21st Century Musical Healers--Bring it All Together Now
My first encounter with Prashant Michael John was when his Tandava CD landed in my mailbox and I reviewed it for World Music Central. Then later, Prashant joined my Linked In group Musical Healers where he has contributed his sound healing and music wisdom as well as, supporting the other members of the healing music group.
When I thought of who I would interview for my Sound Healing Series on Whole Music Experience, Prashant came up on my short list of sound healers because he explores folk music traditions from around the globe and also embraces the sound healing side of music consciousness, a rare combination. He also bridges the gap between eastern and western music while creating stunning music with masterful musicians. And when he’s not doing that or touring, he’s offering kirtan events in Calgary, Canada.
WME: Similar to other young aspiring musicians residing in the west, you first cut your teeth on pop/rock music and found your way to traditional or world music. What was that journey like for you? What was your comfort level with embracing new types of music with different scale, modes, and purposes?
Prashant Michael John: Like many young people around the world, I grew up with the pop/rock music of the west though living in Bangladesh. Some of us taught ourselves the guitar by listening to Western pop/rock, R&B, Blues. After a few years of living in Canada I was losing interest in mainstream music. In fact I started teaching myself the Japanese shakuhachi the very first year I was in Canada at the age of 20. Great jazz musicians like McCoy Tyner, John McLaughlin, Miles Davis, Nana Vasconcelos, Airto Moriera, Charles Lloyd, were already creating "World jazz". I found myself tuning my guitar to drone tunings and improvising melodies and rhythms. In the 80's recordings of music of the world were getting more and more accessible thanks to musicians like Peter Gabriel and others.
Being self taught all my life except for master classes whenever the opportunity arose, I imbibed these different musical forms without hearing them as different but by feeling their resonance - their existence within me. The pentatonic scales, the emphasis on rhythm and melody rather than using harmony (chords) to build melodies around are actually a universal quality of music with commonality and similarities running through all cultures in their folk traditions.
So rather than embracing new types of music I was finding in them that which were already inside me. Specifically, for example, some of the African, Middle Eastern, Cuban and ethnic rhythms from around the world (specially but not limited to the 6/8 beats), are very similar and sometimes identical to many 6/8 and other beats found in the folk music of the Indian Subcontinent. Pentatonic melodies are common to all world cultures. That said, there are distinct variations which add the excitement of discovery of a new way of feeling music. The nonwestern and microtonal tuning of Middle Eastern melodies for example evoke new musical emotions. This is all very exciting and not only does it add to my musical vocabulary but also opens my mind and heart to a greater experience of life.
WME: Two of your bands are featured on your website, Tandava and Lehera and I’ve only heard Tandava which I reviewed for World Music Central when it was released. On this album you work with traditional musicians in Vancouver who are members of the World Music Collective. What did you learn or how did you evolve while working on this album and with these musicians which include Lan Tung, Jonathan Bernard of Orchid Ensemble and Stefan Cihelka?
PJM: Lan and Jonathan are classically trained musicians who were exclusively playing the music of trained composers. The music I brought to Tandava was my compositions with rhythms and melodies I heard in my head and played without the intermediary of the written note. I would give them the melody and rhythm expecting them to elaborate along the lines of where I was imagining they would go. For example, I would give Jonathan an ostinato melody so he could extrapolate on permutations of the rhythm and melody. While we worked on the music it became apparent that each part should be worked out carefully and not improvised as I had originally intended. I gave them the variations and they adjusted them to their playing style.
I had them do their own solos as improvisations but we agreed that they should be written out too. Even though the recording was not as I had envisioned. They put a lot of love and energy into it and it turned out to be a lovely album. I learned a lot from them about the precision of tempo and harmony of the Western and Chinese traditions. My intention was to create or rather express something organically and naturally cross-cultural and not a juxtaposition of Indian and Chinese music or instruments. I enjoy the way their Orchid Ensemble's music has evolved.
My musical expression at present needed something quite different to Tandava’s musicality and instrumentation. I then got together with two musicians from India. Prakash Sontakke and Karthik Mani. Both are classically trained Indian musicians but perform in a variety of genres from jazz and folk to classical, experimental and popular. We formed a trio called Lehera, recorded an album, Heartsky, and toured a few festivals. The music has influences from Indian classical to Western folk, rock and blues but is acoustic. It utilizes the Indian slide guitar, the ghatam (Indian claypot drum), six string guitar and bamboo flute.
