It all started a couple of decades ago, as the yoga tradition took hold in America and Europe. Western yogis began to experiment with chanting mantras in ways that reflected the popular music styles they grew up loving. Yogi artists like Krishna Das andJai Uttal began holding kirtans at a handful of spiritual centers and yoga studios likeJivamukti in New York City The sound was steeped in traditional Indian music, with prominent harmonium and tablas, but underneath, listeners could catch cadences, harmonies, and melodies derived from rock 'n' roll, mid-'6os girl groups, Motown, and reggae.
By the early 2000s, mantra singers such as Snatam Kaur and Deva Premal began to substitute soft New Age synthesizers for the Indian harmonium. The sound was less traditional, but the underlying mood of meditative devotion was palpable. It wasn't long before yoga teachers began playing this music in class, becoming the main channel through which this eclectic genre was heard.
Since then, mantra music has become an ever-expanding style, as at home on dance floors as in yoga studios. Jai Uttal, who has been a pioneer of the mantra-fusion movement and has experimented with all manner of styles in which to express his devotion to God, went so far as to release an album of club remixes of his earlier recordings. On his latest album, Thunder Love, Uttal has brought an entirely new flavor into the mix. Brazilian music, rather than Indian, becomes the "folk" music in the album's bold new synthesis, and Uttal skillfully blends this fresh strain of indigenous rhythm with production techniques and digital sound treatments that wouldn't be out of place on a Radiohead album. (He even goes out on a limb, multitracking his son's toy instruments and digitally manipulating his dotar, a Bengali stringed instrument.)
Even yoga teacher and performer Wah!, who is perhaps best known for her soulful rendition of the Gayatri mantra and other meditative music, is experimenting with electronic club rhythms. "A while ago I was listening to a lot of Asian underground artists like the Bombay Dub Orchestra, DJ Pathaan, and Talvin Singh. And I just felt, 'Oh, if only they had some real mantras in there,'" says Wah! So, she took matters into her own music, and the downtempo influence is notable on her latest release, Love Holding Love.
"My approach is exploring spiritual music through a lot of different styles," she says. "I used to play yoga studios with a percussionist playing small hand drums, but as I got onto bigger stages and into festivals, a hand drum just didn't cut it. To really fill up a big stage, I needed a full drum kit. And that brought other rhythms — hip-hop beats and disco. There's a feeling of celebration that's creating this new style of music. As the energy— the shakti—builds, you want to just bust out."
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