A Conversation with Kirtan Artist Michael H. Cohen
Recently Yoga International sat down with kirtan artist Mike Cohen to discuss The Dattatreya Kirtan Institute, his music, his greatest influences, the creative process, touring, and more. Mike has released two albums, Soul Contact and Om Dattatreya, Journey to the West, and performed at venues worldwide, including Bhakti Fest West and Bhakti Fest Midwest.
How and when did you first discover the sacred practice of kirtan?
I was introduced to kirtan in 1996, but resisted it initially. Though I was drawn to the harmonium, I just wasn’t ready for the practice of chanting. But that changed in early 2000 when I met a yoga instructor who had spent time with some amazing saints in ashrams, both within the U.S. and India. She opened and closed each class with chanting. Soon I was drumming and response singing, and began to fall in love with the practice.
Though I was drawn to the harmonium, I just wasn’t ready for the practice of chanting.
Did you already have a musical background?
I was a professional saxophonist in my teens and twenties, so it was a wonderful homecoming to step back into music that felt so alive, communal, and improvisational through kirtan. In the late 1990s I was deeply involved with the practice of qigong, which trained me to become very sensitive to energy, and the energetic experiences of chanting the mantras really blew my mind.
How does kirtan work? What does the practice involve?
To some degree this is a mystery. To me, the important thing about kirtan is what it produces. My guru, Swami Kaleshwar, described mantras as “highly charged words with spiritual force behind them.” This energy is apparent when we chant these sacred sounds because they draw us into a sense of overwhelming gratitude. It also connects us to shakti (divine energy) and to each other.
I recall Krishna Das sharing that what was most amazing about the time he spent with his guru wasn’t the love he felt toward Neem Karoli Baba, it was the love he felt toward everyone else in the ashram. In our competitive, individualistic, driven culture, this kind of love is a rare experience. My spiritual teacher, Philip Lipetz, talks about seeing others as a reflection of the divine. For me, this is often challenging in daily life yet somehow feels easy and natural within the kirtan experience.
For the artistic yogis out there who’d like to know, what does your creative process look like?
Typically, I try to generate interesting chord changes as a starting point, and sometimes I begin with a particular mantra or fragment of a prayer from my lineage. Some chants gestate for years before feeling complete and others take a few days. I wrote two of the chants on my second album, Soul Contact, in a single weekend.
Some chants gestate for years before feeling complete and others take a few days.
Sometimes new parts of a chant will even arrive in the middle of live kirtan! When the energy is really building, out of nowhere I’ll sing something that feels perfect, and it’s totally fresh and totally new.
How did you learn to lead kirtan, and who have been some of your greatest influences along the way?
I absorbed a lot during my years as a kirtan band member. During live kirtan a musical and energetic transmission takes place, which is critical. We can’t learn to lead kirtan from afar, on our own, or through a video. We need up-close and personal human contact, guidance, and transmission.
As far as teachers go, Ragani was a wonderful mentor as I began building my kirtan scene in Columbus, OH. However, my most influential guide has been Philip Lipetz, who was one of the first Western students of Sri Kaleshwar of Penukonda, India.
I was having problems around the time I met Philip. After each kirtan event I often felt incredibly drained for 24 to 36 hours. I wanted to share kirtan more frequently and wanted to expand the chant community I was creating at the time, but I was paying a price both physically and emotionally. When I consulted Philip, he said, “You are good at generating energy, but you definitely don’t know how to handle it.”
What did he mean by this?
As Philip explained, we live in the age of Kali Yuga, and this era is often described as the age of darkness. Gloomy as it sounds, during this time the energetic context in which we live is seen to be 75% negative and 25% positive. When we practice authentic spiritual practices (kirtan being one of them), these opposing energies become more apparent. Philip taught me how to deflect and decharge the negativity through mantra and other techniques. This was my initiation into the Dattatreya lineage. So long as I used the mantra, he showed me I was able to share kirtan as much as I wanted.
Your kirtan is influenced by this tradition. Could you briefly describe Dattatreya for those who’ve never heard of it?
Dattatreya is both a deity and a spiritual path. Dattatreya (who graces the cover of my second album, Soul Contact) is said to represent the integration of the individual and the collective by embodying the three universal forces of life: Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Sustainer) and Shiva (the Destroyer). Beyond this trinity, Dattatreya also represents the integration of a number of important polarities, such as masculine and feminine energy and spiritual and material worlds.
Dattatreya is both a deity and a spiritual path.
We live our entire lives without realizing we are swimming in an "invisible" context created by these vast polarities, but Dattatreya reminds us that tremendous power, freedom, and love become available when we learn to integrate both sides of the coin. And this is a deep interpretation of the Sanskrit word yoga: the "yoking" of apparent opposites into a place of reconciliation. Ultimately, Dattatreya represents the primordial guru and the source of universal energy. These three energies referenced above (of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) are always present and can be recognized and harnessed for transformation.
You’ve now stepped into a teaching role yourself, what with the work you do with the Dattatreya Kirtan Institute (DKI). When was this organization established and what’s its overall mission?
