If there’s such a thing as a rock ‘n roll star presiding over the music category of kirtan — the 500-year-old tradition of chanting Indian mantras — the honor belongs to Krishna Das. A self-proclaimed “white Jewish kid from Long Island,” he rocked out to Blue Oyster Cult and Jimi Hendrix growing up until he found his life’s work singing kirtan on his inaugural journey to India in his early twenties. Almost 40 years later, Krishna Das and his merry band of talented musicians tour with a feverish pitch, sharing his celebratory music with legions of fans who tap, clap, dance and, of course, sing along with this kindred spirit.
Today marks the release of Krishna Das’s first studio album in 10 years, Heart As Wide As The World, which you can listen to in its entirety here. KD (as his loyal fans call him) and I recently sat in the balcony of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in New York before a performance to discuss his mission as an artist, the power of music with a message, and the best coping methods for traffic jams.
1. Do you.
“I’ve always sung. I remember walking home from elementary school and I would just make these songs up. ‘Oh there’s a bird flying through the sky, and a tree and a thing.’ I would just sing the world as it passed me by. It was always a very natural part of me. When I first heard the chanting in India I just couldn’t believe it. There really was no thought process. Just, ‘oh, this is it.’
“In India, they put what are called the divine names into the music. It’s names of this place inside. The music carries your attention to that and holds it there. You change your perspective on whatever is happening; the name pulls you into yourself. Music is a powerful vehicle — what it’s going to do depends what you put inside it.”
2. Start where you are.
“The real choice we have is as individuals, on a daily basis. If you want to get rid of anger in the world you must get rid of it in your life. If I can’t even not get pissed off when someone cuts me off in a car, how am I going to change the fucking world? How I deal with that moment in myself, and how that moment reverberates, you know, out through time and space, that might be where change happens.
“The Dalai Lama said many times the seed of every action that we make as individuals stays with us, and when certain circumstances align themselves, that seed sprouts. How you live in this moment, that’s the big thing. That’s when life changes, when people meet this moment in a more open way, in a less reactive space.
“Everyone you meet all day is completely affected by you and you are affected by them. So no matter what you throw at me, no matter what negativity you have in you, the best thing I can do, for me and you, is not get caught in that.”
3. Spread the love.
“When I first starting singing, somebody said to me, ‘What time is sound check?’ and I said, ‘What’s that?’ It took me years to realize that the effect that the chanting would have was very largely connected to the way it sounded. I never thought about that, I just wanted to sing. That was my work: figuring out how to [communicate] this so it works.”
4. Don’t get too caught up in getting it right.
“[The world is] so overwhelming that there’s actually no possibility to understand it. My guru said, it’s better to love everybody than to try and figure it out.”