Devotion Through Music

Cheb i Sabbah - photo from

Global spiritual traditions are being evolved by artists fusing the best of many worlds, electronic and traditional, into forms of devotion applicable to us all.

The objects of devotion are seemingly limitless. Some are defined by culture, and appear as figures, crosses or mandalas; others are expressed through different mediums, such as chanting, painting and mathematics. (Yes, some consider numbers to be sacred.) Making music is possibly the most ubiquitous and widespread form of devotion the world knows. When applied in this manner, music is a form of prayer; it is an oblation, ritual and correspondence.

While Western traditions hold that prayers only travel in one direction, and may or may not be “answered” (depending on the whim of their deities or the sincerity of the effort), in the East it is not considered you, specifically, who is praying through music. A more appropriate way to phrase the resulting music would be to say that it is the god using you, through the sound, as a vehicle for prayer.

This is generally true of polytheistic theologies, where gods are not overseers as much as emotional states or natural phenomena. The entire spectrum of Ancient Near Eastern and Indian deities represented natural forces (wind, water, sky, fire), while the Greeks understood love as Eros, regeneration as Persephone and direction as Hecate. If there is one entity at the helm, he or she (or more appropriately, it) is not so much a ruler as a caretaker of the process. To be engaged fully with the deity is to be full aware of yourself. This is why in Buddhism, enlightenment is called “self-realization”. It is an awakening to the inherent similarities between the individual and the external world, both of which are involved in one continuous process; namely, existence.

Devotion, then, is a form of psychology rather than some quasi-unreliable mystical state. A person that is devoted does not have to be devoted “to” something. Simply being devotional is enough. As stated, people like to choose idols, gurus or historical persons as the object of their worship. And many, like the artists that follow, use music as the vehicle for expressing their sonic sanctity.

Cheb i Sabbah’s latest CD, Devotion, picks up where his trilogy exploring classical forms of Indian music tempered by electronica -- Shri Durga, MahaMaya and Krishna Lila -- concluded. Throughout those masterpieces he tastefully merged the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions, as well as the poetic bhajans, with beats and rhythms in a completely fresh way. He revitalized the elder sounds for younger ears, employing the best in both worlds to help craft new ways of experiencing South Asian music. After briefly exploring female vocalists from his native Algeria and Morocco on La Kahena, he returns to India to investigate the topic at hand. With Devotion, Sabbah’s unique ear and unwavering faith in global music continues.

While his previous works centered on specific sounds, Devotion revolves around one basic idea: the title. Kirtan, the call-and-response art of India, covers two aspects of faith. The first is communal. One singer calls a line; the chorus follows. This is a way of connecting those gathered in a tribute to each other, as well as the force of these sacred words, which are believed to offer access to higher states of consciousness. The second is those higher states, otherwise known as divinities. This is how religion simultaneously works on both the personal and cosmic scale. There is no saying “I am here, and that god there is separate from me.” It is all one.

So go the first two songs, “Jai Bhavani” and “Koi Bole Ram Ram”, with their back-forth tributes to Durga and Rama. What’s so refreshing about Sabbah’s work is the emphasis on the bass and drums. Many recordings of this music rely on trebly vocals and high-pitched string instruments and harmoniums. Sabbah tempers those aspects and boosts the low-end, adding to the hypnosis created by the repetition of lyrics.

Throw in gorgeous flutes, as on a stunning rendition of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Kinna Sohna”, and a rhythmic avalanche capable of holding down any dance floor, “Qalanderi”. These latter two songs pull from the Pakistani qawwali tradition (featuring Master Saleem and Riffat Sultana, respectively). From whatever country each vocalist arrives, the underlying theme, as the record title denotes, is a surrender to the forces around us, and inside of us.

Turning inward has been a lifelong occupation for Krishna Das. While there are many reasons for the popularity of kirtan in America -- the community that yoga has created for it, the social continuation of the Western antiphon tradition -- his is the first name to mind when contemplating this Indian art. He spent over three years at the foot of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, studying this repetitive and engaging art form, where Sanskrit texts are recycled from voice to cosmos, from mind to heart, from singer to listener back to singer.

Chanting with KD is an ecstatic experience, mostly due to the overwhelmingly humble and honest teachings of the man himself. He is the true embodiment of the concept of the conduit: a human that channels music for healing and inspiration. His latest record, Flow of Grace, can be considered a personal act of devotion for the singer, as it is dedicated to his favorite deity, Hanuman.

The monkey god known in asana classes for initiating the challenging split pose, he was actually surprised when his guru offered him the name "Krishna Das". The man formerly known as Jeff Kagel was certain that his new identity would be a form of Hanuman. Alas, he accepted, as all devotees do, but his love for the monkey god never quieted; as it goes, Hanuman is the epitome of bhakti (devotion). This two-CD set features an instructional kirtan disc for those wishing to partake at home. The two versions of the “Hanuman Chalisa”, one solo, the other with a chorus of dozens, features gorgeous piano melodies, as well as decorative guitar work aside the more traditional harmonium and tablas.

The common factor, aside from devotion, between Cheb and KD is also apparent on Jamshied Sharifi’s latest: friendship. On his second solo album, One, the former Berklee College of Music professor and film composer invites a host of friends that he’s played alongside of and toured with over the years. Between his two occupations, academia and global music, Sharifi has created a rich and textured album that pulls from Moroccan, Tibetan, African, Indian and Iranian sources while maintaining a consistent and even gravity amongst a flurry of voices and instruments.

If the voice on the title track sounds familiar, it’s no surprise. Over the past decade, Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo has been heard worldwide, playing to audiences of tens of thousands, often entirely a cappella. Such is the power of her voice; alone, it is a captivating. When blended into Sharifi’s soundscape -- which here includes Malian singer Abdoulaye Diabaté -- the effects are magnified.

This entire record is larger than life, owing to Diabaté's background in scores. He plays his intricately woven kora on “Darfur is Burning”, Hassan Hakmoun and Paula Cole trade lyrics on “A Charlotte Sky”, Sussan Deyhim lends her Tehran heritage to the percussive “Seeta”, Irish whistling appears via Solas veteran Séamus Egan. And on what is perhaps the most enchanting song, ghazal maestro Vishal Vaid seduces ears and heart on “The Ship Sails; The Ocean is Gone”, using a similar poetic intent as he has lent to Karsh Kale’s albums.

Photo from

Again, devotion does not need to be “to” something -- simply being committed is enough to be considered devout. Within these three album,s dozens of voices are fused together, all of which point toward the benefits of technology and communications. When such technologies are used to merge sound, the results, while familiar, are brand new. Never before has the world experienced such a rapid community sharing and exploring together, musically, artistically, poetically, politically. The manifestation of these new sounds is in itself a form of devotion that we can all partake in.

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