Background on the Tracks

 

On this page, I provide more of the story behind the creation of the tracks.  See More Track Info for some basic information about the different chants, including more singer/musician track credits, as well as the lyrics and their meaning, more detail about the flow, instrumentation, etc. 


GANESHA MEDLEY

There are a couple things I’d like to share about this track and the process of putting it together.  First, I’ve been a huge lover of the santoor since I first heard it around 1980 and had the opportunity to see Shivkumar Sharma perform around 1982 in Berkeley.  I really liked the idea of opening the album with santoor, but there aren’t a lot of santoor players around.  I knew Manish Vyas was a santoor player from his days with Prem Joshua (and his subsequent solo albums) and figured there would be a way to get him record for the album even though he lives in India, but he had injured his arm or wrist and was in a cast and thus unavailable for the timeframe of our recording.  I was very fortunate to find Madan Oak through an internet search.  He is a long-time student of Shivkumar and lives just about an hour’s drive from Ben’s studio.  I’m delighted that it worked out for him to play on the album, on this track and the Asatoma Sadgamaya track.

Second, one of the interesting parts of the initial process of putting this album together was figuring out which chants to include of the about 150 I still like out of the roughly 180 I’d written the previous 9+ years.  Some were pretty clear to me right away but for most I narrowed the options down to 2 or 3 possibilities, like a couple Shiva chants, or Ma chants, etc., and asked a few people for feedback.  I couldn’t decide between these two Ganesh chants and I was leaning toward the Vakratunda Mahakaya chant.  I love the translation of the meaning of the Vakratunda Mahakaya shlok since I first read it:

“O, one with twisted trunk and enormous form, who shines more brilliantly than a billion Suns, please bless me that all obstacles be removed from all my endeavors, always.”

And I’ve loved the feeling of the arrangement that came to me to do it in a call and response form, having a sort of traditional sounding melody and being trance-like in nature.  But the feedback was all coming back in favor of the Ganesha Sharanam Sharanam Ganesha chant, which is much more upbeat and happy in nature.  So I started leaning toward that one.   

Then Yvette Om was visiting Sedona and I sang and played guitar for her for some of the chants I wasn’t sure on yet, to get her thoughts.  After hearing this ‘live audition’ of the two Ganesha chants, she said ‘Well, it’s obvious which one you’re going to do!” and I said “Well, not to me.”  Then she said that my entire being and energy shifted when I did the Vakratunda chant so it was clear to her that it should be that one.  And I think I said something like it still wasn’t that obvious to me.  That night I wrestled with that comment and the fact that everyone listening to live recording samples was choosing the other chant.  I finally decided I would create this medley so both could be part of the album, as different as they are in the feeling they evoke!  Of course there was no question that the Vakratunda chant should go first.  The two chants are also in different keys (G Minor and C Major) so the next step was to create the transition going into the second chant.  Once that felt right, I then decided to close the track with a return to the first chant, and that turned out to be as simple as changing the last couple notes of the final, slow ‘Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha’ in that chant to move back into the original G Minor key.  The final step in the creation was a decision to ‘echo’ what I had created musically for the initial transition, but modifying it to musically resolve by staying in the G Minor key rather than moving to the C Major key as happens in the original transition.  By the next morning I had my plan for the medley, and the transitions and ending are musically as I conceived at that time.   

Now I love how Steve Oda’s sarod comes in to join the guitar on the very first note of the transition and becomes an important part of the shift of energy into, and throughout, the second chant.  And of course the entry of Daniel Paul’s tabla and the kartals at the end of the first ‘Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha’ that begins that chant is also a big part of that shift.  The idea to add the more traditional chanting of the Vakratunda Mahakaya shlok as an invocation between the santoor intro and starting the call and response chanting did not come to me until we were working on the track in Ben’s studio.

I am of course also delighted to have both Joni Allen and Yvette Om singing on this track as well as Eddie Young supporting the Vakratunda Mahakaya response vocals with his cello playing.  Jay Ganesha!


