The Soul Singer
Krishna Das combines Eastern moods and Western grooves to lift listeners
John Malloy / www.johnmalloy.com
In the fall of 2008, a week after my 42nd birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Gone was the assumption that my active lifestyle and healthy diet would guarantee me a long life. I had two small children, and when I told them “I am here for you, no matter what,” the words felt empty.
During this time of biopsies and surgeries and pathology reports, I rediscovered the music of Krishna Das, whose low, sonorous voice had been the soundtrack to my weekly yoga class for years. Listening to his CDs calmed me and gave me faith that everything would be OK, even if my worst fears came true.
As it turns out, I got lucky. The cancer was caught early, the doctors were able to treat it, and there’s only a small chance of recurrence. As I was recovering from my final surgery, I decided to attend a three-day workshop with Krishna Das at the Ananda Ashram, a spiritual retreat and educational center near New York City.
Krishna Das was born Jeffrey Kagel in 1947 on Long Island in New York. His parents were Jewish, but as a teenager he began reading books on Eastern religion, and he went on to study meditation in his 20s. In the early 1970s he met spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who told him about the guru Neem Karoli Baba, known to his followers as Maharaj-ji. Captivated by Ram Dass’ stories, Kagel traveled to India to meet the guru and spent nearly three years at his ashram. Maharaj-ji gave him an Indian name, Krishna Das, meaning “one who serves [the Hindu god] Krishna,” and introduced him to kirtan, the Indian devotional practice of chanting the names of God. Krishna Das returned to the United States and, over the years, developed his own signature chanting style, mixing traditional kirtan with Western harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities.
Today he stays on the road almost full time, leading kirtans around the world. He has released 14 CDs and recently wrote Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold, a mix of biography, teachings, and insights. He has recorded with Sting and sung for Madonna; the New York Times dubbed him “the chant master of American yoga.”
I spoke with Krishna Das after participating in a kirtan he led at the Ananda Ashram.
How would you describe kirtan?
It depends on who I’m talking to, because I don’t want to scare people away. If I say it’s “meditation with music,” some will be put off by that. In India they call it the “repetition of the sacred names of God,” but I don’t want to say that to someone who doesn’t believe in God. I don’t even know if I believe in God—not the one described in Western religious traditions anyway. In India people understand that God is within. There are Hindu images associated with God—deities like Krishna, Hanuman, and Kali—but when it comes down to it, these deities are symbols of the divine that lives inside each one of us.
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