Music for healing the mind and body
- Published: 12 June 2010
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Master chant artist and singer-songwriter David Newman is a pioneer of a new genre of music, blending folk and kirtan to uplift and inspire change and wellbeing. He spoke with Katrina Fox.
I played various instruments, and I’ve always been a lover of music, since I was a young child. The first instrument that really stuck was the guitar, at age 13. I wrote songs and played in a band.
At Bowdoin College in Maine, I was a music major and studied musicology. After graduation I tried to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter, but instead I got involved in the business of music. I lived in Los Angeles from 1987-1990 working in the music business, learning the fundamentals of the business. I went to law school in 1990. After that, in 1992, I founded Yoga on Main in Philadelphia.
During that time music was more of a hobby. But in the late 1990s I experienced a resurgence of interest in music, almost as offshoot of yoga. Bhakti yoga and kirtan both employ meditative mantras, and as I practiced more and more kirtans, my interest in music increased. In 2002 I started offering kirtans and concerts and making recordings, becoming a full-time musician and incorporating the devotional aspects with Bhakti and kirtan.
You've developed a new genre that mixes folk and kirtan - why did you do this and what is the significance of blending the two?
Kirtan opens itself up to quite a bit of musical interpretation, including jazz and hip hop and other contemporary influences. I wouldn’t say I’ve single-handedly developed the genre, but I’ve been at the forefront of blending singer-songwriter folk with kirtan.
The significance is the merging of culture in today’s world. It’s so important to bring cultures together and to share our oneness of spirit. We in North America are not always familiar with the breadth of cultures that exist.
For me, the kirtan-folk genre bridges the gap. It’s a way for Westerners to feel connected to other cultures, via the mantras of the East. It creates a link between East and West, for the listener from the West to instantly recognize or be familiar with the music. Mantras become more palatable to Westerners.
That’s where my heart leads me. I’m deeply drawn to the Indian tradition and a lover of the singer-songwriting tradition. This genre gives me a way to merge two great passions of mine. It’s a very satisfying creative and spiritual process, bringing the two sides of myself in union, in harmony.
What exactly is 'kirtan'?
Kirtan is the practice of call-and-response mantra chanting. It’s a practice that developed over many generations in India, as an outlet to express devotion. Literally, kirtan is “to praise that which is exalted” in Sanskrit. Kirtan flows from Bhakti yoga, which is the yoga of love.
Kirtan is a practice that allows those who chant to experience love and open their hearts. The practice is centered around getting beyond the mind itself, bringing one’s consciousness—mind and body—into a state of harmony.
Kirtan can be chanted by an individual, but traditionally it’s a group devotional practice and includes some sort of instrumentation. Kirtan tends to be melodic and something everyone can do.
How do you go about creating this type of music?
Sometimes it’s completely spontaneous—in the middle of the night I’ll hear a melody or song in my head. Other times I’m more disciplined. I set hours to practice and write. Creating something from nothing is part of my spirituality. I feel like I’m mining, bringing something back from the depths, and I feel moved to contribute some sense of beauty to the world.
It’s a form of meditation, in essence, sometimes easy and graceful. Other times I get a nugget and it takes time to polish up. Sometimes my work starts with a chant, and sometimes it’ll start with a song, and I take it from there.
What do you hope to achieve with your music?
I believe in universal spirituality and I also believe that everybody has the capacity to lead peaceful and joyful lives. So much of life is conducted in a stressful state; it’s a complex world we live in.
My music for me serves as a reminder that underneath the struggles and tension there’s something more. The more attention we give to the “underneath,” the more happiness we can experience. What I bring forth is joyful, inspiring, a reminder of that spiritual space. Part of my mission is to help others get in touch with that joyful place, and reflect that place with my music.
Your music is uplifting with songs about love and freedom for all. How does your everyday life reflect the messages of love, peace, freedom and compassion for all?
I lead a meditative lifestyle—I practice meditation and yoga and a great bit of prayer. I ask to be guided. It’s a long journey and no one’s perfect, but my prayer is that each day I ask to be guided. I ask to be more selfless, kinder, more compassionate—in all ways, with my wife and family, with my community and with random people who show up in my life. I ask to be an example of that.
Every day is an opportunity to shed my own ego. I do things like practice ahimsa, which was Ghandi’s main teaching, nonviolence. I live a vegetarian lifestyle and strive to communicate in ways that are harmonious. I consider my words carefully and try not to hurt others. It’s a work in progress.
Do you consider yourself an activist (either outside of or through your music)? If so, please expand on this.
I’m an activist in that I’m actively seeking to transform the world we live in, through teachings and my music and living a meditative lifestyle and particularly in giving to certain charities that are close to my heart.
I work with Charity Water, a project that works for clean water. Shanti Uganda is a project for which I’m an ambassador; the organization deals with bringing certain kinds of tools and sanitary conditions to certain African communities dealing with AIDS.
There are some other foundations I work with too, and during the last American Presidential election I hosted charity benefits for Barack Obama’s candidacy. My primary activism is through my music and a demonstration of my life. I travel a lot and spread the music and the love.
Your latest album To Be Home was recorded in Woodstock, and co-produced by you and Trina Shoemaker, the three-time Grammy Award winner best known for her work with Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris. How did this come about?
I’ve been making records with Nutone Records, a division of Nettwerk, and I’ve had the opportunity to explore working in a variety of styles. To Be Home is my sixth record, and I really wanted to try something new, a new direction.