TVAMEVA MATA

During the process of selecting chants for the album, I was debating between this track and another one.  I was originally leaning toward the other one but the feedback I was getting was to do this one and so I did.  I also had originally asked another female vocalist to sing on the album who had said she would and I eventually learned that this was the track she wanted to sing.  However, she ultimately wasn’t able to free up her schedule to accommodate ours.   I had already asked Gina if she would be willing to be ‘on standby’ for this track in addition to already being committed to sing on the Gayatri Mantra.  And so she ended up singing on this track as well, with a clearly spectacular result!

When Gina came to Ben’s studio to sing her vocals, we had some rough mixes ready with a decent amount of instrumentation but no bansuri) and some ‘scratch’ vocals from me.  Ben first had her sing response vocals and then her call vocals.   Finally, he said something to the effect of “OK, now let’s take one more pass through the whole track and you can just ‘do that thing you do’” (a reference to the improvisational vocalizing you can now hear done so beautifully on the album).  I was sitting there listening through headphones, as we all had to be for the recording.  It was so beautiful and I was so moved by what I was hearing that I was in tears by the time she’d finished singing that one pass through the track.

We didn’t get Steve’s bansuri tracks for a couple weeks, by which time I was back in Arizona.  For the tracks for him to use for recording, we included Gina’s vocals at the end of the track but not for the rest of it, so that he would have full freedom to play whatever he was inspired to play throughout.  Then I got the raw tracks for Gina’s vocalizing and Steve’s bansuri and arranged them into the combination of alternating and overlapping that you hear in the end result.  Of course Ben worked all his magic with effects and level mixing and so forth as well.


SHIVAYA NAMAHA OM NAMAH SHIVAYA

This chant was not on my original short list of my Shiva chants compositions that I was considering.  And in fact I was eventually really torn between two other Shiva chants that I thought would be great for the album.  But I also knew I needed to pick one unless I was going to drop something else.  Then about 2 weeks before leaving Sedona for Ben’s studio, we did this chant at one of our ongoing Sunday night kirtan programs and it just clicked for me that this was THE Shiva chant for the album when a couple people commented to me to that effect that night.

It was also the one chant or track that I hadn’t specifically gotten one of the ladies signed up for singing by the time I got to Ben’s studio to start recording.  When I told him that, he said, “I think you should just sing all the calls on this one.  And then this could be the one track where you have a bigger response chorus.”  To which I replied, with a little twinkle, “Oh, so you want to sing on this track?  OK, sure, let’s do it.”  Other tracks were already sounding magnificent and Ben has a great voice, so it seemed like the right call and now I can’t imagine having done it any other way.

Prajna agreed to also sing responses on this track in addition to singing for the Hare Krishna and Asatoma Sadgamaya chants, and Ben decided record all three of us on response vocals at the same time (which is the only time more than one person was being recorded simultaneously for the album) once Prajna’s other tracks were all recorded.  As we were singing responses through the track, with scratch vocals for my calls in between, on several occasions Ben and I would start singing the response but Prajna didn’t sing.  So Ben would stop the track, go back and punch in to continue the recording.  Finally after about the third or fourth time that happened, Prajna turned to me and said, “This chant is really trancey, huh?”  And we all laughed.  I replied that ‘trancey’ pretty much sums up the nature of this chant.

We also asked Yvette to sing on the responses when she was tracking in Philly for the He Ma Durga and Ganesha chants.  And when I got back to Sedona and was recording Monnie’s esraj parts she told me she wanted to sing responses on this chant as well, so I also recorded her response vocals for this track.  Speaking of Monnie’s esraj, we already had Steve’s sarod parts for this track and I was not planning on having any other melodic instruments in the mix.  But upon hearing the track, Monnie said she’d also like to play esraj on it and I’m really glad she did.  As I mentioned above, I really love the sonic dance that the sarod and esraj do on this track.

