Layering traditional Hindu kirtan with instantly accessible melodies and modern instrumentation, Krishna Das has been called yoga's "rock star." With a remarkably soulful voice that touches the deepest chord in even the most casual listener, Krishna Das – known to friends, family, and fans as simply KD – has taken the call-and-response chanting out of yoga centers and into concert halls, becoming a worldwide icon and the best-selling chant artist of all time, with over 300,000 records sold. His first studio recording in a decade, "HEART AS WIDE AS THE WORLD" invests KD's magnetic chanting with an electrifying rock 'n' roll sensibility informed by a lifetime of experience and musical love.
Born Jeffrey Kagel, Krishna Das grew up in suburban New Hyde Park, Long Island, where music was part of his life from the get-go, taking some piano lessons before playing cornet and baritone euphonium in his high school marching band. At the tender age of nine, a friend's older brother introduced him to the joyous magic of rock 'n' roll.
By the time he hit his mid-teens, KD was leading a sort of double life. By day, he was your typical high school basketball-playing suburban kid. But he was also a stone blues freak, grooving on such greats as Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Bukka White and spending his nights in the "parallel universe" that was the Greenwich Village folk scene.
While he dreamed of becoming a Blues singer, KD couldn't imagine that as a viable career path for "a white Jewish kid from Long Island." But in his second year at Stony Brook University, he hooked up with a fledging band of local kids who were in the process of forming a band. After jamming together for a while, KD went on his own way.
"It was okay," KD recalls, "but they were young kids just starting to smoke dope and I was on the way out of that, at least at that period. So we weren't really jiving and I quit." Those guys began calling themselves the Soft White Underbelly...though they'd later achieve heavy metal dominance as the one and only Blue Öyster Cult.
KD headed north to the State University at New Paltz, with a goal of pursuing his growing interest in Eastern Philosophy. He was soon disillusioned by academia and dropped out. It was at this driftless stage that he met Ram Dass, the spiritual writer/teacher who would forever alter his path. In the spring of 1969, Ram Dass invited KD to join him in New Hampshire. Before heading north, he made one more trip down to Long Island, to attend a Jimi Hendrix gig at his alma mater of Stony Brook, where he hooked up with a number of his old friends, including Sandy Pearlman, now the producer/manager for the Soft White Underbelly. He invited KD to rejoin the group on their album and upcoming tour and just like that, KD found himself standing smack in the middle of the crossroads, facing the most significant choice of his life.
But to KD, the choice was clear and he chose to spend the next year traveling across the country as a student of Ram Dass, and in August 1970, he finally made the journey to India that he had been dreaming of since first seeing Satyajit Ray's classic film "Pather Panchali."
KD's first pilgrimage led him to Ram Dass' own beloved guru, Neem Karoli Baba, known to most as Maharaj-ji. Elusive, often elliptical, Maharaj-ji espoused a potent message of unconditional love. "My guru was completely unusual," KD says. "He didn't teach, he didn't lecture, he didn't write books. He hung around, so that's what you did."
Adopting the name Krishna Das, KD began to chant as part of following the path of Bhakti yoga – the yoga of devotion. "We began to learn how to override the things that close us down," KD says. "Chanting was a way of entering into that flow. The theory, of course, is that you develop the strength to continue to override the ability of that stuff to grab you and bring you down to a more conditioned state."
After two and a half years, Maharaj-ji informed KD that the time had come him to return home in order to face the emotional attachments he had left behind. "I never intended to come back to America," KD says. "Never. It was really a shock that he sent me back."
KD did as he was bidden, planning to return to India as soon as possible. Alas, six months after his return, word came that Maharaj-ji had died. "That was a big thing," KD says. "People sometimes never recover from the death of a loved one, but this was not the death of a loved one – this was the death of love for me."
