Hailed as yoga's "rock star," Krishna Das put sacred Sanskrit mantras on the music map. His resonant baritone voice and energizing East-meets-West take on traditional Indian devotional chanting has become the soundtrack for the growing worldwide yoga movement throughout the past two decades.
Born Jeffrey Kagel, a baby boomer from suburban Long Island, N.Y., few artists in the kirtan (call-and-response chanting) genre have impacted the musical mainstream in quite the same way as Krishna Das. After a stint as the frontman for Soft White Underbelly (who would later change their name to Blue Öyster Cult) in the late '60s, Krishna Das traveled to India in 1970 where he became a follower of the spiritual teacher Neem Karoli Baba (Mahara-ji). In so doing, he found a musical vocation that would come to fruition at the dawn of the 21st century.
In amassing his deep catalog of classic chant albums, Krishna Das has worked with musical heavyweights such as GRAMMY winners Rick Rubin, Sting and Steely Dan's Walter Becker. He earned his first career GRAMMY nomination in 2012 for Best New Age Album for Live Ananda. In addition, he co-founded the world music label Karuna/Triloka Records; published a collection of stories, teachings and insights in Chants Of A Lifetime: Searching For A Heart Of Gold (2011); and was the subject of the 2012 feature documentary film, One Track Heart: The Story Of Krishna Das. He also has his own SiriusXM satellite radio station, Krishna Das Yoga Radio.
Released April 15, Krishna Das' latest album, Kirtan Wallah, brings refreshing echoes of country and folk music to the kirtan tradition. It's a new flavor for the eclectic artist, but one that makes a lot of sense. Kirtan is very much the yoga scene's folk music: a heartfelt and homespun style that unites people in song. In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Krishna Das discusses his new album and discovering the spiritual healing power of mantras and yoga.
What led you in the country/folk/Americana direction you took on Kirtan Wallah?
What a nice way of putting it. I never thought of it that way. Of course, I love country music. I grew up on Hank Williams. My little Jewish grandfather was an insane Hank Williams fan, which is inexplicable, but he had all Hank Williams' records and used to play them all the time. And my interest in that kind of music grew from there. I love bluegrass, too. I love singing it because the harmonies are really beautiful. David Nichtern, who produced [Kirtan Wallah], is a total bluegrass freak. So we just had fun. Every song seemed to find its own shape in its own way. [The] whole feeling of this [album] is kind of lighter and happier.
Is it difficult to integrate English lyrics with traditional Sanskrit mantras, as you do on "Sri Argala Stotram (Selected Verses)/Show Me Love"?
Yes, it can be challenging. "Sri Argala Stotram" is a traditional mantra invoking the goddess. … English is the language we screw ourselves up with. It's the language of the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves all the time. And most of those stories aren't happy ones. But by bringing some English words in this spiritual context, what I hope would happen is that it opens up a new channel for someone to feel and integrate all these things into the healing inner flow that singing mantras foster. It's a way to make the connection between who we are today and the enlightened beings we will eventually know ourselves to be.
Do you have any theories as to why many of the leading singers in the kirtan movement are all disciples of Neem Karoli Baba?
People who are foremost in a lot of worlds are disciples of Neem Karoli Baba. Danny Goleman, who wrote the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, is one of the leading authorities on Buddhist psychology. Larry Brilliant is one of the leading people working to improve the world health situation. He has an organization [Seva Foundation] that tries to locate epidemics and pandemics before they break out in the world. A lot of people who came through Maharaj-ji's ashram really lit up and went on to do really great things. I'm just a slacker, but some of these people are amazing.
Did you do a lot of chanting with Maharaj-ji?
Well he liked chanting a lot, so we would sing. It's wasn't very formal or anything because nothing around him was formal. It was all very funky, relaxed and low-key. But we knew he liked to hear chanting. And we figured if we chanted, he would let us hang out with him. And it worked.
Have you been doing yoga long?
I first learned yoga asanas [postures] on the floor of a tenement apartment on the Lower East Side in 1966 from a guy who had just come over from India. We were down there on a wood floor with cockroaches and mice running over us. I did a lot of asanas until I went to India in 1970. When I met Maharaj-ji a lot of things fell away. We were just living in this incredible deep, loving space with him, and there didn't seem to be anything to do. He loved us as we were — as we are. He didn't require us to be anything or do anything. So a lot of things fell away at that point — a lot of methodologies. And then later I picked [hatha yoga] up again, because I recognized my body needs to be in good shape and healthy. So that's when it started. And one of the first things that I kind of intuitively knew was that I needed to be able to sit cross-legged for long periods of time. I just had this intuition, right? So I did a lot of hip openers and things that would allow the knees to be relaxed in that crossed-leg position. And as it turns out, look what I do: I sit and sing in a cross-legged position for three hours without moving. So you see, it all worked out perfectly.
Between your albums, concerts, workshops, film projects, radio channel, and other endeavors, is mantra music your life year-round?
It's all I do. I'm very blessed. I get to sing with people. And really, my job is just singing with people and staying healthy enough [to] sing with people. That's all I have to do. How could it get any better than that?
(Veteran music journalist Alan di Perna is a contributing editor for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado. His liner notes credits include Santana Live At The Fillmore East, the deluxe reissue of AC/DC's The Razor's Edge and Rhino Records' Heavy Metal Hits Of The '80s [Vols. 1 and 3].)