I contacted several managers who had worked with different producers. I sent out demos and had several conversations with various producers. The first time I spoke with Trina there was an instantaneous rapport, both personally and musically.
Trina had really delved in to the demos, taken notes and tried some mantras, all of which were new to her. The idea of a spiritual path was intriguing to her, and I was impressed. It was like love at first sight on a creative level.
You mention George Harrison as one of your musical inspirations - why? In what way does he inspire you?
George Harrison was a great songwriter and a great musician who was also deeply committed to a spiritual path. That always translated into his songs—“My Sweet Lord,” “Give Me Love.” He communicated spiritually through his lyrics, his voice, his heart. He also had a great interest in Indian spirituality.
Who are some of your other musical inspirations and why?
Peter Gabriel—I resonated with his musicality and lyrical content. I always felt he had a great deal of depth. Joni Mitchell was for me a revolutionary singer-songwriter. Revolutionary because of her approach to the guitar, her range as a singer, how she communicated a very reflective message. She drew you in to whole other worlds. Neil Young. His voice was mysterious and comforting at the same time. He’s a heart-centered being.
Who are your spiritual inspirations?
All musicians who inspire me are spiritual beings. Music is the language of the soul. I have a spiritual guide, Neem Karoli Baba, who is a great source of inspiration to me. He died in 1973, so meditations serve me. I get spiritually inspired by people in my life—by my wife, Mira, for instance—and nature. Many of the great saints and sages I encounter by meditation and reading are inspiring. This is in the Indian tradition. Amma, the hugging saint, is very inspirational to me.
Tell us about your own spiritual journey including yogic practice.
I was first introduced to meditation by my parents, who took me to Transcendental Meditation (TM) meetings as a teenager. I’ve followed these interests for thirty years. I have a busy life that includes a lot of travel, and unless I’m spiritually connected it’s hard to do.
I carve into every day my spiritual practice using different tools—quiet meditation, chanting, physical yoga, breathing practice, practicing loving kindness, taking responsibility in life, actively looking to seek and behold divinity in life. Kirtan is a form of yoga, which simply means union. Any practice that allows me to see union is spiritual. It’s been a journey for me.
When I was younger I always felt my spiritual path would make me more detached and lead me to distant places. Now that I’m older I’m acutely aware of seeing spirituality in the mundane and I experience life in the mundane, rather than leaving my life to experience the spiritual. This path has led me to enjoy my life more; it’s rooted in a richness that comes from within. The mundane and the spiritual are not two different things.
Why the title To Be Home?
The title song, “To Be Home,” I wrote because I spend 70% of my time on the road. I began to see the world as my home. And then, when I’m in my actual, physical home, I really appreciate it. I’ve found that being home within myself I can be anywhere. I’ve created conditions around me to feel at home but now I can carry “home” with me.
Music is to inquire what it means to be home. Being centered is being home within oneself and is the foundation. It’s the greatest thing we can give ourselves. Circumstances may change but we’re not thrown off by things that happen to us.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the new album and some of the individual songs.
It had been a couple years since I’d put out my last album, Love, Peace, Chant, also on Nutone/Nettwerk. All along I’d been creating, writing new songs. Very simply, I wanted to document what I’d created in those last couple years. I wanted to make this record more transparent than the last one. I wanted a clear lens between what I say and what is heard.
I lived at the studio in Woodstock for two weeks—that way of making music is very spontaneous. I worked with musicians who could translate that desire for transparency. I could not hide in any way with this record. It’s not a live record but much came about through live sessions.
With the support of Trina, I could be myself in front of the microphone. It’s a tender record, not made with any agenda—to dance to or do yoga to. I just speak/sing—my heart to my listeners’ hearts.
As for individual songs, I wrote “Heartsong” President Obama’s election. It’s half folk song, half Sanskrit. I felt a tremendous enthusiasm within myself, that the tide of this country was changing. There was a movement toward connecting with a younger generation that was very inspiring to me.
Another song that stands out for me is “Beautiful Soul.” I had just read the book Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult by Jayanti Tamm (Harmony Books, 2009). I was very touched by it.
Then I was headed to Bermuda to teach and sing, and someone there told me that John Lennon came to Bermuda to write. In thinking about John Lennon and in thinking about Jayanti Tamm’s journey, I was determined to write a song in Bermuda, and out came “Beautiful Soul.”
This is your sixth album. How does it differ from previous ones?
To Be Home came in a quick, two-week burst in Woodstock. Working with all live musicians—there were no loops or electronic components to the music—I was really focused on the feel of this record. I was more interested in the feel of the music rather than creating a polished sound.
It’s a vulnerable sound in a way that is me through and through. I didn’t want to hide behind production in any way. Also, I was interested in having more of a dialogue with my wife, Mira, who sings backup vocals on the record.
I was interested in having more of her beautiful voice on the CD. More than ever, this record was intended to merge the worlds of folk and kirtan…indicative of the fact I used a rock-and-roll producer!
You work in a very different genre to the more mainstream 'pop' that's peddled by major music companies. How easy/difficult is it to navigate the music industry and get your works distributed?
I’m blessed to be signed to a label filled with pop and R&B artists. Nettwek is distributed by Sony Music, and that helps. The advent of digital music and downloading is very different now.
Funny enough, niche musicians are more able in this new world to make a living. It’s not mainstream, but rather like a large city. The niches are like neighborhoods. My music is devotional, meditative, yogic—all niche markets, which have built-in audiences and venues such as the yoga and spirit centers where I perform.
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