In Hinduism, japa is the spiritual practice of reciting a mantra or the name of a god repeatedly; sometimes hundreds of times. At some point, some brilliant soul thought it would be more fun if others were involved and if it were put to music. This was the birth of kirtan.* In this first article in a series on the great music found in various chant traditions we will explore the music of kirtan.
Most kirtan follows a call-and-response; a leader sings a phrase and the followers (or devotees) repeat it. The melodies often advance, or vary, throughout the event.
I have attended kirtans, and I can tell you as they progress, the room can fill with an incredible energy and excitement. Here is another beautiful tune:
There are several forms. In addition to call-and-response, sometimes mantras are repeatedly sung, and other times entire stories are sung, the most famous of which must be the Hanumana Chalisa:
Kirtan became very popular in the US when it was brought back in the 1960’s.
Fortunately, despite the incorrect negative impressions, kirtan has inspired amazing musicians, the most famous of which must be Krishna Das. He takes these ancient and revered melodies, mingles them with his own greatness, and creates truly remarkable music. Here is Krishna Das with his Om Namah Shivaya, the first song of his I ever heard (and what immediately sold me on him):
And one of my favorites: Mere Gurudev –
The harmonium that starts each of his chants is like a gentle touch between the shoulder blades. Here is a Hanumana Chalisa:
Many more of Krishna Das can be found on YouTube here. His CDs can be purchased on his website as well as Amazon.com. If you can get to one of his shows, I would strongly recommend it. This isn’t about religion; this is about finding happiness.
Here is an assortment of other worthwhile performances:
A fantastic Om Jaia Jagadisha Hare by Lata Mangeshkar:
A nice Om Namah Shivaya:
A group in Germany:
I will leave you with one of Krishna Das’s many Hare Krishnas:
* Ok, so I have no idea if this is how it happened. I am only speculating to make an interesting introduction. If any with experience in the matter would like to enlighten us on how kirtan was started, please comment!