Wah!: “If It’s Playful, I’m There.”
Mantra music artist Wah! describes her groovy, pop-music approach to devotional chanting.
Wah! is sitting on a lawn at the Omega Institute campus in Rhinebeck, New York. It’s the end of a four-day chanting festival, during which she took the stage half a dozen times. A stranger approaches and drops to his knees. He is a middle-aged man who spent much of the festival dancing ecstatically, smiling broadly, hands flapping like prayer flags. He takes one of her hands in both of his and touches his forehead to it. He’s in a good place, this one.
“We all need to get to a good place,” Wah! says when the man is gone. “Some people who have come to the concert are already in a good place, and other people are not. Let’s balance out those vibrations so everybody can feel the wideness of their own heart.”
Her music is sensual enough to accompany candelight and playful enough to make you shimmy.
Devotional chanting, stripped of musical and spiritual jargon, is just this: getting to a good place. No one leaves a Wah! concert with a heavy heart, shoulders hunched, or feet shuffling. Most people get what they came for, whether it’s solace, insight, inspiration, or a sweaty good time. “The mantras are designed to lead you into infinite space,” she says. But unlike many spiritual practices, chanting needn’t be approached with solemnity. “The music has emotional content. If it’s serious and drab and educational, I’m just so not there. And if it’s got a groove, and if it’s playful, I’m there.” Her music is sensual enough to accompany candlelight and playful enough to make a grown man shimmy. She lays down a groove that makes for a head-bopping drive home.
Wah! is her legal name, exclamation point and all. It was given to her by a yoga teacher. “‘Wah!’ is something you might say when you can’t say anything else, when it’s so incredible, so juicy, so indescribable, so beyond what you expected—that’s the expression: ‘Wah!’” Her discography, which includes ancient Sanskrit chants and ethereal English songs, tells the story of her spiritual transformation, which began not in India but in Africa.
Wah! was in her teens when she traveled to Ghana and Nigeria as part of an American dance company. She was a musician, singer, dancer, and conservatory student at Oberlin College. She stayed in Ghana when her stint with the ensemble ended and lived in a shamanic shrine in the hills. “I had an experience in Africa,” she recalls. “People gather during sunrise, and they drum, and they dance—a swirling whirling dervish kind of dance—and then as the sun rises, if there are any complaints within the community, they’re brought before the elders. Once the problems are solved, you start the day. People go to the fields or make baskets.
“I just loved getting up before the sun and hearing the drums, getting together and starting the day with community,” she says. “It triggered something in me, some memory in me of what spiritual life should be. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but once I went to Africa, I went ‘Oh yeah, that’s right!’”
A government coup cut short her stay in Ghana. She returned to the States, finished her performing arts degree, and moved to New York City, where she danced and choreographed, composed and performed music, and tried to cultivate the sense of community she’d found in Africa. “I moved into a meditation and yoga center. It was ten to twelve hippies living together.” Wah! had learned the rudiments of classical Indian music at Oberlin and played for her housemates. They sat and listened to the complex melodies but didn’t participate. “My experience of wanting people to be involved kind of forced the simplification of the meditation music,” Wah! says. She switched to simple mantras and call-and-response. It worked. The audience became involved.
Today, Wah!’s music is a staple at yoga studios, and she performs in front of audiences that already know the words. She plays violin and electric bass, among other instruments, and her band bears a closer resemblance to R.E.M. than a Ravi Shankar ensemble. The only instrumental link to Indian music is the harmonium (introduced to India by the British in the colonial era). “I’ve been trying to weave together elements of pop within the chanting because pop is the heartbeat—the pulse—of American culture. Bhajans and chanting are the pulse of Indian culture, before Westernization. There’s been a lot of pop exploration and instrumentation exploration until I really found what I wanted. And I have found it.”