When I first arrived at Ben’s studio, I had brought along a bunch of things I had recorded, with scratch tracks, tempo maps, etc., and I also had with me the several minutes I’d recorded of the sound of a thunderstorm that insisted on disrupting my intended recording one night when I was still prepping in Sedona.  That night, in a moment of making lemonade from lemons, I decided to just record the storm for a few minutes and call it a night as far as recording goes.  I didn’t think about how or where or even if it might be used on the album prior to starting the project at Ben’s studio.  It quickly dawned on me there that since the sound of thunder is really like Nature’s drum, and with Shiva being the Original Drummer, it made perfect sense to start this track with some of the thunder recording.

I had already decided to have the Boomwhackers musical tubes open this track as a subtle personal homage to Shiva, the drummer, and had already recorded them for this track in Sedona when I arrived at Ben’s studio.  They are not as prominent as they would have been without the thunder, but I think it’s even better this way.


HARE KRISHNA MANTRA (ENCHANTING)

As I mentioned in my background info for the He Ma Durga track, I originally had a couple different versions of this mantra under consideration for the album (and there was also another chant to Radha and Krishna).  Although Prajna originally expressed a preference for the other Hare Krishna chant, I was very delighted that she was agreeable to switching to this one when I realized her preferred one would run too long to also fit everything else that was coming into alignment for the album and get it all on a CD.  And the end result of having this chant on the album and how sweetly it came together with her beautiful singing and Steve playing bansuri and all the rest is really quite magical to me.

I first heard Steve play bansuri at an Ecstatic Chant weekend at Omega Institute, probably around 2005.  I really wanted to have bansuri on the album and the obvious choices were Steve and Manose, but I actually had come to know Manose a little better over the years.  However, Manose was touring when it was time to work on the album, but Gina Salá knew Steve well and helped make the connection that resulted in him playing on the album.  (Thanks, Gina!) When Ben and I started talking about what melodic instruments to have playing on what tracks, the idea of having flute on the Krishna track was so obvious that I almost didn’t want to do it.  But fortunately I realized that it would of course be more perfect than it would be ‘trite.’

As I had done with Prajna and Gina (and Ben Leinbach, Joni Allen, Eddie Young, Daniel Paul and a couple others – and I’m so totally honored that everyone said ‘yes’ without hesitation), I had asked Benj Clarke at ShaktiFest in 2013 if he would like to contribute his talents to my upcoming album, playing bass in this case.  He told me that he would love to but he thought Ben usually plays his own bass on his album productions, which in fact turned out to be the case.  But as Ben and I were wrapping up all we could do in the almost 3 weeks in his studio before he got tied up with other things for a month, there were two tracks for which he hadn’t gotten the bass parts recorded, this one and Tvameva Mata.  They were the two tracks on which Steve would be playing bansuri, and because of Ben’s period of unavailability it became my task to interface with Steve on his recording in New York the following week and then to edit his recordings into the arrangements for the two tracks in preparation for Ben’s return to the project.

Then I realized that because I had the rough tracks with no bass parts it would be an opportunity for Benj to play on these tracks, so I called him up and we got it figured out (with Eddie Young, who plays cello on the Ganesha and Gayatri tracks, recording Benj in LA).  As a result, this track has Benj’s sweet acoustic upright bass that otherwise would not have been on the album, and he plays a fretless bass guitar on the Tvameva Mata track.

I asked Steve to basically lay down 2 tracks with the bansuri, one where he pretty much just followed the melody of the chant and one where he improvised over the chanting.  When he sent the tracks he told me that he had had to re-record them because a computer problem had destroyed the originals.  But the next day, two more tracks showed up.  It turned out that his original tracks could be, and were, recovered from the computer, and, being the consummate professional, he sent those tracks to me in addition to the new ones.   Talk about ‘kid in the candy store’ -  there was so much beautiful material to work with that it took me a lot longer to do the editing and arranging process (actually even more so with the Tvameva Mata track as I also had the interplay with Gina’s vocalizing to consider in that one).  As you can hear, it was almost entirely Steve’s enchanting improvisational playing that ended up on the track!