I founded the Dattatreya Kirtan Institute in 2010 primarily because I felt called to offer what I longed for when I first began studying kirtan. That is, one-on-one coaching and group training that would help me expand my musicianship and my capacity to serve others through kirtan—as well as overall confidence when leading kirtan. Think about it—many yoga teachers wouldn’t teach without going through a yoga teacher training program, so why begin leading kirtan without similar guidance? I noticed what I felt to be a need within our community and acted upon it by developing the DKI.
In addition to my musical background, since 2002 I have been trained to utilize well-grounded and profound approaches to adult development through coaching and training. This informs what we do at DKI. So our mission is to cultivate kirtan leaders who are effective in the world, who are deep in their spirituality, whose lives are unfolding, and who are actively serving others through kirtan. Our orientation is not to teach people to “chant like a rock star.” Rather, it’s about helping them build the necessary skills to lead one's self and one’s community through powerful spiritual experiences.
Over the last nine months you have led 10 Kirtan Leader Intensives with dozens of participants. Do you have any inspirational stories from the field? What kind of impact is your work having on others?
Here’s the thing, public speaking consistently tops the list of people’s biggest fears, and leading kirtan is like public speaking times 100! Yet, what’s great about the work we do is that after just a few days of training, participants find themselves "on stage" behind a sound system, next to response singers and topnotch professional musicians, in front of a room full of chanters expecting to be led.
Sometimes participants’ hands shake and they can barely speak. They sit behind the harmonium and are filled with both excitement and nervousness. They share a story about their chant and their voice quivers with anxiety. But when they launch into the chant, somehow very quickly they are overtaken by the energy of the mantra and the energetic exchange set up by call and response with the audience. Despite any fears of failing, being shamed, or humiliated, they step into action.
The sensations of breaking through boundaries, personal and collective, as well as sharing one’s heart with others—it’s palpable and simply stunning.
Leading a chant in this fashion requires courage and builds self-confidence and trust. As their nervousness dissipates, their hearts begin to open. The sensations of breaking through boundaries, personal and collective, as well as sharing one’s heart with others—it’s palpable and simply stunning. As a coach who loves supporting others in their development, it’s a tremendous blessing to be a part of these intense, alive experiences. I am grateful to hold the space for this to happen. For whatever reason, this feels like my dharma.
What’s your message?
My aim is to assist the growth of kirtan by developing skilled, deep, engaged, and effective kirtan leaders who will share this amazing social practice far and wide.
I’m saddened when I hear of kirtan leaders who spend much of their time practicing at home, particularly practicing sargam (scales from Indian music). Kirtan is designed to be shared with others. It’s a social practice, and our individualistic world desperately needs community-building practices like kirtan. So as soon as they are ready, I encourage kirtan leaders to go out into the world and share what they have to offer with others. Why? Because this moves their learning from "interesting" to "relevant," and the latter is far more powerful. And it moves the practice from an individual to a social practice that shares the powerful, energetic experiences of kirtan with others.
You’re often on tour and have led kirtan at both Bhakti Fest West (in Joshua Tree, CA) and Bhakti Fest Midwest (in Madison, WI). The Bhakti festivals have been called “spiritual Woodstocks.” What’s your favorite part about being on the road?
Festivals are fun because you get to meet and hang out with other inspiring kirtan leaders. One of my favorite bands, very new to this scene, is The Householders. Years ago, I "virtually" met them through friends who attend programs at the Himalayan Institute (where a few of the band members live). We finally met this summer at Bhakti Fest Midwest and Serendipity Festival. After listening to their CDs, it was great to experience the energy of their live events. And recently it was also an honor to have several members of The Householders play with my band. I love how they blend so many modern, funky, and soulful musical influences with Sanskrit mantras in a way that feels relevant to our current time.
So I’d say what I love most about being on the road is really the people and kirtan leaders I get to meet. Each time I seem to make new friends and see old, familiar faces. I also get a chance to spend time with longtime students and build relationships with new ones. All of this gives us a chance to connect, explore, and deepen into leading the amazing musical/energetic practice of kirtan!
Finally, what’s next for you?
This fall, I’m excited to have space and time to reflect before extending back out into the world in early 2015. I feel inspired and nourished through work with my spiritual teacher and am starting to write about kirtan leadership based on the last five years of work with DKI students.
In 2015, we will continue to develop our programs for kirtan leaders. This includes both one-on-one coaching and group programs. Folks can keep an eye out for our Kirtan Leader Lab’s four-to-seven day programs for those who really want to go deep into learning to lead their band, as well as work on things like writing original chants and preparing to create a high-quality kirtan album.
For those who feel called to lead this practice, my aim is to help them deepen and develop into strong leaders, both in kirtan and in their lives.
Ultimately, my goal is to continue to help people feel the gratitude and happiness they so deeply desire through kirtan experiences. Also, to me, the only thing more fun than chanting is leading kirtan. So for those who feel called to lead this practice, my aim is to help them deepen and develop into strong leaders, both in kirtan and in their lives.
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."