From sitting on his dad’s lap as he sang devotional songs, to studying harmonium and singing in ISKCON’s gurukula schools, kirtan was the only music Gaura Vani Dasa knew as a child.
Even later, when he educated himself in modern pop and rock music, paintakingly picking his way through the decades, kirtan remained his one true love. So when he met fellow kirtan enthusiast Shyam Kishor while singing for Hare Krishna rock group Transcendence, the two immediately struck up a friendship. “Shyam had studied Indian classical music from a young age,” says Gaura Vani. “So using both our skills, we began to put together a unique sound that was rock, pop and classical Indian influenced, but still rooted in the bhakti kirtan tradition.”
The duo amassed a group of talented friends, and began recording and performing under the name As Kindred Spirits in 1998. Their first album, Nectar of Devotion, was self-published in 2005. With its memorable melodies, passionate group singing and hand-clapping, it was well-received within the international devotee community. But the outside world remained oblivious.
With their next album Ten Million Moons however, As Kindred Spirits hope to reach people who’ve never heard kirtan before. “We’re currently trying to approach distributors in the music industry, to see if anybody is willing to take a leap with a group like ours and try something brand new,” Gaura Vani says. “We want our music to be judged unto itself, as something that could potentially appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners.”
As Kindred Spirits’ upbeat songs and recognizable hooks and melodies have already yielded a varied performance circuit for them, including temples, yoga studios, cultural events, and even rock festivals such as Lolapalooza. They plan to tour again in 2009 to promote the new album, focusing on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as their central theme.
“We feel that the origins of kirtan are not talked about enough in the yoga community,” Gaura Vani says. “They don’t know that the first person to chant kirtan in public was Lord Chaitanya. We want to help people understand him and the importance of his contribution to kirtan and to the world.”
Live performances are very special for As Kindred Spirits, as the group is sprinkled throughout the East Coast, with core members in Washington, New York, and Alachua. “We don’t get the chance to play together or even see each other very often, so when we do, we’re smiling ear to ear, laughing and joking,” Gaura Vani says. “People can see that in our performances, and they really respond to it.”
The live experience is further enhanced by visuals such as eye-catching costumes, display lyrics so that audiences can sing along, and background images from gurukuli photographer Rasacharya. Gauravani’s wife Vrinda also occasionally performs Bharat-Natyam dance with the group, telling the stories to the songs.
As Kindred Spirits also try to keep things interesting musically by putting their own spin on traditional sanskrit songs and mantras. “We squash and stretch traditional melodies, repeat lines, and make up our own harmonies,” Gaura Vani says. “For the new album, for instance, I composed a counter melody to the basic Radha Krishna Prana Mora tune that everybody knows. Our goal is to help people get a deeper experience of the song, and to do that we’ll apply every possible musical idea that fits.”
Gaura Vani likes to go deep with the recording process too. For him, recording kirtan is about more than just musicianship—it’s a mystical experience. “The kirtan may not exist in real time, but you’re capturing the energy and mood of loving devotional offerings from so many Vaishnavas, now and for the future,” he says. “There’s something undeniably magical about that.”
Recording sessions start out spontaneously, with two or three musicians laying down the rhythm and rough vocals in a live performance. Next, they’ll record the same piece several times, until it has just the right feel. This foundation is then built upon with a tapestry of layers, of which there’s certainly no lack on the forthcoming Ten Million Moons: The album features cello, flute, violin, bass guitar, piano, harmonium, vocals, mrdangas, and a variety of other percussion instruments. “When each musician listens to the one before them, they’re inspired to give an even more heartfelt performance,” Gaura Vani says. “It’s a virtual kirtan, bringing people together just like a real one.”
Purists argue that kirtan is better when it isn’t organized, choreographed or recorded. While Gaura Vani agrees that live kirtan yields a more intense and dynamic experience, he says that recording has its own special meditation. “When an artist paints a picture of Lord Chaitanya, he spends a lot of time meditating on it—meditation that is worship in its own right. In the same way, when we spend hours fine-tuning every note, every instrument fade, every reverb, sound and vocal, what we’re really doing is meditating on how we can create the deepest experience and connection with the Holy Name.”
If listners’ reactions are anything to go by, they’ve succeeded. American soldier Partha Sarathi Dasa says that he uses As Kindred Spirit’s kirtans to ground himself after fighting on the streets of Iraq. Ladies ask for their record to be played while giving birth to their babies, because it helps them transcend the experience. And friends of Gaura Vani have told him that the music has helped them get through some of the darkest times in their lives.
For Gaura Vani himself, kirtan is the only way to transcend the struggles of this world. “I work a full-time job, making government training videos,” he says. “And it’s very hard to come back after a long day at work and eke out a few hours for doing music. But for me it’s like finding time to eat or drink. I can’t function without it.”
He quotes renowned poet William Blake: Inspiration is a manifestation of the divine, and should never be ignored. “I believe that too—Krishna has given us all gifts, innate natural tendencies and talents that we just gravitate towards, and that are somehow connected to our relationship with Him. And if we don’t use those gifts to reciprocate with our friends, family, community and with Krishna, then we’re being misers.”
“With As Kindred Spirits, we’re using whatever talents we have to present Krishna’s gift of kirtan in a way that people unfamiliar with it can appreciate,” says Gauravani. “Like many other devotees out there who are trying to do the same, we just want to give Chaitanya’s kirtan movement to the world in a big way. And that’s what As Kindred Spirits is all about.”
News, live dates, audio and video are all available at www.gauravani.com. As Kindred Spirits’ entire first album, Nectar of Devotion, is also available on free streaming audio. And check the site regularly for samples from the upcoming new album, Ten Million Moons.