From Mongolian overtone chanting to Peruvian nose flutes to Catholic masses and Indian ragas, “music is part of every spiritual tradition,” Ananda Marga monk Dada Nabhaniilananda recently reminded us, via e-mail, from the road.
Maybe so — but not every spiritual musician is blessed with an appellation like Dada’s. Belying his impressive profusion of syllables, the monk is currently on tour with the snappily named Kundalini Express — a super-concentrated gathering of musicians traveling North America to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Ananda Marga in India (see sidebar). The tour makes its final stop in Asheville this week.
Get on the bus
Music, the monk goes on, “has long been used to help induce higher states of consciousness. With great effect.”
There’s also a long tradition of getting on the bus as a means of raising — or altering — consciousness. In the ’60s, there were Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. During 1970-71, Steven Gaskin, head of the Farm, led a caravan of 50 school buses on a speaking tour across the U.S. Fans followed the Grateful Dead and Phish, and continue to trail Widespread Panic, in livable vans. Budget travelers, looking for a change of scenery, hop aboard the Green Tortoise. Thousands of people each year caravan to the ever-changing Rainbow Gathering destinations.
The Kundalini Express, then, is an efficient way to disseminate a complex network of spiritual-music traditions — “a way to celebrate the anniversary with the different centers of Ananda Marga across the continent,” explains tour coordinator Nirmal Kronenberg by phone. “We’re conducting parties, sort of … visiting [Ananda Marga] centers to inspire these people.”
Participating musicians perform kiirtan (Sanskrit chanting delivered in call-and-response fashion), bhajans (devotional songs) and even rap, in the case of Ana’di Heisler, a native New Yorker who also plays guitar and breakdances.
Father-daughter act Vasudeva and Giita Tandero lead kiirtan. “She has an ethereal voice,” Dada enthuses, “and he’s very good in [encouraging] group participation.”
Before discovering Ananda Marga, Vasudeva, according to innersong.com, was an “Engelbert Humperdinck-style crooner, … sadly overlooked by the Norway record-buying public.” These days, he can be heard on several recordings sweetly chanting “Baba Nam Kevalam,” the universal Ananda Marga mantra. It means love is all there is.
Giita, just 23, is traveling with her father for the summer before returning to school to become a teacher.
“We’ve actually become quite an eclectic group,” Dada comments, laughing, during a follow-up phone call.
A full-time volunteer for Ananda Marga, the New Zealand-born monk actually started writing and singing songs as a teenager, but he gave up music — along with the right to work for pay or be married — when he became a “renunciate.” “And then I started getting a lot of assignments as part of the music department [at Ananda Marga Australia],” he recalls. So, singing became part of his service.
At first listen, Dada’s songs bring to mind vintage Cat Stevens (think “Oh Very Young” or “Longer Boats”). His voice is rich, warm and earnest. Tracks like “Perfect Love” and “Lake Gardens” on his latest, independently released CD, The Return of the Magic, offer a sonic trip back to innocence coated with a serious dose of ’70s-style nostalgia.
Unlike with Stevens, however, it was spirituality that led Dada to his musical calling, instead of pulling him away from the recording studio. In fact, the monk himself dubs his style “spiritual folk-rock,” and, in the UK, where he’s the senior teacher at the Ananda Marga Yoga Society, he’s established the Blue Sky Recording Studio and Innersong Music Distribution company (which also distributes the works of the Tanderos).
“Most of my songs are bhajans — devotional songs with more complex lyrics and arrangements than the kiirtans,” Dada conveyed by e-mail. “I also write songs about social and ecological issues, and story songs.”
He was planning to visit the U.S. for the Ananda Marga anniversary celebration, so hopping aboard the Kundalini Express just made sense. “I’ve performed concerts for the public all over the world, and had a very good response. … Most people quickly understand that our message is universal, and are very interested,” the monk writes.
The Kundalini Express started its journey a month ago, traveling across America and parts of Canada, and even dipping into Mexico, visiting Ananda Marga members who can’t attend the U.S. celebrations due to visa complications. Tour members not only perform music but also do service projects en route — collecting new followers as a matter of course.
“We sing a lot of kiirtan, and we meditate two or three times daily collectively,” reports Kronenberg. “We started out with a dozen people [on the bus], and will probably have about 25 by the end.”
Ananda means bliss
In 1955, philosopher Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar, who came to be known as Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, established the Ananda Marga organization in India. The social foundation runs schools, orphanages, food-distribution centers, disaster-relief programs (they contribute greatly to ongoing tsunami-relief efforts), medical centers, and community-development projects, all with a focus on serving local people. Centers now span the globe (monks and nuns of Ananda Marga are easily recognized by their bright orange robes).
The spiritual philosophy of the organization is based on the 7,000-year-old science of Tantra. Centers teach yoga and meditation, free, to all who are interested, regardless of religious affiliation.
For information on local Ananda Marga events, contact Didi at the Asheville Quest Center (281-4292), Sid Jordan at the Marshall Quest Center (649-2425), or visit www.main.nc.us/amys
The Kundalini Express stops off in Asheville on Friday, June 24 for a 6-8 p.m. concert in the Greenlife Grocery parking lot (70 Merrimon Ave.; info at 254-5440). The group also plays Namaste Yoga and Healing Center (57 Broadway) from 3-5 p.m. on Saturday, June 25 (info at 253-6985). Both shows are by donation.