Kirtan is a meditational and devotional chanting experience usually set to music. Traditionally, a Kirtan leader will sing through the chant, or a line in the chant, and then the participants/audience will sing the chant back to the leader. This happens back and forth, over and over again, in a form called, ‘call and response.’ The Kirtan band provides the accompanying music and melody.
The word Kirtan (kirtanam) comes from Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. It means praise or eulogy, and more casually means ‘to repeat or recite the Names’ of the divine. As the chant progresses, the mind becomes clear of mundane thoughts and is focused on the divine, creation, Creator and our place in the universe. Kirtan (chanting) is a very simple technique that can produce a very profound reconnection with the core of our being. I like to think of Kirtan as the easiest and most accessible form of meditation, especially for beginners. And in truth, once you learn some chants, you don’t necessarily need a band… you can chant internally.
Components of a Kirtan Band
In our current time, Kirtan bands come in all shapes and sizes, traditional and contemporary. A very traditional band might consist of tabla (two single-sided Indian drums), the harmonium (an air powered reed organ that looks like a piano in a box) and Karatalas or talas (small hand cymbals). Additional traditional instruments might include the tanpura (a droning, stringed instrument), the Bansuri (a bamboo flute) and the sitar (loosely—an Indian guitar).
The harmonium is often a staple and foundation of a kirtan band. While most harmoniums are made in India today, they are originally from Europe. The British brought them to India during their colonization in the mid-eighteen hundreds. They were easier to ship than grand pianos. The crafty Indians fell in love with them and the harmonium is now considered the prime instrument for devotional music in India.
Most harmoniums are made rather cheaply. Most folks in India can’t afford a quality, high-end instrument. The well-made harmoniums are few and are mostly shipped to the west. If you are thinking about buying a harmonium, find a reputable dealer in the U.S. (with a solid return policy) and really do your homework. The fancy bells and whistles, drones, scale shifters, key couplers, vibrato, etc. are very unnecessary and are entirely mechanical, subject to break down. What is most important are the reeds, the keys and the bellows.
For San Diegans: The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) bookstore in Encinitas has a good selection of harmoniums for sale. You can play them and find one that meets your needs.
In the last couple of decades, western contemporary Kirtan bands have incorporated every imaginable modern instrument and style of musical accompaniment. Rock, hip-hop, country, techno… with guitar, bass, drum kits, keyboards, violins and computers abound.
Pilgrimage of the Heart has offered Kirtan on a weekly basis for the last eight years. Our band instrumentation consists of harmonium and tabla, with guitar and bass, a blend of modern and traditional. Our chants are also a similar blend. We offer chants from the Hindu, Buddhist, Hebrew, Islam and Christian traditions and also contemporary songs in the gospel, blues and folk genres which mesh well with the underlying principle of connecting with the core of our being. We have a very diverse practice while maintaining a traditional atmosphere.
Kirtan has diverged from what might well be considered a folk music, devotional practice (Bhakti yoga), into concert-like events. While these large events might surely be inspiring and entertaining, participating in one or two events of this type annually doesn’t really build a foundation for Kirtan in your regular yoga/meditation practice. Learning the foundational chants and sharing your voice with friends and strangers alike quickly becomes a desired part of your life. At its least effective, Kirtan is an hour or two of entertainment. At its height, Kirtan is a profound meditational practice that adds vast depth to your overall yoga experience.
Starting a Kirtan Band
All this being said, if you want to start a Kirtan band the first thing you need to do is learn some chants. Most of the foundational mantras have public domain music associated with them. Or you can make up your own version. Then grab a guitar (they’re easier to come by than harmoniums). Kirtan can be played on any instrument. A keyboard can be used instead of a harmonium. A cajon or bongos or a djembe (any drum) can be used instead of tabla (tabla can be challenging to learn, although we have some videos where we go over the basics). Any instruments will do. What’s important is to fall in love with the practice and to lead with your heart!
Kirtan in San Diego
Pilgrimage of the Heart Kirtan gathers every Thursday evening at 8:30 p.m. in San Diego and we currently broadcast the events on Facebook and Instagram LIVE. We are the only weekly Kirtan practice in San Diego. Our events are open to all and are family friendly. We invite you to join us and bring a friend.
Lend your voice, and enliven your heart!
TOM WARNER: Tom came to Pilgrimage of the Heart in 2007 and Sujantra quickly recognized that Tom was both able and willing to organize a kirtan practice. The project changed and grew and changed again until in 2009 when the practice was a viable offering on a weekly basis. Since then Tom as lead over 400 Kirtan events at pilgrimage, only missing three practices in eight years. Tom’s love of kirtan knows no bounds and he is always striving to grow and expand the practice, offering the joy of spiritual chanting to as many people as possible.