WME: You also host kirtans in the Calgary area and having reviewed and listened to, as well as, sing along with several favorite kirtan CDs in my own home, I know the power of this sound healing/chanting practice. Even people who aren’t religious experience emotional breakthroughs while chanting kirtans. At first when kirtan chanting came on the scene (while I was living in Seattle) I thought it was another new age trend, yet, once I began chanting myself, I felt such healing that I now see this is not a trend but a tool for mass empowerment.
PMJ: Although it has been adopted by the New Age in the West, Kirtan originated in India and was popularized in Bengal by the great saint Sri Chaitanya about 600 years ago as an ecstatic devotional chanting practice to concentrate the mind on feelings of devotion. It is intended to break the shell of the ego and expand the heart and consciousness. It is said that many great souls have reached Self realization just through this practice. Strictly speaking in India kirtan means chanting the names of God only.
Now it has become diverse and cross-cultural and also incorporates mantra. The instrumentation has evolved from drums and finger cymbals (karatal) and later harmoniums to guitar and Western and world instruments. I think a lot of the power of kirtan can be attributed to the repetition - the mind gets more and more concentrated with each repetition. One pointed concentration is the goal of all yogic practices. That is the prerequisite for acquiring samadhi (state where there is no subject or object, one is not aware that one is meditating even the witness disappears). Although kirtan creates an uplifting and wonderful sense of community, it has a deeper and more important personal value--that of stilling the mind of its chatter and discursive thought.
WME: What types of people have you met who have benefited from these chants? And how have you personally evolved through kirtan chants?
PMJ: In the west I have met and chanted with many people from all walks of life who love it and live for it. Clearly they are benefitting from kirtan. The people who seem to get the most out of it are those who do meditational yoga and who have a devotional nature.
Some people have tears and visions. I had the opportunity to play with the iconic Western kirtaniya, Bhagavan Das who lived in India and created his own east-west style of chanting. He is highly charged and devotional and maybe it’s the kirtan that has made him so.
The greatest chanting experiences for me is when I spend months in India doing a lot of daily meditation and kirtan and bhajan (chanting of longer verses) in the temple in the presence of my spiritual preceptor. Chanting and listening till the wee hours and the physical energy seems to increase - no tiredness and with intense feelings of well-being in the body, mind and spirit - very palpable like a current. In some situations I could feel the inner senses of seeing, hearing and smelling.
WME: Kirtan chants come from a variety of spiritual traditions now, but first came from the Subcontinent and for me, the elongated vowels, and the correct pronunciation of the text ignites the power of sound with certain seed sounds activating the various chakras. And AUM or OM or AMEN show up in these various chants bringing powerful and positive consequences.
PMJ: Yes. As you’ve heard it said in the beginning there was the Word...The cosmic sound of Om which is said to be the un-struck sound from which all vibration first emanated to create all that is. Therefore the yogi concentrates on hearing this inner sound which when heard and meditated on reveals all the secrets of creation. The sound is said to be like a waterfall. My ever so brief experience of it (if I can believe it to have been real), it was like a thunderous truck with a vibration in my lower body. It caused me to startle and break my concentration to look behind me and I lost the experience as soon as I got it and never as yet to come back.
In my opinion, sound of the waterfall or thunder signifies it is like white noise containing all possible frequencies but much denser and subtler that any outer sound existing in nature or man made - infinity of frequencies is the way I think of it. The great Lama Anagarika Govinda in his peerless book The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism describes it as imparting Universal consciousness once heard within.
WME: How and when did you first start with the kirtan chants? Where do you envision these chants taking humanity or the planet?
PMJ: I first heard kirtan as a child in Dacca, Bangladesh when our Nepalese night watchman’s daughter got married and they chanted in our lawn. In Bengal Diwali is a big festival and there was a lot of chanting to Goddess Durga. I was also in awe of the music and trance sessions of nearby qawwali singers in Karachi, Pakistan where I spent two years after fleeing Bangladesh and before coming to Canada. I really only started when I was in Canada aged 20 in 1974. I was suddenly drawn to all things esoteric. There was no kirtan going on that I knew of but I found an LP of a great swami of the Sivananda order. I learnt those and made them my own. Then I visited the Hare Krishna temple in Montreal at the time and enjoyed chanting with them. I used to make my own melodies using the mantras and singing them to drones on the harmonium and guitar and the Indian tanpura (a 4-stringed drone instrument).
