When Sean Johnson evacuated New Orleans in August 2005, he took a few changes of clothes, his harmonium, and a box of music and mystical poetry. Hurricane Katrina hit the next day. Unable to go home, Johnson embarked on a kirtan tour to raise money for hurricane relief—and to collect himself. “The kirtan was very therapeutic,” he says. His music is as much a product of his New Orleans roots as it is of formal study. “There’s music in the water, in the air, in the heat and the humidity here, and in the way people walk and talk,” says Johnson, who grew up listening to jazz, hip hop, and rock, and sang in the city’s children’s choir. In college he studied the singing style of his Irish ancestors and got hooked on Middle Eastern music. Later he apprenticed with South Indian musician and author Russill Paul. “When I lead kirtan now, it’s a really rich brew of all these traditions.”
Snatam Kaur’s day begins at a time when many musicians are heading to bed. At 4 a.m., she and her husband begin morning sadhana, two-and-a-half hours of Kundalini Yoga and chanting and prayer in the Sikh tradition. When she’s on tour, they’re joined by bandmates and crew. “As an artist, a lot of my inspiration comes at that time, a lot of the tunes and ideas for future albums,” says Snatam, who has churned out six solo albums since 2002. “It’s my well that I draw from.” Snatam’s parents turned to Sikhism shortly after she was born. She learned kirtan from her mother and musical improvisation from her father, a former manager for the Grateful Dead. Her kirtans include Gurmukhi chants drawn from Sikh scriptures and English aphorisms composed by her spiritual teacher, Yogi Bhajan, who brought Kundalini Yoga to the West in the 1960s. Between chants, she teaches yoga and meditation. “I look at each concert as a full experience of healing. The words that we share are considered to be a technology of transformation—almost like opening up a medicine cabinet.”
Wade Morissette had just started college when his roommate handed him a copy of The Mystic Path to Cosmic Powers. He dropped out; cosmic powers intrigued him more than environmental law. Over the next decade, the Ottawa native traveled to India four times, studying with yoga masters and spiritual teachers, including K. Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. At the Osho meditation resort in Pune, he was given the Sanskrit name Atmo Sargam, or “innermost scales of music.” Morissette had grown up in a musical household, studying piano, guitar, and a West African hand drum called djembe. His twin sister, Alanis, had risen to stardom singing about heartbreak and revenge scenarios. “Getting that Sanskrit name lit a fire under me,” he says. He resolved to seek God in song. “At the end of the day, it is a practice. At the end of the day, I’m really not trying to sell records.”
The kirtan represents my inner world, and my musical presentation represents my present incarnation as someone who’s crazy about guitars and loves the singer-songwriter idiom.<br/>–David Newman
Less than two months after taking the bar exam in 1992, David Newman opened a yoga center in Philadelphia. He’d give it a year, he figured, and fall back on his law degree if Yoga on Main failed. “I never had to go back to practicing law,” he says. Krishna Das and Bhagavan Das came to sing at the studio, reawakening Newman’s passion for music. Their guru, Neem Karoli Baba, “installed himself in my heart,” says Newman, and chanting became the keystone of his yoga practice. “The kirtan represents my inner world, and my musical presentation represents my present incarnation as someone who’s crazy about guitars and loves the singer-songwriter idiom,” says Newman, who fronted bands in high school and studied music in college. His nontraditional presentation has found fans in kirtan’s birthplace. Recently he signed a deal with a New Delhi–based record company to distribute his music in India.
Dave Stringer didn’t go to India in 1990 to find a guru. He went because he was broke and couldn’t refuse a job shooting films for the first Siddha Yoga ashram. “All the images of people sitting in meditation ‘blissed out’ were actually a turnoff for me rather than an enticement,” he says. At the ashram in Ganeshpuri, the skeptic became an enthusiast in short order. “The experience of chanting, which was at first total nonsense to me, was strangely compelling, not only musically but in terms of how I felt—completely ecstatic,” says Stringer, a trained jazz musician. About a decade after returning to Los Angeles, he traded his career in film editing for one in kirtan. “I don’t ask people who come to my kirtans to believe in it. I ask them to suspend their disbelief for a long enough time to give it a go and see what happens.”
They met 10 years ago at a songwriting workshop in Portland, Oregon. (He recites the exact date without the slightest pause.) She was a part-time folk singer as well as a therapist and yoga teacher. He’d opened for Carlos Santana, scored music for the internationally syndicated soap opera Santa Barbara, and studied classical Indian music with masters Zakir Hussain and Ali Akbar Khan. In 2000, the year they wed, Benjy was invited to play an Indian stringed instrument called esraj during the shavasana portion of a workshop by Anusara Yoga founder John Friend. Live accompaniment to yoga practice became a specialty of the Wertheimers, who record and tour as Shantala. The couple has released two chant albums and tours for about nine months of the year. “One of the great joys is coming back to the same locations year after year and seeing how the community is growing,” says Benjy.