Kirtan music—it’s not just for yoga anymore. Many new listeners still come through the doorway of Bhakti yoga, but the audience for the call-and-response chanting has grown into something bigger and more broadly based. Both listeners and musicians explain what the music means to them in Georgia Wyss’s Mantra: Sounds into Silence (trailer here), co-directed by Wari Om, which has several upcoming screenings at the Rubin Museum of Art, featuring special live kirtan performances.
For most avid listeners, kirtan music helps take them out of themselves and immerses them in a collective music-making experience. For the most part, they identify with the Vedic and Sikh traditions, but Buddhists are also represented. In fact, the most intriguing sequences feature the Venerable Lama Gyurme, the preeminent Tibetan Buddhist teacher in France, as he is accompanied by Jean-Philippe Rykiel, a French jazz musician who has lately adapted himself to world music contexts.
Frankly, we would have preferred to see more forms of experimental cross-pollenated kirtan, such as the hip-hop fusions of MC Yogi and the C.C. White’s aptly named Soulkirtan conception, which is indeed powerfully soulful. The music just seems more alive when it evolves and travels, at least according to our jazz ethos.
Nevertheless, the music is often striking and the scenery is quite picturesque. Yet, one of the most compelling performances is Jai Uttal’s San Quentin concert arranged by the prison’s Buddhist priest, Susan Shannon. Clearly, the music affects the audience deeply, which is all to the good, considering if there is a list of places that could use a greater sense of transcendent peace, San Quentin would surely rank towards the top. You also have to give Uttal (who has worked with Don Cherry and Bill Laswell) credit for tearing up his set, like he was playing to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden.
We would have enjoyed hearing a little more about the musicians’ influences and creative processes, but we go in for that kind of musical inside-baseball stuff. Regardless, the film is lovely to look at and listen to, while always making an effort to be accessible to a wide spectrum of viewers. Recommended for world music listeners and students of Eastern religion, Mantra: Sounds into Silence screens at the Rubin Museum on 3/16, 3/17, 3/18, 3/21, 3/22, twice on 3/24, and twice on 3/25.