From the first opening “Om” to the last chant of “Om Namah Shivaya” at the Krishna Das concert on March 16 at the UDC Theater of the Arts, the audience began having a lovefest filled with people hugging each other and dancing in the aisles.
Krishna Das, or KD as he is called by his friends, is widely known as the “rock star” of yoga, and a worldwide icon hailed as the best-selling Western chant artist of all time. At UDC, the vocalist performed a two and a half hour set filled with traditional kirtan (Hindu devotional music where the names of God are chanted) and a blend of traditional and western instruments and rhythm. The soulful call and response chanting initially got off to a slow start, but after 10 minutes into the program, the audience had gotten the hang of it.
A 2012 Grammy Award nominee for his album, ”Live Ananda,” KD was born as Jeffrey Kagel on Long Island in New York and began chanting after traveling to India in August 1970 and meeting the guru, Neem Karoli Baba, known to most as Maharaj-ji.
He was given the name Krishna Das and began to chant as part of following the path of Bhakti yoga—the yoga of devotion. In interviews, the chant master said that people who attend his concerts receive a transmission of his guru’s presence, his guru’s love. “He knocks me out of the way. He is doing everything.”
That everything includes a bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll feel to his concerts that is infectious given the musical influences on the musician’s early life. Growing up, his western influences included legends like Ray Charles, Steely Dan, Mississippi John Hurt and Bruce Springsteen (who he calls the “Bodhisattva of New Jersey”). His latest studio album, “Trust in the Heart,” was released in October 2017.
At UDC, the musician, on harmonium, was joined by two gifted accompanists, tabla player Arjun Bruggeman and Mark Gorman on bass. They began with “Shri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram” as members of the audience hesitantly joined in. The slow pace gradually escalated, and after several repetitions, many in the audience left their seats to chant and dance freely in the aisles. By the time the musicians had performed a string of other chants, including “Om Namo Bhagavate Vaasudevaayaa” “Narayana,” ”Ma Durga” and “Govinda Hare Govinda Hare,” the joy in the room had risen to a feverish pitch.
Onstage, the chant master seemed almost in a meditative state with his eyes closed and in deep concentration. When he did speak to the audience, it was to share a funny story about how he once tried to follow along and chant a difficult melody with gifted singers in India. When he was able to chant a particularly complex melody in a high-pitched voice, the leader, who in the past had ignored him, looked over and simply said, “Nice!”
Born Jewish, Krishna Das said in past interviews that he himself is not even sure whether he believes in God, but many in attendance said they felt a higher presence in the hall. Twice, the vocalist, who has sold over 300,000 albums worldwide, paused to chant prayers, asking the audience to chant along asking that all have good health and enough to eat, or that all may live in a world without fear.
The trio ended the evening with the songs “Hare Ram Hare Krishna” and “Om Namaha Shivaya,” chants to the Hindu Gods Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva. The electricity in the room seemed to flow out to the surrounding streets as people left, arm in arm, smiling and seemingly blissed out. Krishna Das’ performance was a powerful transmission of melody to all of those in attendance.