Speaking of ‘enchanting,’ my original title for this chant was simply Hare Krishna Mantra (3/4), using the time signature to differentiate it from other compositions I’ve done with this mantra.  When it came time to have the album mastered, however, I learned that the title could not have the ‘/’ (slash) character.  So I searched for a word that would best summarize my experience of chant and that was ‘enchanting.’  The fact that the word ‘chant’ is embedded within ‘enchanting’ is a happy happenstance, yes?


HE MA DURGA

This chant was not actually in my original short list of Ma/Devi chants for the album as I thought it would be too long and was concerned about keeping the album under about 80 minutes so it would fit on a CD.  But as I started to consider the options I also started to like a medley of a couple other Ma chants, and once I thought about how long the medley would get, I realized that I could instead of the medley possibly do this chant without having it be any longer, or maybe even not as long as that medley could be.  I knew that it has long been one of Monnie’s favorite chants of any that I’ve written, but also doing either this chant or the possible Ma medley would likely mean ruling out a particular Hare Krishna mantra chant I was considering in addition to the one that’s on the album.

Then Yvette visited Sedona, and we had previously discussed her singing on the album.  As I mentioned in the discussion of the Ganesha track, I was sampling some of the chants for her while she was here.  In addition to getting her thoughts generally about which tracks she thought I should include, of the ones I had not decided, I also asked her to let me know what of everything she had heard she would like most to sing.  Her answer the next day came back:  He Ma Durga.  And so it came to be.


BOLO RAM

This is one of those chants that I just felt had to be on the album from the beginning.  A little story: we did this chant the New Year’s Eve following its creation (having first chanted it in June of that year, 2009).  The following June we were blessed to have the opportunity to ‘chant for Amma,’ that is, do some kirtan during darshan for the retreat with Ammachi in Albuquerque, and we also did this Bolo Ram chant then.  These opportunities usually occur sometime after midnight that was indeed the case this time.  The next day a woman who was at the New Year’s Eve event with her husband (but did not live in Sedona), and who was also at the retreat, told us about how much she loved this chant when she heard it New Year’s Eve and that when she heard us start chanting it at the Amma program the night before, she went back to her room in the hotel to see if she could find something to record it with.  But by the time she got back to the hall we had already gone on to another chant and she was pretty disappointed about that.  (Of course I got her a recording from one of our live kirtan events a short time after we got back to Sedona.) 

In the original version of the chant, I didn’t have the third, ‘occasional’ section that it has now, but there was a phase a few years back where I revisited some of my chants and added such sections if I felt they added something more to the chant.  In live chanting, I will frequently use these occasional sections as a time to also increase the tempo, as happens in this recording as well.

I remember that Ben and I had originally decided to have the sarod come in later in the track.  The day that Steve was in the studio and we were recording him for several tracks including this one, we originally started somewhere in the middle and had him play through to the end.  I was very pleased with how beautiful it sounded, and when it was done Ben asked me, “So what do you think?”  I remember very clearly responding with:  “I think it would be a mistake not to do it again, but this time start from the beginning and have him play all the way through.”  And so we did and the result of having the sarod start the chant and play through the slower section is obviously magnificent.

We also did not originally plan to have Gina’s vocalizing on this track, but after experiencing what she was adding to the overall  feel of the Tvameva Mata and Gayatri Mantra tracks with her beautiful vocalizing, we decided to also have her do some for this track as well.  I like how having her come in later in the chant gives more space to the sarod and the chant vocals in the earlier part, and then adds that new dimension when her vocals begin.

