For the past ten years, a piece of Hindu culture has found an unlikely home in Guilford Connecticut. It's called Kirtan. And as WNPR's Patrick Skahill reports, the practice combines the best of a religious tent revival, a Woodstock rock concert and a yoga seminar into one unique experience.
Larry Kopp describes himself as a good Jewish boy from Long Island.
"I come from a tradition of Rabbis - my great grandfather was a rabbi, a Hasidic rabbi in Russia. And on back through pre-history his father and his father and his father..."
But the service he leads today isn't Jewish - or Christian, or Buddhist, or Hindu - it's open to all faiths. Kopp, who performs under the name Shubalananda, is a kirtan wallah. He travels six days a week performing call and response chant sessions throughout New England. During the service, music builds in intensity as participants sing the names of God. The chorus responds when moved by clapping, dancing, or drumming along with the music. Here's what it sounds like:
"If you think about the names of God from different religions you think of Allah, Yeshuva, Yahweh, Ishwara, all the different religions - the names of God have a similar vibration, a similar sound. So of course it transcends religion."
"It's a vibrational experience that has nothing to do with understanding even the words that you're singing."
That's Christine Gaynor. She's been practicing kirtan for about 10 years.
"The first time I experienced it I came to a concert, actually. A woman named Wah who was doing this type of thing in a yoga studio. Within 10 minutes I just felt like every cell in my body was vibrating and I didn't even know what I gotten myself into. Someone had invited me, brought me with them. And it truly is a vibrational experience for me. It's something that happens internally and draws me outside of myself."
But first impressions aren't always so flattering. Mike Bower, who's been practicing kirtan for about 5 years, said in the beginning, it really challenged his comfort zones.
"The first couple of times, I thought it was weird. I mean, I don't have a Hindu background. Hindu gods seem strange. They seem inaccessible. But over time, from chanting and beginning to read about it, that changes. But it's definitely very foreign to a boy who was brought up Christian."
In America, kirtan has found a home in Yoga Centers. Kopp performs a two hour chant every month at Watering Pond Yoga in Guilford. He says yoga and kirtan share similar ideas.
"One of the goals of Yoga is to develop mind power, the ability to focus your mind and concentrate. Kirtan is a practice which develops naturally a state of deep concentration."
Kopp discovered kirtan over two decades ago. He was a former blues musician and business man. The music inspired him to move to India, where he performed a distinctly Westernized style of kirtan.
"When I sang in the Indian community, for so many years, the Indians would put their fingers in their kid's ears because they didn't want the kids to hear what they called hard rock kirtan. But I tell them I grew up on Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Muddy Waters, so what do you want? These are my roots and this is what I bring to it."
Not surprisingly, other American kirtan wallahs have adopted the chant to reflect their own musical tastes.
"There's someone called Sista Shree who does funk kirtan. And there's MC Yogi who does rap kirtan. It's like every tradition in America has now been incorporated into singing the names of God. What an amazing thing. What a miracle."
For Kopp, the bluesman turned kirtan wallah, the music may have changed, but he's still touring six days a week and working as hard as ever. After the crowd spends two hours achieving enlightenment and the show's over, you'll find him packing up for his next gig ... and selling CDs at the back door.
For WNPR, I'm Patrick Skahill.