The Hare Krishnas have mellowed out.
Long gone are the fundamentalist pointing fingers, the stalking at the airports, the scandals. And from the beginning of their call-and-response percussion-led chants, or kirtan, the night of May 1 at the G.I.G. (the second monthly installment of the devotionals they’ve been presenting along with several other local, secular singer-songwriters) sent a loud message: the Hare Krishnas are finally in San Antonio, the only major city in the United States that so far has resisted their presence (legendary Vishnujana Swami tried in the early ’70s, with little success).
While last month’s kirtan was fine but not perfect, this time the devotees and spectators gave a lesson of how a kirtan should sound.
In the kirtan world you have the professionals who make a living of it (Krishna Das and Jai Uttal are my favorites); then you have the devotees who live for it and never charge a cent. Gunagrahi Swami (an American-born, Argentina-based celibate guru who performs and preaches around the world) belongs to the latter group, and he was fine singing and playing a couple of tubano drums inside G.I.G. Still, it was a Canada-based Bengali devotee named Ajamila who stole the show. His voice is the typical Bengali voice: pitch-perfect, melodious, and sweet, but with character. He knew when to speed up and when to slow down, and he communicated perfectly with the Swami. The group was completed by Advaitacarya Dasa (a Croatian devotee who leads the San Antonio temple) on mrdanga (an Indian two-headed drum), Edhani Dasa on kartalas (cymbals), and local singer-songwriter Kimberly Cotton also on kartalas. They all played for about an hour, dividing the kirtan into two non-stop 30 minute sets.
For the first one, they started very slowly singing the pranam mantras (prayers to their guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who brought the chanting to America in 1965), and went on with prayers for Krishna and all present, ending in a growing chant-and-response of the maha-mantra, or “the great chant of deliverance”: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. (Krishna and Rama are two names for God, and Hare is the name of the female pleasure potency, or hladini shakti, of Krishna. In other words: God, the woman.)
The crowd was divided into the enthusiastic participants (dancing and playing cymbals, tambourines, or just clapping their hands), the respectful observers, and a handful of bystanders who exited quickly. But the kirtan was strong and, after furiously peaking at the 30-minute mark, gradually descended into a subtle percussion fanfare, to start all over again. This time, it began with the om namo bhagavate vasudevaya prayers (obeisances to Krishna, “the son of Vasudeva,” sung before holy scriptures are read).
Why the Swami (who used to be a professional musician) used western drums instead of mrdanga, only he knows. He’s obviously a good percussionist in the academic sense (he knows how to put his hands on the skins, and he was playing an Indian pattern in an AfroCuban style), but why not just use a mrdanga? Call me a purist, but the mixing of East and West unavoidably dilutes the power of kirtan.
If he thought, “I could play a bucket, but this guy Ajamila is going to steal the show anyway,” he would’ve been right.