Krishna Das laughs at the idea that someone might consider him a guru. “A guru is a realized being, someone who knows what’s happening,” he says on the phone from his home in Rockland County. “And I don’t have a fucking clue.”
For the unfamiliar—those of you who don’t frequent yoga studios, where his albums are in heavy rotation—Krishna Das is arguably the Western world’s most popular singer of kirtan, a call-and-response form of chantsinging usually accompanied by instruments such as the harmonium. And while kirtan (a Sanskrit word meaning “to repeat”) is a Hindu tradition born on the Indian subcontinent many centuries ago, Krishna Das (nee Jeffrey Kagel) was born to Jewish parents at Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side in 1947.
In 1968, having migrated slightly eastward from Queens to Long Island, Kagel met Richard Alpert (also known as Ram Dass), who had just returned from India after spending time there with a guru named Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharaj-ji (not to be confused with the Beatles’ Maharishi). Upon witnessing a certain peace and happiness that Ram Dass exuded, Kagel decided in 1970 to travel to India to find some of the same for himself.
After spending almost three years with Maharaj-ji and immersing himself in kirtan, Kagel was instructed by the guru—who had given him the name Krishna Das, which is Hindu for “servant of god”—to return to America in 1973. Later that year, Maharaj-ji died.
“That sent me into a real tailspin,” recalls KD, as he prefers to be called. “Because being with him, hanging out with him, was the only thing that had really worked for me. It was the thing that made me feel better than anything else in the world. And when that wasn’t available, I really had a very hard time. All my shadow stuff started coming up, and my life got very complicated and full of a lot of suffering and unhappiness. And it really took me 20 years before I could sing as a spiritual practice—where it was really meaningful to me, and not just emotional crying.”
At the end of those two decades, during the summer of ‘94, KD was invited by the owners of Jivamukti Yoga to come sing at their studio in the East Village. KD recalls that maybe eight or 10 people would show up for those first kirtans. Now when he performs—which happened about 200 times last year—he is more likely to draw a crowd of 500 to 1,000 or, in the case of a recent concert in Sao Paulo, 12,000.
This week, KD will perform in front of his largest New York audience to date when he sings at Town Hall, part of a tour supporting the live double disc, Heart Full of Soul. KD, who performs in jeans and a T-shirt or flannel instead of the flowing robes one might expect, will be backed by a band that consists of, among others, guitarist Dave Nichtern, who wrote the easy-rock Maria Muldaur classic, “Midnight at the Oasis.”
Given the secular setting, the two-hour concert could encourage the theologically averse to embrace Krishna Das’ booming, trance-inducing melodies. KD fully understands that venues like churches and yoga shalas—as well as his repertoire, the bulk of which consists of Hindu mantras and sacred hymns invoking the names of holy deities—can be a turn-off to those who avoid anything considered religious. “It’s unfortunate that somebody would deny themselves some happiness because of their issues,” he says. “But we all do that, in a million different ways everyday, so it’s not a big deal.” Still, this leaves KD too often singing only to the choir, so to speak. “Sometimes I wish I could sing in different places, like with poor kids. But there’s too much bias against what I do, naturally, from the culture.
And it’s a little bit too weird.” “Once I went to sing in a prison in Virginia,” he continues. “There were a couple a hundred guys there, and it was all fine until I sang ‘Hare Krishna.’Then they all looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, that’s what this is.’ And that was it. I lost half the room right there.”
KD isn’t on a mission to convert anyone. He doesn’t consider himself a Hindu, or subscribe to any particular religion for that matter. “There’s no reason to be anything other than a good human being. Anything else causes problems.”
“There’s only one Divine thing,” he says. “And that’s love, the love that lives within each person, that part of each one of us that is the same.That’s Divine.That’s God. And the practice of chanting like this is to come into contact with that place in yourself.To find that love, that peace inside.”
> Krishna Das
Feb. 4, Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St. (betw. Broadway & Sixth Ave.), 212-307-4100; 8, $35-$40
Krishna Das feels the love.