I think besides benefiting the people coming together to chant, kirtan generates powerful thoughts to counteract the dismal state of the world today. Thought and intention are the energy and power behind everything and matter and situations are born from that energy.
WME: Sound healing, kirtans and producing music with conscious text and musical architecture awaken consciousness on the planet. However, I review a lot of recordings each year where the musicians have a lot of heart, but overall lack consciousness in one of those two areas. For instance, the musical portion has healing architecture, but the text reflects on upstream or tense thoughts or grief. Or the text is healing but the music portion features distracting programmed drums or electric guitar played on the high end. And the press notes for these CDs will tout healing power of the music which could confuse a person on a healing path who wishes to use music as one of their healing tools.
PMJ: Hard to comment on this because great sound researchers who study the subject have echoed what I feel also that all sound is sacred. I think it’s the mind that colors it according to its conditioning and bias. Like you, I also feel that the music and sound is only as healing and consciousness evoking as the consciousness and intent of the musician/healer.
Cultural preference and musical taste plays a very big part. For example a rock song might be comforting and healing to a western teenager but the rhythms and melodies may be jarring for an Iranian lover of the Ney flute. I have come across people who get unnerved by the drones, gamakas (melodic embellishments) and rhythms of Indian classical music and find it jarring. A person should research and choose for himself what music aids his healing, opens up his joy and expands his consciousness.
WME: As a musician (who does have conscious awareness), where can other musicians learn about more healing musical architecture (timbre, melodies, scales, instruments, etc) and to also learn about the hidden power of words? (This is challenging since the music industry’s main goal is to make money through entertaining and not all new age products are equal in consciousness).
PMJ: Music for entertainment and money is for feeding the outer senses and doesn’t have the same power to awaken the subtler senses and emotions as some of the music made to aid going within. This music requires the listener to enter it consciously unlike music for entertainment that bombards you into listening or rather, hearing it.
Unfortunately, a lot of the new age music though well-intended is being made by people who may not have a personal experience or relationship with sound and the spirit of music and may not have opened themselves enough to exploring the music and sounds of the world and of various genres. I think the simple music made from a wide palette of sounds has more consciousness and life than the same simple music made from a limited palette. Though both may seem to have the same amount of content, there will be more music and consciousness apparent or implied in the former.
WME: What are you currently working on?
I loved playing with my last touring project, Lehera. Then I felt inspired to do a solo album of songwriting in English with all the world music influences I have imbibed over the years. I’ve written the songs for an album and intend to record them but feel like honing them some more. There are several projects that I am dividing up my time for - perhaps too many on the burner.
To list them not necessarily in an order of priority: (I’m working with) a duo/ trio with a Tibetan folk musician. The trio has a classically trained percussionist who is well versed in world percussion. We have started to bring cross-cultural elements into the Tibetan musician’s songs and vocabulary. (I’m also working with) a duo/trio with a Persian Tar player. He is learning some of my compositions - all instrumental. I am learning some microtonal Persian music from him.
I’m putting music to the spoken word of a Montreal artist whose art and words I resonate with. I’m collaborating on a recording with a film composer. We are co-composing. I am sending her the initial tracks of a simple composition of the mantra “Lokaha Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu” which means “may all beings be happy”. We spoke in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing catastrophe and came up with this one as the first piece to work on.
Last but not least is the One Mantra Kirtan Band. Some singers and I will chant mantras without always sticking to the traditional. If I feel like making vocal harmonics out of the last word of a mantra I do. It has lots of world rhythms and melodies. It’s quite improvisatory but aspires towards spontaneous composition - like I feel all good improvisation should. All these projects entail recording a CD.
I’m also giving and honing workshops that use chant and movement to teach people rhythms. The basic idea is not novel. I hope to expand the participants’ sense of music and rhythm with the intention of creating a healing space; opening new ways of feeling and thinking and accessing the unconscious. They experience elements of trance even while learning them. There is more experiencing the joy of it than the thought that they need to learn something.