The chants on Francesca Genco's CD Numinous River are the catchy kind that you hum while washing dishes hours after hearing them, even if you can't understand Sanskrit and even if you don't know Shiva from Kali or Lakshmi or the other Hindu deities whom they hail. The lilting contralto in which Genco sings helps. It might even also heal.
Having grown up in a musical family, Genco had been teaching yoga and performing improvisational singing for years when a friend showed her how to combine both passions by chanting with the help of the sruti box, a hand-cranked laptop harmonium that emits a pulsating consistent chord.
"When the British arrived in India to convert the Hindus, they brought pump organs to accompany their hymns," Genco explained. "The Indians saw the benefit of the instrument and chopped its legs off so that they could sit cross-legged on the ground while playing it." Sruti box in hand, "I felt immediately drawn to chanting and wanted to engage in it." From her experience with Zen Buddhism, she knew the transformative effect of intoned sutras. From her experience with yoga, she knew the sounds of Sanskrit, which are said to vibrate in a unique way that purifies and energizes the chakras. Soon she had moved from solo chanting to leading chant circles. While traditional Indian kirtan chanting is call-and-response, Genco prefers a group effort.
"I'm interested in giving people the opportunity to find their own expression through chanting," she marveled. "We co-create the sound. Yes, I'm leading. But I'm also responding. That's the beauty of it. They come up with things I could never think of."
In the circles, participants offer words, phrases, rhythms, and tunes from cultures around the world. Chanting, after all, has been a key part of myriad spiritual traditions for thousands of years.
"The syllables themselves have power," Genco said. "The names hold a power that evokes certain qualities in the body." Repetitive chants resonate through the head, bones, organs, and skin, she asserted. "The resonance sets up a frequency and holds that frequency. When I chant, it definitely changes my brainwaves and puts me into a place where I feel more spacious energetically, spiritually, and physically. I experience this as an opening and a widening of myself."
Sometimes she co-leads circles with a didgeridoo player and a clarinetist. Sometimes they spread what they call a "healing blanket" in front of the musicians, inviting participants to spread out on the blanket. "It's really nice," Genco said, "just to lie down and receive a sound."
At 4th Street Yoga (1809 4th St. #C, Berkeley) on Saturday, October 10, she teaches the first in a three-part series of workshops called "Singing the Body: Finding Your Voice in Chant and Sound Healing." Also a dancer and a trained bodyworker, Genco aims to help participants use what she calls "their embodied voice."
As the course begins, "I ask them to just lie on the floor, close their eyes, and get a sense of themselves physically. We're in culture that is in certain ways disembodied. ... But once you explore the intelligence of your body — which is accessible if you learn the language of it — then you can find out how and where sound resonates through it, just as you would familiarize yourself with any instrument you'd want to play. You have to look at it. You have to touch it." 2:30 p.m., $70-$150. Preregistration is recommended; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. 4thStreetYoga.com
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