Gaura Vani combines sitars and chants with rock for a genre-defying musical mix.
Gaura Vani, a Hare Krishna musician who combines traditional Indian kirtan music with Western elements such as 12-string guitar, gospel choruses, and hip-hop rhythms, is a musical product of his environments.
Born in Los Angeles, Vani was sent to India at a young age to study sacred music by his Hare Krishna parents. Upon completing his studies he returned to the States, where he began combining spiritual Indian kirtans - a form of rhythmic, call-and-response chanting over various musical accompaniments - with the other music of his youth: rock, pop, and world music.
The result is a genre-defying hybrid of ancient Indian sacred music and modern Western styles. Sitars, mridanga drums, and chanted vocals meld smoothly with guitars and the occasional hip-hop vocal flow, all with clearly defined verses and choruses and a focus on melody not usually found in traditional Indian music.
And though his music contains deeply spiritual lyrics and a layering of styles that spans centuries and continents, Vani maintains a surprisingly simple interpretation of sacred music and its relationship to its audience.
“Kirtan is just the process of using chant and music to clean the heart,’’ he said from his home outside the nation’s capital. “It’s like an ancient can of Scrubbing Bubbles to clean our hearts and help figure out who we are beyond the body.’’
Comparing a 5,000-year-old form of meditation chanting to a modern-day bathroom cleaner may sound like an odd analogy, but it makes sense when coming from a cross-cultural artist like Vani, whose latest CD, “Ten Million Moons,’’ is gaining attention in spiritual music circles as well as in the secular world.
“Music is just an expression of the heart and soul,’’ he says. “All I’m doing is drinking from different springs and bringing together in my heart what seems natural.’’
Intentional or not, Vani’s eclectic style has allowed him to take his songs and message from Krishna temples and yoga studios to a wider range of audiences. In the past year Vani has performed at diverse venues for all types of music fans from backpacked Chicago indie rockers at Lollapalooza to hippies and modern primitives in the Nevada desert at Burning Man to a jubilantly dancing crowd at the Church of the Holy City in Washington, D.C., who had gathered to celebrate President Obama’s inauguration.
Vani and his band, As Kindred Spirits, bring their unique brand of kirtan music to Boston Common on Sunday. The performance is sponsored by the Boston chapter of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness to celebrate Rath Yatra, one of the most sacred holidays in the Hindu world.
The embracing of different cultures and musical styles is apparent not only in Vani’s music but also in his signing to Matrology, a subdivision of Equal Vision Records, a New York label best known for releasing punk rock and hard-hitting emo albums.
Ray Cappo, a yoga teacher and former punk musician who leads spiritual pilgrimages to India and now answers to the Krishna name Raghunath, says elements of the hardcore punk subculture and Hare Krishna teachings have far more in common than many realize. “A lot of people in the hardcore scene are very concerned with similar issues that occur in Krishna consciousness like anti-materialism, vegetarianism, and straight edge,’’ Raghunath says, referring to the cultural movement that eschews drugs and alcohol.
“Twenty-five years later that is how we still live our lives,’’ says Raghunath, formerly of the underground band Shelter, which combined Krishna-influenced lyrics with razor-sharp guitars and blistering drum beats. “Some things may have changed with time, but it’s a form of continual evolution, and in one sense it’s exactly what we were doing in the punk scene when we were teenagers.’’
Vani shares Raghunath’s belief that music inspired by spirituality should retain core elements but be able to evolve with the times and changing tastes of followers.
“Spiritual music is a living tradition . . . from ‘Johnny B. Goode’ to the Bad Brains,’’ says Vani. “It grows and is alive. The music we make is just a natural progression of that.’’