again in the form of Hindu chants set to music, a style known as kirtan that is gaining popularity in Toledo and throughout the United States.
On Jan. 11, musician Mike Cohen of Grand Rapids, Mich., brought kirtan to town with a six-person band that performed an energetic, interactive concert at the Great Heartland Buddhist Temple of Toledo.
About 50 people attended the musical event that featured Cohen leading on vocals and playing harmonium — a small, wind-driven keyboard instrument with a hand-pumped bellows.
Although the setting was a Buddhist temple, with audience members sitting or kneeling on mats and zafu cushions, the words were in the Hindu liturgical language of Sanskrit and the lyrics were based on Hindu teachings, including references to such gods as Ganesha and Shiva.
The temple was dimly lit, with rows of flickering candles flanking a small Buddha statue, strings of white Christmas lights on the floor, and a few multicolored lighted stars decorating the stage area. The smell of incense wafted through the room.
The Sanskrit words of each song were projected on a screen, and Cohen explained the meaning before performing each tune. He strongly encouraged the audience to participate — something he said was essential for a kirtan concert.
“You can dance, clap, harmonize — whatever authentically comes through you, that’s great,” Cohen said.
There was no hesitation from audience members, most of whom indicated by a show of hands that they had been to many kirtan concerts before as they jumped right in with enthusiastic clapping and chanting.
In a call-and-response format, Cohen sang the lyrics and the backup vocalists, Abby Hoot and Sevika Radecki, led the audience in responding.
“Kirtan is best when you feel like you’re being chanted,” Cohen said. “Listen to other voices, not your own. Let them pull the energy through your heart.”
The chants were short simple, and only a handful of lines were repeated dozens and dozens of times with varying dynamics and rhythms as Cohen shifted things around, the band flowing gracefully along with the jazz-like improvisational changes.
The opening song, “Om Namoh Bhagavate Vasudevaya,” which Cohen said he wrote in 2006 after reflecting on a friend’s loss of a newborn child, had only five lines but was performed in ever-changing, cascading arrangements for about an hour.
American and Hindu cultures flowed together smoothly, and surprisingly, on “Om Sai/Stand By Me,” a soft ballad Radecki wrote that blends Sanskrit chanting with Ben E. King’s familiar pop anthem, “Stand By Me.”
Another surprising moment took place on the song “Jay Jay Ma” when Kelly, who played bass most of the evening, switched to an 11-string fretless acoustic guitar on which he was able to draw out sitar-like tones in addition to the normal range of guitar sounds.
Cohen has been playing and teaching kirtan music since 2000, and in an interview with Toledo Faith & Values said the musical style has been around in some form or another for more than 2,500 years. In recent years, American musicians have been adding funky beats, jazz flexibility, blues and even rap backdrops to the liturgical chants.
A number of veteran kirtan devotees in the audience said there is a new wave of musicians and bands playing kirtan in the area, including shows at Toledo-area venues such as Harmony in Life in Sylvania and SunMoon Healing Arts Studio in Toledo.
In addition, multiday kirtan festivals are popping up, including the three-day Bhakti Fest Midwest scheduled for June 20-22 at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wis.
David Yonke is the editor and community manager of Toledo Faith & Values (ToledoFAVS.com), a website that provides in-depth, nonsectarian news coverage of religion, faith and spirituality in the Toledo area.
Tags: "Stand By Me", Abby Hoot, Ben E. King, Bhakti Fest Midwest, Ganesha, Great Heartland Buddhist Temple of Toledo, Harmony in Life in Sylvania, Hindu chants, kirtan, Sanskrit, Sevika Radecki, Shiva, SunMoon Healing Arts Studio in Toledo, “Om Namoh Bhagavate Vasudevaya”