Hypothetical situation: Let’s say you’re a guy who likes your music, and you’re pretty secure with the breadth of your taste. You’ve got a cabinet full of all kinds of stuff, from pop to rock to folk, blues, jazz, soul, country, alt-country, and whatever wiggy category Radiohead and Sigur Ros fall under. Hell, you’ve even got an accordion-jam album or two in your collection.
And then you’re handed notice of “An Evening of Ecstatic Chant” featuring Matthew Marsolek of the Drum Brothers, along with an album of Sanskrit devotional chants recorded by Marsolek. You think, the Drum Brothers: aren’t they the ones constantly encouraging the rhythm-impaired to percuss on whatever’s handy? And why the hell is a white boy from Montana poaching Hindu spirituals?
You pop The Bhakti Road into a CD player, and the simple beauty of “tera nam ek sahara” washes over you, its gorgeous melody transmitted by Marsolek’s acoustic guitar and lightly tethered by soft percussion and didgeridoo. Marsolek’s deep voice croons the Sanskrit words (the title translates as “Your name is our one support”), answered sweetly by Tracy Topp’s high-pitched response. It’s hypnotic and compelling at the same time, and as corny as it sounds, your soul stills a bit as you listen.
So you call Marsolek on the phone to talk about all this. You ask him, point-blank, about the “culture vulture” dynamic of his venture into Indian theology. He tells you that he’s been chanting as a private spiritual practice for a long time, that he never thought he’d be out performing it in public, and that “it’s a little vulnerable for me, because the music has such deep meaning.” But, he says, the surge of interest in yoga in this country has led to further explorations of the discipline, such as Bhakti yoga, “the practice of devotion, of opening the metaphysical heart,” in part through chants. He was asked to lead such chants, and the positive response from those sessions led to the album and public chants.
Then you find out he’s got street cred in India, having played and chanted with Mukesh Desai, a renowned East Indian singer, among others. “It does not come up with the people I would be concerned about,” he tells you, speaking of cultural piracy. “With Indians and Africans, the question is ‘Can you hang? Can you go to the places that this music demands?’” He says that the musicians he played with were especially appreciative of the knowledge and effort he invested in the discipline, as many there are worried that traditional spiritual music is being swallowed by pop culture.
And then, a little further along in the conversation, he tells you of an occurrence he witnessed on the banks of the Ganges River, wherein an Indian family sent off a loved member via funeral pyre.
“They bring the dead down in gilded cloth,” he says, “and cremate the body at the edge of the river. The family will stand above the pyre as it burns, and that was incredibly powerful to me. I remember hearing their chants, and watching birds fly through the smoke as it spiraled into the sky and kids played around on the riverbank. It was destruction and life at the same moment.”
Then he gets to the part about the objects of the chant, that the pronouns can signify God as a personal being, or as an aspect of the Divine, or as the Divine Lover in you, or the one inside your lover.
And you think, wow, a transmutable, all-powerful Love. That’s about the coolest thing you’ve heard in a long time.
And, you think, I was a jackass for pigeonholing this guy.