Non-traditional Kirtan

How far out is too far out? A proposal!

First published in Evolving Magazine,, December 2012


“Kirtan - (Sanskrit "to repeat;”also Sankirtan”) is call-and-response chanting or "responsory" performed in India's devotional traditions. …Kirtan practice involves chanting hymns or mantras to the accompaniment of instruments such as the harmonium, the two-headed mrdanga or pakawaj drum, and karatal hand cymbals.”

National Public Radio

“…as Kirtan finds its way into American culture, it is evolving in unexpected ways."

Traditional Kirtan

Kirtan, a type of devotional singing that has evolved through hundreds of years in India, is the call-response chanting in Sanskrit of the names or attributes of Hindu gods and goddesses. It was introduced to the US by Paramahansa Yogananda in the 1920s, becoming much more popular during the 1960s with the rapid growth of the Krisna movement. The familiar sight of street chanting by saffron-robed devotees playing Eastern instruments was a close approximation to Kirtan as it might have looked and sounded in India.

Krishna Das
Non-traditional Kirtan

If Kirtan as introduced by Yogananda and practiced by 1960s Krisnas can be said to define traditional Kirtan in America, then the significant changes to Kirtan that have happened since then should logically be considered non-traditional Kirtan. In fact, non-traditional Kirtan has greatly evolved, thanks in large part to the efforts of internationally known Kirtan artists such as Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Dave Stringer, and Deva Premal. These artists have added unique instrumentation, highly developed arrangements, and a blend of chants from other traditions to the basic foundation of call-response chants in Sanskrit.

Jai Uttal

And the evolution continues...

New Age Kirtan

This has become extremely popular recently. For instance, Deva Premal and Miten combine traditional Sanskrit with chants from Sufi, Hopi, Uruba, Tibetan, Nepali and other traditions, plus songs with empowering messages and soothing arrangements, often with lush synthesizer backgrounds and flute leads.

"Deva Premal... is a musician known for her meditative spiritual New Age music, which puts ancient Sanskrit mantras into atmospheric, contemporary settings."
From Wikipedia, October 2011

Hip Hop Kirtan

This is another very popular type of non-traditional Kirtan, appealing as it does to a younger audience. MC Yogi is undoubtedly the best known artist, currently enjoying wide success with his Elephant Power raps. The picture pretty much says it all.

And from the American folk tradition comes… hold on to your socks…

Bluegrass Kirtan!

“BlueGrass Kirtan is ancient sacred words in Sanskrit, Latin, and Tibetan chanted with old-time American Appalachian fiddle and banjo tunes. It is chanting that will knock your socks off!”

Whole Earth Kirtan
Most of the six Kirtan bands where I live (Lawrence, KS) combine Sanskrit chants with original chants and chants from other spiritual traditions. For example, our band (Whole Earth Kirtan) offers a world view of spiritual practices by including chants from Sufi, Native American, Pagan/Wiccan, Christian, Rock & Roll and original sources along with traditional Sanskrit chants.

Hebrew Kirtan
Rabbi Hahn organizes call-response gatherings with "words drawn from the Hebrew Bible and tthe SIDDUR (the traditional Jewish prayerbook), as well as from the languague of KABBALAH (Jewish mysticism)." (CD notes from "Kirtan Rabbi Live")

"Hebrew Kirtan is fully participatory, call-and-response chant where short, sacred phrases from the Jewish tradition are treated as powerful, universal meditations. It is at once contemplative, ecstatic and — simply fun!" -

And who knows where the explorations will lead next...

Jazz Kirtan? Techno Kirtan? Rock Kirtan? Ukulele Kirtan?

All of this should come as no surprise, given the Western world's penchant for pushing the boundaries of traditional practices. Call-response chanting has probably been part of most, if not every, culture that ever existed. Indeed, as any new parent knows, call-response (imitation) is the most primitive form of communication, so this is in our souls, as they say. It is not hard to imagine our most ancient ancestors sitting around the campfire doing call-response grunting. All it took was the tribal shaman to start leading the grunting and it automatically became a spiritual practice.

The call-response sound of Native American chants and Negro spirituals are familiar to most Americans, just as chants from Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Sufi, and other religions are equally well known there. For that matter, anyone attending a large rock concert where the audience engages in a repetitious call-response with the performer (“Love is all we need…”) has experienced a hint of the practice.

Has non-traditional kirtan gone too far?

Some might insist that traditional kirtan is the only legitimate form and that all these modifications are interesting spiritual practices, but not "kirtan." I mean no disrespect when I note that this is a very old argument that has always been going on between traditionalists and non-traditionalists, whether the subject is religion, art, or proper grammar. For me, the simple solution is to use the term "non-traditional kirtan" to note the evolving structure.

Kirtan is not a piece of dusty ethnomusicological taxidermy, it's a living, breathing organism spreading its genes out into the world. The Bhaktis had no use for orthodoxy. They saw the expression and form of the divine in every direction they looked. From this perspective, even music that cannot be characterized as traditional can still be expressive of the Bhaktis original intention.

Dave Stringer, from liner notes on his "Japa" CD


...that is not to say "kirtan" is just another word for call-response chanting, the direction the definition seems to be headed. The difference, of course, is that the the term "kirtan" comes from a long tradition that honors India's devotional beliefs. Regardless of how non-traditional the approach might be to this, including incorporating chants from other spiritual traditions as well, it makes sense to me that these basic elements should be included before the term "kirtan" is appropriate.

So - with the understanding that this might seem too liberal for kirtan purists and too conservative for spiritual chant explorers, I propose that the term "kirtan" be used in describing an event only if the basic elements of call-response (including instrumental responses) and Indian devotional beliefs are represented to at least some degree. For example, Deva Premal is known for sometimes performing Sanskrit chants along with others from Sufi, Hopi, Uruba, Tibetan, and Nepali sources, so the term "kirtan" is appropriate.

"Hebrew Kirtan," however, does not seem to me to be an appropriate term since the only element left is call-response chanting. This is spiritual chanting to be sure, and in listening to Rabbi Hahn's "Live" CD it is obvious that this is a powerful practice with many overlaps with kirtan. However, since the design is focused only on Jewish beliefs, I suggest it is a misnomer to use the Sanskrit term "kirtan."

And that's my 2 cents worth.

Larry Carter

Take me HOME Country Roads
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since July 14th, 2011