*photos by George Long
Festival goers were initially perplexed at the Sanskrit chanting and call response style of kirtan.
Under a sparkling blue May sky at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, in the same week that BB King, Pearl Jam, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis Costello, Dr. John, The Black Crowes and hundreds of other international, national, and regional musical acts entertained tens of thousands of fans, Sean Johnson—kirtan singer, yoga teacher, and owner of Wild Lotus Yoga Studio in New Orleans, climbed upon the stage with his two band mates and a harmonium and sang the devotional music of India. If fest goers were initially perplexed at the Sanskrit chanting and call and response style of kirtan, they were soon won over. Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band, whose album Devaloka was recently released on Nutone Records, have reinvented the ancient tradition of kirtan into an undoubtedly American sound.
Just a few steps from where Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band played, gospel choirs in the nearby tent lifted the audience similarly to its feet, singing and clapping; while past the food vendors Mardi Gras Indians led second lines and chanted iko, iko, jackamo fee na nay, words not so different to American ears than shri ram jai ram jai jai ram om; and at the other end of the fairgrounds, Widespread Panic fans eagerly awaited the band’s long, trance-dancing jams. Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band delivered the same crowd-pleasing, soul-drenched music Jazz Fest fans expect. That it was in Sanskrit did not dampen the effect.
Yoga’s devotional music held its own opposite Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, an exciting development for lovers of kirtan, if not surprising. For some years, American practitioners of Bhakti Yoga—the branch of yoga that celebrates music, singing, and poetry as primary ways of participating in a devotional, heart—centered relationship with the world, have been shaping their music for western ears. From the evolution of Krishna Das and Jai Uttal to the experimentation of MC Yogi, Wah! and Girish, kirtan is edging its way out of the yoga studio and thankfully, beyond New Age channels. The vast combination of the mantras chanted upon the broad canvas of the harmonium offer ample space for innovative rhythm, melody, and instrumentation. If ever there were a style of music ready for improvisation, kirtan is it. And New Orleans Jazz Fest proved the perfect place for its debut to a wider audience.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Johnson plays kirtan in the cradle of American musical confluence—the birthplace of jazz, the home of the second line brass bands, a city where funk and blues, Latin and rock, klezmer and punk and zydeco cohabit and fuse happily. Likewise, The Wild Lotus Band’s kirtan is complex in character without sacrificing its yogic origins. Johnson’s vocals drive the songs with the earthy soul of an R&B singer, the longing of a rock star and a lilting beauty that belies his experience in Celtic music. Leading the response, Gwendolyn Colman’s honey—rich voice is so lovely you hesitate to muddy it with your own voice (though not for long, as the infectious joy of the band eventually seduces your voice from your mouth). When the two vocalists harmonize and ricochet their voices off one another, the effect is heart—buzzing. Scatting in Sanskrit? Johnson does that, too, in the first twenty-minute number, “Shiva Shankara,” bopping over the molten bass line Alvin Young laid down.
Throughout the show, Young, on a fretless electric bass (and displaying similar mastery on guitar for “Jai Hanuman” and “Ram Sita Ram”) established a fat, jazzy bedrock for the sumptuous layers of harmonium and vocals and got downright funky! Make that phunky.
Young is a veteran of the New Orleans music scene who has played with legendary Crescent City greats Wynton and Branford Marsalis, James Booker, and James Black.
Gwendolyn Colman’s virtuosic percussion—a dizzying array of drums she flashes her fingers over, thumps into tribal rhythms or coaxes into a smooth swing—people who had never heard of Shiva Nataraj, the Indian deity of the dancing Universe—were grooving, clapping and singing along.
Kirtan is central to festivals like Bhakti Fest and other yoga gatherings, its inclusion for the first time at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival signifies a deeper mainstreaming of yoga and the emergence of kirtan into a wider musical sphere. Success relies on the ability of the music to connect with its listeners and Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band showed that they could do just that, grooving and moving the crowd, so that when they closed with their only English song of the day, “I’ll Fly Away,” (Louisiana’s roots music magazine Offbeat called it “the most powerful rendition of the standard performed at the Festival“) the audience sang, not a few tears streaming.
Indian gospel met southern gospel, coming full circle, and under a sparkling blue Louisiana sky, several hundred fest goers danced into the current of Bhakti Yoga, realizing, perhaps not until afterwards, that they had known the steps all along.