Join in the Chant 

How Rick Rubin came to produce yoga music by Krishna Das.

According to Edward Said's famed doctrine, Orientalism, unthinking white people typically characterize all things non-Western as dangerous, cunning, promiscuous, and sly. The Oriental -- by which he means Arabs, Asians, and those in-between nationalities with whom we are currently at war -- is looked down upon by Westerners, because he is "separate, eccentric, backward, silently different, sensual, and passive. [The Orient] has a tendency toward despotism and away from progress. It displays feminine penetrability and supine malleability. Its progress and value are judged in terms of, and in comparison to, the West, so it is always the Other, the conquerable, and the inferior."

Said's premise is an astute outrage at the xenophobic demonization of "the Other," but what it doesn't acknowledge is that to many white people -- particularly white American males who are interested in the arts -- those attributes are considered to be positive. Indeed, "sensual," "passive," "despotic," "feminine," and "eccentric" are all words that could just as easily describe Mick Jagger circa 1969 -- not to mention the Strokes' Julian Casablancas.

This must be because a certain class of white man has looked to the Orient to escape the fetters of conventionality. Shelley, Byron, T.S. Eliot, George Harrison, Aldous Huxley, and John Walker Lindh: All these and many others have been held captive by a super-romantic vision of the Far East as the antithesis of Western materialism.

The locus of all such visions is always India, so perhaps it's not surprising that Indian music is well on its way back into the mainstream -- helped, although perhaps unconsciously, by the presence of Ravi Shankar's daughter, Norah Jones, and her half-sister Anoushka, who were both nominated for Grammies this year (and one of whom won eight). Jones' music doesn't sound Indian, but the sitar-laced sound of Indian music and the cultural currency of Hinduism in general is nevertheless on the rise, thanks in part to the American vogue for yoga and to popular movies such as Monsoon Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham. The sight of pretty girls carrying rolled-up purple mats around their necks is a common one, not just in Berkeley, but even in Des Moines. Invariably, many of those girls own CDs by devotional yoga chanter Krishna Das.

Das, formerly Jeffrey Kegal, is a singer and spiritual guide whose music -- or, as he calls it, "practice" -- combines Western and Eastern musical styles. On his songs he chants "the names of God" in Sanskrit to a background of throbbing, Indian-inflected sounds updated with Western-sounding grooves and instruments, including everything from harmoniums to fifty-voice choirs. In five years of recording, he has become one of the leading lights in yoga music, selling about 125,000 copies of his four self-released CDs, Breath of the Heart, Pilgrim Heart, Live ... on Earth, and One-Track Heart.


Das' music, played low, is a good background for any strenuous yoga workout, but the fact that it features background vocals by Sting and Beastie Boy Mike D probably doesn't hurt. For spiritual music, it's pretty accessible; the latest CD features the production work of Rick Rubin, who has worked with Slayer, the Beastie Boys, and Johnny Cash.

Das, who began his career as a rock musician and later began a jazz label, has taken advantage of a musical niche market that has escaped the constraints of the conventional music industry. Happily for him, questions about the MP3 controversy or "selling out" are irrelevant to his art. Instead, his business model is the idea of the grassroots independent label, whereby a person makes and distributes art directly to the interested parties. His CDs sell well at yoga barns across the United States, and his chanting workshops -- like the one he's holding this weekend at 7th Heaven Yoga in Berkeley -- regularly sell out. Still, his work begs the question of how any art form that decries all forms of commercialization can justify making itself available in an unabashedly commercial manner.

It's a question many a punk-rock artist has grappled with, but if you ask Das himself, he doesn't bat an eye. He says he began recording his chanting in 1996 because no one else was doing it at the time. "Why record?" he asks. "So people can hear it. Because they like it. So they can get into it. With the music comes the medicine, and the medicine is there to help us."

By medicine, Das means the practice of kirtan, aka "devotional" yoga, or chanting the names of God in Sanskrit as a loud form of meditation. Leading kirtan sessions is his main occupation.

The former blues guitarist barely seemed to break character from the devout yogi who chants for God's grace, but there were hints that he at least recognizes the distinction between rock gods and the names of God. Speaking by phone from Hawaii, where he was getting ready to conduct a day-long kirtan workshop, Das discussed the difference between the religious aspects of rock music and the "purer" intention of what he does for a living. Rock musicians, he says, are performers whose songs have story lines. His music is meaningless. It's not "my girlfriend left me" or "my boyfriend's an asshole." "Your mind is free to let go while you listen," he says. "I am not the object. The less ego involved, the deeper it is."

Das may sound flaky, but his theories aren't that far from rational thought. It can be argued that egotistical music is annoying, shallow, and boring. Besides, his main point is that chanting isn't music; it's devotional yoga. "It's meditation," he says. "It's a practice that teaches you about yourself. Music is an expression of feelings. It doesn't necessarily lighten your soul. It's a release, but it doesn't purify you."

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