The other day I was asked to lead a kirtan – a ‘rocking kirtan’ – at a youth Comedy Night. At 52 years old I don’t exactly ‘rock’ any more, and I informed the young devotees who invited me, with a smile of resignation, that maybe they shouldn’t get their hopes up too much. But it was alright. What they meant was that my kirtan should be enthusiastic enough to have everyone up and dancing; that it should be a memorable and uplifting finish to an evening of fun. So I tried my best to blend musicality with spirituality and it seemed to work. At least I can report that everyone was up and dancing.
My daughter Tulasi played the harmonium for me. She is always enthusiastic for kirtan and often leads at other Friday night youth events. She has a strong voice and a good sense of rhythm. Her sister Jahnavi plays both harmonium and violin and sings too. Two days later both girls were conducting a two-hour kirtan session in the university town of Oxford. In a few weeks Jahnavi will be off to South Africa, playing violin with a kirtan band called As Kindred Spirits. Hope it all goes well for her. Here she is playing to the happy crowds at the Toronto Rathayatra Festival.
There’s a thread of music running through the family. My father’s father had a band in the 1940s, and my father was a good pianist throughout his life. In the Royal Air Force he used to play piano for singalongs after the evening meal. That’s where my mother met him. My mother’s father was a local Methodist preacher and had a good speaking and singing voice. My mother has always loved to sing. My sister sings in a barber-shop quartet and her son Nick has dedicated himself to music at the Brighton Institute of Music. He presently plays bass in a ‘melodic punk’ band From Plan to Progress.
From Plan to Progress: My nephew Nick, who plays bass, is on the far left
On my wife’s side there is lots of music and she herself is good at the piano. She shares a great-grandfather with Paula Abdul, one of the judges of American Idol who, along with England’s Simon Cowell have listened to singing from tens of thousands of young hopefuls.
Music is an important vehicle for messages and wherever there’s ever been a revolution you’ll find that there’s always been popular songs that people have sung. Certainly throughout history the revolutionary spiritual message of Vaishnavism has always been accompanied by music, songs and hearty communal singing.
Yet Bhaktivinode Thakur, a great teacher of Vaishnavism back in the late 1800s, said that while music is important in the performance of kirtan, its always subordinate to the lyrics: the holy name of Krishna. He said that if you want to weld two metals together you can make it easier if you use a third substance – a flux. The flux acts as a catalyst to bring about the speedy reactions that weld the two metals together but ultimately it disappears. Similarly, he says, the holy names of Krishna and the ear of the listener are the two items that need to be ‘welded together.’ The music is the flux that helps the process. So kirtan is not exactly a musical performance, but if you have music it helps.
Narottama Das Thakur
Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur
Back in the 17th century Narottama Das Thakur could play six musical instruments and I’m presuming that helped his audiences to sing along. He wrote some of the most beautiful songs in the Bengali language which are still sung today. Srila Prabhupada sung for us and encouraged musicians to use their talents for Krishna. George Harrison of The Beatles notably took everything he was taught by Srila Prabhupada and turned it into popular music through which the message reached millions. And there have been several more like him, thank God.
Everyone has a voice, and everyone can sing. In these days of recorded music – the first time in history when we no longer sing but use machines to do it for us – we would do well to recover our singing voices, at least for a few minutes a day. And the best of all songs are those which describe Krishna, or God. And if we sing those songs we’ll always be up and dancing.