By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
I am an atheist and happy, most of the time, being so. I am rational and scientific, I hope, in most things, and happy, most of the time being so. I remain susceptible to mysticism, though, and thirsty for transcendence. I find these, ironically, in some types of religious music, including American gospel, and the Hindu kirtan music of Krishna Das, who’s just released this greatest-hits collection “Laughing At The Moon” and reminded me of my contradictions. Not incidentally, he’s again infused me with beauty.
Punk rock guitarist Pat Smear, reflecting on his religious background, remarked that he’d gone so far in the other direction, he wasn’t sure he believed in the concept of a soul. I want to believe in a soul. I define a soul as something within, not reducible to numbers and/or chemicals. I accept the strong possibility that everything is ultimately reducible to numbers and/or chemicals. I accept that wishing against that goes against rationality and scientific procedure, scientific inquiry. It remains something I can’t shake and I am not sure I want to shake. I hold it to me, a metaphysical stuffed animal to treasure and love. It may well be weakness. I ignore my rationality to keep it close.
Singer Tim Quirk once remarked that you didn’t have to believe in God, to believe in transcendence. Good news for me. When those lighting the path to transcendence believe in God, though—when they believe in the divinity (a concept I reject, rationally) of a living or dead human—I once again ignore a side of myself. The tradeoff for this specific ignorance: Great feelings of peace, deeps satisfaction, connection (however nonspecific) with others, and comfort.
Krishna Das, originally Jeffrey Kagel, a native of Long Island, New York state, sings in a Hindu style called “kirtan,” meaning, generally, devotional music concerned with call-and-response singing of the names of, and praise to, the divine. He takes his inspiration from his guru, the late Neem Karoli Baba, often called “Maharaj-ji.” The guru supplicated himself to the Hindu god Hanuman, so much of Krishna Das’ music devotes itself to Hanuman as well.
I hope you won’t need to know all of this to come to Krishna Das’ work, but I felt I should provide some background. “Laughing At The Moon”’s leadoff track, “Hara Hara Mahaadeva,” from his debut album “One Track Heart” (1996) comes on uptempo, practically a jitterbug, with multi-tracked, caffeinated vocals. Soon after he’d arrive at his trademark sound: Slow to mid-tempo, riding on drone-y chords from the singer’s harmonium, KD calling out with his baritone, inflections borrowed from American gospel, soul music (conceptually, gospel music with secular lyrics), and even, at times, from the rock music the singer grew up on (a much-younger Jeffrey Kagel once almost joined Blue Oyster Cult).
Lyrical devotion can grow quite complex, as with “Shri Hanuman Chaleese/Gate Of Sweet Nectar,” from 2003’s “Door Of Faith” album (produced by Rick Rubin, an enthusiastic fan of the singer who’s worked with everyone from Johnny Cash to the Beastie Boys). On the other hand, though, “Rock In A Heart Space,” from 2005’s “All One,” runs fourteen minutes and contains little more than that Hindu known to many Americans. “Hare Krishna/Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/Hare Rama/Hare Rama/Rama Rama Hare Hare,” The Maha Mantra. The singer adds an extra syllable to “Krish-a-na,” and sends the Maha Mantra out; his backup singers respond. They complete a circuit, and the cycling energy heats up.
In concert, Krishna Das makes this circuit with the entire audience. I missed a chance to see him, once; I hope I’ll have another. I may never be spiritually complete; I have doubts. I have certain wounds.
But for one night, at least, I’d like to chance being that kind of complete. (end)
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.