One thing Bill and I love to do together is kirtan. Kirtan, if you’ve never encountered it, is a little hard to describe, but it’s essentially a musical version of yoga. Not the bendy, strengthening part of yoga, but the meditative, mentally calming, spiritual part. A chant leader sings a line in Sanskrit, and the participants sing it back. It’s an incredibly relaxing, invigorating form of singing meditation.
It’s also music, and often beautiful music. Like many things Hindu, it was brought back to America in the 60s by people like Ram Dass and like many things World Music, became fused with American rock and pop over the decades. Krishna Das, a former rock musician, studied in India and brought kirtan home to America. He became the closest thing we have here to a kirtan rock star, performing at the Grammies a few years back.
So anyhow, that’s kirtan and it was very much a thing in Woodstock. Our next door neighbor whose Hindu name is Sruti Ram led kirtan for years first in his living room, then at various venues around town. Bill first got drawn into it by another local kirtan leader. When a guitarist who was supposed to accompany her cancelled, she asked Bill to fill in. He started learning about kirtan. He was hooked and soon turned into a kirtan wallah in his own right.
Here in Snohomish, he’s led kirtan at a couple of local yoga studios, as well as in an inflatable dome on Whidbey Island. Most of the time I serve as his backup singer. In kirtan, a backup singer is barely heard above the crowd, but it’s your job to lead everyone else along.
One recent evening eating a late dinner out after a kirtan session, Bill gave me some notes about having jumped in and started singing without waiting for his signal to do so. He was right, of course–backup singers shouldn’t take the initiative, at least not in kirtan, where everyone has to carefully follow the leader. Still, I was feeling petulant.
“Sometimes it seems that you want everyone in the world to have a voice except me,” I pouted.
“I’ve been thinking maybe you should lead a chant of your own,” he said.
That was a surprise. Over the past year or so I’ve been slowly coming out of my shell as a singer, jumping in informally on harmonies at the Hungry Pelican and at parties, although I only once actually “got on the mic”–because I was pushed. But I’ve been getting closer to doing it on purpose. From that to leading a kirtan chant would be a big jump.
Except for two things. First, we’d been leading kirtan at our friend Monika’s yoga studio which is a relatively small space and hasn’t had huge crowds for our kirtans, or any crowd sometimes, so the whole idea was less intimidating than it would be in a bigger venue.
The other thing was was Baba Hanuman. It’s a beautiful chant by Krishna Das, written for his guru Neem Karoli Baba, whom he loved beyond measure. Whatever the reason, hearing that chant almost always makes me cry. I’ve always wanted Bill to do it but he never has shown any interest so when he suggested I might lead a chant, I answered without even thinking about it: “Yes! I would like to lead Baba Hanuman.”
And then I backtracked, wondering if I’d inadvertently hurt his feelings. “That is…unless you want me to do one of your chants?” But no, he said, he might write a new chant for me but he didn’t expect me to do any of his.
Over the next few weeks, I first learned the words to Baba Hanuman (which has quite a bit of Sanskrit in it), then began nagging Bill to learn it on the guitar. We agreed it made no sense for me to lug my electronic keyboard (a present from Bill from years ago which is languishing in a closet at the moment for lack of space) to the yoga studio for a single chant. Only one problem: When he got around to learning the chant, by ear, as he does everything, I was convinced he had one of the chords wrong. And it’s the chords in Baba Hanuman that drive the emotional power of the chant, or so it seems to me.
We were debating the question one day, and I decided the only way I could really determine if his idea of the chords for Baba Hanuman were right was to try playing them myself. I could, I suppose, have dragged my keyboard out of its place in the closet in my office but instead I decided to see if there was a tablet app that simulated a piano. And of course there was. So I tried playing his idea of the chords on it and, yup, they sounded wrong.
Bill looked up the right chords online (they were there!) but also suggested that I try to find an app that sounded more like a harmonium, since that’s the instrument Krishna Das plays, and that’s the sound that powers that chant. If you’ve never encountered one, a harmonium is an Indian keyboard air-pumped instrument that is usually played while sitting on the floor, with one hand on the keyboard and the other hand pumping the bellows in the back. It looks kind of like a larger, more ornate, musically simpler version of an accordian. Bill has always assumed it was originally created from worn-out or broken accordians discarded by the British when they ruled India, but no. They were once (in a larger form) a popular instrument in the United States, very useful for accompanying at-home hymn singing before they were swept away by the invention of the electric organ in the 1930s. They were taken up in India, though, where electricity is often undependable or unavailable. There too, they seemed to lend themselves best to devotional singing, which in India is kirtan.
Turns out there’s one harmonium app for Android. It’s a bit undependable and clunky, but it does sound just like a harmonium. I turned my tablet as loud as it could go and practiced and practiced on the little images of keys in the harmonium app and pretty soon I could get through the chant just fine, unless the app crashed as it sometimes did. I had never led a chant before but we went over to the yoga studio with my app ready to go. Then we got to chatting about it and I found out that Monika who owns the studio had a harmonium there that she’d gotten as a birthday present but not yet learned to play.
I’d never played one before either, but I knew the keys, I knew the chords, and hers is a fine instrument that is very easy to pump. So I launched right in. Unlike most of what we sing in kirtan, that chant is in a very comfortable key for my voice. I was also leading the chant, and trying to make myelf heard over a harmonium, which is an instrument that pretty much can’t be played at low volume. And Baba Hanuman always gets me. So I threw my heart into it and sang for all I was worth.
Bill and I have a longstanding tradition of exchanging gifts a week or more after Christmas. It began years ago when we lived in Woodstock and the grandchildren were small, and we used to race around to their various homes delivering stacks of presents and home-made goodies to everyone. We tended to give each other stacks of presents as well and it was all a lot of pressure and rush and at some point it dawned on us that we could reduce the pressure by giving each other some extra time for our own gift exchange. I later realized we could also take advantage of day-after-Christmas prices and unwanted gifts sold on eBay this way. In any case, the tradition stuck.
And so, a couple of weeks after Christmas, my present arrived, in large box, surrounded by a ridiculous amount of packing tape and styrofoam that shed little balls all over the living room carpet. It was a harmonium of my own.
Image: Bill’s picture of me playing my new harmonium, not yet quite awake.
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(Here’s a brief clip of me doing Baba Hanuman on Monika’s harmonium with Bill on guitar.)