Local musician and kirtan leader Luna Ray calls mantras — sacred syllables or groups of words — ancient science that allows people to open up. “It’s technology with which to wake up, to touch our hearts, to remind us of who we are,” she says. “The mantras are so powerful that even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you start chanting them, and they start to affect you. They start to touch into your heart.”
But there’s more to Ray’s art form than staunch spirituality. “There’s an entertainment piece, but that’s how it pulls us in,” she says. “It turns into a devotion because we have these mantras, which are old and powerful.” Ray’s third album, Shining Through — which she launches with a show at The Altamont Theatre on Friday, Feb. 6 — was recorded at Sound Temple and Hollow Reed Studios in Asheville. Nationally known (but locally based) musicians River Guerguerian (percussion), Chris Rosser (keyboard), Alvin Young (bass) and Melanie Leenhouts (harmonium and backup vocals) all contributed to the recording; all take part in the album-release show.
Shining Through, which Ray describes as a “blending of world grooves, beautiful harmonies and sweet melodies with a deeply devotional feel,” relies heavily on the influence of the Bhakti movement. Bhakti, a Hindi word, is the love of a worshipper toward his or her own god. Ray says her music can channel that love and bring it out of people through call and response. “It’s about emotion shifting into devotion,” she says. “Humans are erotic and sensual by nature, and humans love music. We’re using this modality of Bhakti, which is the path of love, the path of the heart and the mantras, and we’re finding the music that resonates through us. It’s a way to make music more sacred.”
A seasoned performer — Ray has been playing for the past 10 years — she says her musical tastes vary from a background in folk music to a deep love of pop music in her youth, all the way to the Grateful Dead. “I think that’s sort of at the core of the music that resonates with me,” she says. “What will happen is there will be a mantra that I’ve been singing that’s really in my head, and I sit down with my guitar and I create a melody line that I enjoy and put the music to the mantra.”
That makes for a dynamic live show and transformative recordings. Ray’s music centers on those centuries-old mantras that she builds on by adding rhythm, melody, percussion, guitar and vocals. She sings in both Sanskrit and English, and her shows evolve from slow meditations to fast, dance-worthy beats. Concertgoers can expect to leave energized.
Although she tours around the country, playing mostly intimate indoor venues, Ray says Asheville remains a favorite spot. Still, she points out, off-the-beaten-path cities in the Midwest and South can offer great performance experiences as well because people may not be exposed to kirtan as much as they are in Asheville. “Some of the mantras are new to these people, which is really terrific,” says Ray. “They aren’t saturated, they’re open books. There’s a lot of curiosity and a real openness. People [with] a beginner’s mind take to it beautifully.”
Playing in a city like Los Angeles, on the other hand, can either be a powerful or diluted experience. Because many people are already into practices like mindfulness and kirtan, they arrive with a set of expectations. That can be a benefit “due to more experienced practitioners arriving and adding to the energy,” says Ray. “The more that you give to the practice of chanting, the more you get back, and the more everybody gets back.”
Sam Katz, one of the new owners of The Altamont (he also handles booking and promotions), says there are plans to make the venue into more than a music space. “We’re injecting new life into it,” he says. “We’d love to turn it into a community space — there’s a beautiful hardwood floor perfect for yoga, tai chi and kirtan music. We’re open to anything.”
Says Ray, “I’m excited to play [The Altamont], and I’m excited to play with the band. I’m mostly excited to honor the album, to give the album wings.”
WHO: Luna Ray’s Shining Through album-release show
WHERE: The Altamont Theatre, thealtamont.com
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 6, 8 p.m. $15 advance/$17 day of show