I also remember the conversation I had with Joni when I told her that there weren’t going to be any vocal harmonies on the album because I like the more traditional form of not having harmonies when I do kirtan.  (And of course the concept of harmony is something that happens in Western music, but not traditionally in Indian music.)  She said something to the effect of “But that’s really my thing!” and I was of course already quite aware of the harmonizing she frequently does when she sings with Dave Stringer.  So I said, “I know, but we’ll take turns singing calls so you’re going to be ‘featured’ with singing some calls on your own and I think that’s a pretty good tradeoff.”  In any event, she agreed to do it and I love how she sounds on the album, as is the case with all the ladies and what their unique vocal qualities add to the different tracks of the album.


ASATOMA SADGAMAYA

This chant was on a short list of chants I was considering that weren’t associated with any particular diety.  I immediately found the chant very inspirational from the moment I wrote it, in part because of the meaning of the lyrical content and in part because of what the chant evokes in me when I chant it (and those are no doubt strongly interconnected).

When I was dialoging with Prajna about what chants she might like to sing, she had asked me to send her the Krishna and Ma chants I was considering, which I did.  But a few days later, and before I had heard back from her, I started thinking about how great she would sound on this chant and had a feeling she would like it if she heard it.  So I sent her a recording of it from one of our live kirtan programs with a little introduction asking her to check it out because I thought she would like it.  And she did and it was immediately one of the tracks she wanted to sing, along with a Hare Krishna track (which I talk more about in my notes to that track).  That solidified this chant’s inclusion on the album.

One of the moments I remember from the day she was tracking vocals at Ben’s studio was when we were doing a little listening back to this track after she’d done some singing and she commented that her favorite part of the chant was coming up as we were listening.  It turned out to be, perhaps not surprisingly, the melodic phrase that goes to the highest notes of the ‘B’ section, the ‘Purnasya Purnamadaya’ phrase.

 

Prajna was coughing a little that day before we started and she commented that she had some bronchitis.  I probably got a rather horrified look on my face, because she immediately said, “But don’t worry, it doesn’t affect my singing!”  Well, as you can hear on the album, clearly not!

By the day she was recording I already had a little standing joke with Ben associated with my stance to forego putting any drum kit on the album.  On numerous occasions we would be listening to something that had just been recorded or edited and he would start playing ‘air drum kit’ (think ‘air guitar’ for drummers!) sitting in his chair in front of his recording setup.  And I would laugh and say, borrowing an expression from the film world, “Sorry, Ben, director’s cut.”  So I said essentially the same thing to Prajna when she commented about hearing some really sweet harmonies for this track.  “Sorry, no harmonies, Prajna, you can sing them on Ben’s ‘director’s cut.’”

I love the ‘Om’s at the end.  The melody and chord progression for them came to me shortly after composing the chant, and before the first time we chanted it at a kirtan program.


GAYATRI MANTRA

I knew from the beginning that I wanted this chant on the album.  And probably my favorite ‘story’ from the process of creating of this album has a direct connection to this track.  But before I tell that rather lengthy tale, which involves Gina, I’d first like to say that Eddie Young’s cello work for this track is truly wonderful and adds a special quality that’s not found anywhere else on the album.  Although he plays along with response vocals in the Vakratunda Mahakaya section of the Ganesha Medley, the cello is a much more prominent in, and an integral part of, what makes this track special.

Like Steve Gorn on cello, Eddie recorded his parts at his own studio (and Eddie also recorded Benj Clarke’s bass parts for the Tvameva Mata and Hare Krishna parts), and with both of them, since neither Ben nor I would be present, we asked that they basically record one track where they play along with the melody and another where they play improvised parts.  Eddie also provided us something we didn’t request, which is the low ‘droning’ cello part you can hear prominently in his intro and at the conclusion of the chant with Gina’s vocalizing, and which adds so much to those moments in the track.

