We talked with Radha Ellen Katz about making music, the art of devotion, and all things kirtan in anticipation of Bhakti Caravan’s guest performance next Sunday 3/19 at 6pm! Get your tickets here!
Before the show, here’s everything you need to know!
What is kirtan?
Kirtan is a call-and-response form of music, with relatively simple lines of text and spirited, passionate chanting – of mantras along with many names of the divine and phrases found in scriptures. While this musical form originated in India and is typically done in Sanskrit or other Indian languages, it can be translated into any language. We have several Hebrew chants in our repertoire and are learning English, Spanish, French, Sufi and Seikh poetry as well.
Frequently a chant begins slowly – almost meditatively – then builds to a pitch and slows down again, taking the participants on a journey from stillness into aliveness, joy and abandon, then back to stillness… in some ways symbolic of the life cycles we all are immersed in. When the chant finishes we are very still — we breathe, even meditate, and take in the impact of the energies that have been evoked through the chant. The mantras, even the syllables, along with the melodies and the meaning of the words combine to create a very “high” vibrational field. This is experienced by, and shared among all participants. So Kirtan is not really a performance; it’s an organic, inclusive experience during which the ego has the opportunity to disappear, if only for awhile!
How does kirtan help to heal the mind?
The mind creates suffering. It is unintentional, but it is inherent in our make-up. We learn to predict danger from the time we are born – or even likely before. Then, in an effort to protect us, the mind starts to do what it does best: it anticipates danger, finds problems and looks for solutions. If we want to help our minds be relieved of this incessant sense of responsibility, we need to learn how to convince it that it can take a break. We can do this through sending messages from the body to the brain, conveying to the body that it is really, really safe – and kirtan does this. The mind has a job in kirtan: to chant the mantras. The body is engaged in rhythmic, deep breathing – messaging the body that it is safe. Vibrations of joy, love, protection, surrender and peace move through us, further enhancing our body’s conviction that it can take a vacation from its usual state of vigilance. Trauma, loss, abandonment, shame and fear can finally be free to move through and be released from the energy field of the body, as the waves of pleasure that come with our satsang – our gathering in truth – merge with our kirtan practice.
What would you tell someone with no kirtan experience to expect at your event on Sunday?
At our kirtan events we take time to connect with the group. We explain and teach as we go, weaving meaning, stories, mindfulness, breath and connection into the experience. There’s no judgement, and prior experience or singing skill are NOT required!!!
On Bhakti Caravan
What is Bhakti Caravan?
Radha and The Bhakti Caravan kirtan band is an ensemble of musicians who share a love for this ancient devotional practice and are each deeply devoted to spiritual awakening. Our passion for musicality shows up in a mix of styles, including blues, reggae, rock and traditional Hindu chants, Bulgarian dumbek, improvisational cello, rhythmic guitar and bass riffs, rich vocal harmonies, harmonium and plaintiff chants to the Divine.
What are the origins of Bhakti Caravan?
I started The Bhakti Caravan after moving back to Chicago from California around 2006… the seeds of it were planted with a tabla and a djembe player, both of whom I met while following the guru Amritanandamayi Mata Devi (“Amma”). Amma teaches that chanting kirtan (or bhajans, which are longer, more complex songs based on devotional poems) is the most powerful form of spiritual expansion and awakening.
Due to logistical issues we eventually had to replace our drummer with another percussionist, Taz, and later we found our precious Tosho. We added bass player (James) and soon after, a guitarist (David), both of whom melted right into and co-created our sound. I prayed for vocalists to harmonize and improvise with me, who could understand the soul of kirtan from a body-heart-mind-spirit place. Gradually I was blessed with three women: Marla, Andrea and Karishma. Then came or lively djembe player, AJ. Recently we met Khari, an intuitive cellist, who has added a richness beyond words. Because this is a labor of love, we are flexible with each other’s work schedules. Sometimes we have to juggle. But we try to play together as much as we humanly can. Whenever we have a chance to surrender in kirtan together, we are One.
In addition to Chaturanga Holistic Fitness, where do you play?
We typically play at yoga studios and events around Chicago, Northern Illinois and Wisconsin, including the Eye-on-India program and Children’s Yoga Festival, Veggie Fest and ChiKaGo. We will be joining other major kirtan bands at the Milwaukee Kirtan Festival this July. James, our bass player (and my partner) and I play weekly with the Ashram musicians at MA Center Chicago, Amma’s largest ashram in the US. We’ve also been incredibly blessed to play with other visiting and local kirtan artists, including Devi 2000, Amy and the Bliss Band and Jai Utal when he was in Chicago in 2015.
About Radha Ellen Katz
How did you become a musician?
I have always been in love with music. My middle name, Sheera, means “song” in Hebrew; I started playing piano at 5, guitar and flute throughout high school, played in bands after college and even became a music therapist for awhile.
You are a psychotherapist by profession. How has the practice of kirtan helped your professional practice?
That’s a fabulous question! Kirtan offers me a “second life” where I can be nourished spiritually, create and express my deepest self, connect with others and give away what I love most through my voice – love. Having the opportunity to be an instrument of healing and joy is a gift that I cherish, a blessing that I never ever take lightly. This fulfillment allows me to come to my therapy sessions as a balanced, content and spiritually connected human being. I imagine that translates to the work I do.
Has kirtan affected other areas of your life?
Kirtan is pervasive in my life. I either chant or listen to it every day – in the car, during yoga, before or after meditation, on walks… When I release myself into kirtan I am able to “lose my mind” in a good way. I fill myself with the higher qualities of love, surrender and bliss anywhere, any time. It’s just there for me – for us – always… and I’m excited to share it with you!
Tickets on sale now for Bhakti Caravan, live at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness on 3/19 at 6pm here!
Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door
Find Bhakti Caravan on Facebook!
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