Of course, Gina’s vocals in this track are spectacular and now to my story.  My original plan was to have a different female vocalist sing with me on each track, but the practical aspects of doing this were far more challenging than I had initially realized.  The figuring out of who was singing what, and everyone finding time to listen to recorded samples of the possible tracks to see what they’d like to sing on, all took much longer than expected.  I originally tried going in the order that I had asked the ladies to sing, but the date for leaving for Ben’s studio suddenly was approaching and I needed to get the rest of the singing assignments sorted out quickly.  I think it was Joni that first suggested that I have the ladies I had already connected with sing more than one track and with the recording dates on the horizon it became clear to me that that was going to be the best, and certainly easiest, choice.

Still, as I was leaving to drive the 800+ miles straight through to Northern California, there were two tracks I hadn’t figured out who would be singing with me: this one and the Shiva chant.  I was well aware of the fact that I had been hesitating to follow up with Gina, even though I had asked her if she would sing on the album when I saw her at ShaktiFest and she had said yes.  I had had some concern about how our voices would sound singing responses together, since her voice has a little more ‘edge’ to it than the other ladies on the album.  (As you can hear, those concerns were completely unfounded.)

Then, as I turned on the car to begin my journey to Ben’s, an Om Namah Shivaya track came on from Shantala’s ‘Sri’ album playing in the car’s CD changer, and within a couple minutes I could hear Gina singing some of her beautiful vocalizing on that track.  I immediately thought to myself, “OK, that’s it – she sounds fantastic and this is a clear sign that she should be singing on the album.”  So after I got on I-40 headed west I did some careful multitasking and used my phone to go to her website and see if there was a phone number.  Fortunately I was able to find it, so I gave a call and ended up leaving a voicemail that I was on my way to Ben’s studio to begin recording for my album and wanted to connect to work out the details of getting her recording for the album (including where and how, since she lives in Washington state).

She called back a few hours (and a couple hundred miles) later, and said “Well, you’re not going to believe this but I just dropped off a couple things at Ben’s studio today.  Daniel (Paul) and I are in Northern California where we’ve been touring and we’ve just finished but we’ll be sticking around the area for several days.  So we could both record in Ben’s studio in a few days if you can get the tracks ready.”

OK, so that’s serious synchronicity, part 1.  I had also already asked Daniel to play on the album but figured he would be recording himself, either in Maui or on the road, as he had told me he had the capacity to do.  But now both he and Gina were in the Bay Area and could track right at Ben’s studio while I’m also present!

Back to the conversation with Gina – at this point I was feeling a little bit sheepish about not having spoken with her earlier in the process of figuring out who was singing on what.  And I thought having her sing on the Gayatri mantra could make sense.  So I then said to Gina something like:  “Wow, that’s incredible.  How would you like to sing the Gayatri mantra?”  Her response:  “That’s my mantra.  I’ve been studying it for years and there’s nothing I’d rather sing more than the Gayatri.”

Serious synchronicity, part 2!  Then I told her that I had someone lined up for Tvameva Mata but wondered if she would be interested in singing it also if the first option fell through (which I suspected it might and it did) and she responded that she loves Tvameva Mata too and that she has both Gayatri mantra and Tvameva Mata (or probably with the ‘Twameva Mata’ spelling) on her album.  So there’s another little piece of synchronicity, for the record.

Of course she did end up singing both on this album (and vocalizing for Bolo Ram) and I already told the tale of her vocalizing bringing me to tears when we were recording Tvameva Mata.  She requested I make a few changes to my phrasing for the Gayatri Mantra track, which I was happy to accommodate given that she was so close to the mantra.

When we were editing the Gayatri track, and the depth and magnificence of Gina’s vocalizing at the end of the track became fully apparent, it was clear to me that this would be the perfect conclusion to the album that it has become.   And I’m in awe of how Source lined things up for Gina to be able to sing the perfect tracks for the album and add so much to the overall blissfulness.  And, needless to say but worthy of saying, now I know how much I really like the sound of our voices blended together and what a mistake it would have been NOT to have Gina singing on the album!

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Natesh has led kirtan at Bhakti Fest for 3 consecutive years, including daily morning Om Namah Shivaya chants in 2016 and led Devi/Ma chants every morning at Shakti Fest in 2017!

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