Grief-stricken, KD drifted across America, winding up in Northern California. In 1974, he joined with singer/songwriter (and fellow Maharaj-ji devotee) Jai Uttal, jazz violinist Charlie Burnham (later to play with such artists as Cassandra Wilson, James Blood Ulmer, and Henry Threadgill, among many others), and kirtan singer Diana Rogers in a family kirtan band dubbed Amazing Grace. The group performed both original chants and traditional Indian songs, recorded for posterity on one side of Ram Dass' influential "LOVE SERVE REMEMBER" box set. But before long, KD found himself grappling with many of the same issues he had struggled with before his time with Maharaj-ji.
"When Maharaj-ji died," he recalls, "I quickly fell apart. My shadow side really surfaced and I got into a lot of self-destructive things. But if it wasn't for the time with him, I would have never survived what I had to go through in this life."
He took solace in music, finding peace and strength in both his Bhakti yoga practice as well as in such heroes as Ray Charles, Van Morrison, Steely Dan, and Bruce Springsteen (whom he laughingly calls "the Bodhisattva of New Jersey"). KD also co-founded Triloka Records, a California-based label specializing in world music, releasing such artists as Jai Uttal, sarod virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan, and legendary jazz musician/composer Jackie McLean.
In 1994, KD realized that he needed to venture out of his Upper East Side apartment to share his practice with the world. He packed up his harmonium and traveled downtown to Jivamukti Yoga Center, where began chanting for an ever-growing audience of yoga students.
"It took me 20 years to really, truly recognize that if I wanted to find that happiness again, I had to find it in me," KD says. "Chanting was the only way I could do that. I just knew that if I did not start chanting – with people – I'd never be able to get rid of the dark places in my own heart."
He recorded and released "ONE TRACK HEART" in 1995. Intended as a "calling card," the album became hugely popular in the yoga community. KD found himself in high demand, with yoga centers everywhere eager to have him sing.
His American background had a profound effect on KD's chanting. While his chants are, were, and will always be rooted in the spiritual sounds of India, his unique natural music soon began to inform his melodies. "When I started chanting," he says, "the melodies I chanted were melodies I learned in India. But the more I chanted, the more the melodies were coming to me. And because of my DNA, they were really very Western-shaped melodies."
He released a string of well-received albums including "PILGRIM HEART", "BREATH OF THE HEART" and "DOOR OF FAITH," the former heavily featuring the vocals of KD fan Sting, and the latter two both produced by Rick Rubin and utilizing, at the producer's request, a palette of traditional Indian instrumentation. Soon after KD began to conceive "HEART AS WIDE OF THE WORLD" after a chat with his friend – and co-producer of 2005's "ALL ONE" – Steely Dan's Walter Becker.
"Walter came to hear me sing out in Maui," KD says. "He came up afterwards and said, 'We've got to do a garage band record.' I realized, that's right! That's what I'm hearing in my head, when I'm playing those four chords on the harmonium, I'm hearing a garage band around me! That was the first conscious awareness I had that I wanted to do a record that was…rockier."
KD's longtime collaborator David Nichtern encouraged him to pursue this vision. In addition to an array of traditional Indian players, "HEART AS WIDE AS THE WORLD" sees backing from guitarist/producer Nichtern – a multiple Emmy Award-winning composer and songwriter (including the pop classic "Midnight at the Oasis") – and such session superstars as bassist Mark Egan (Pat Metheny Group, Sting, Marianne Faithfull), drummer Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney), and keyboardist Kevin Bents (Donald Fagen, Jewel, Boz Scaggs). The call-and-response harmonies come courtesy of KD's daughter, Janaki Kagel, and the Kosmic Kirtan Posse of New York. As with traditional kirtan, the songs begin softly and slowly, building to emotional crescendos that open like a flower. Throughout, the listener is drawn in via KD's extraordinary voice, richly burnished and intensely hypnotic, both worldly and otherworldly.
"His voice is like gravity," Nichtern says. "You just fall into his voice. Many people, that don't really know what the context is, pick up on that. People listen to KD records when they're having babies, or while they're dying. It strikes a deep chord. It's a fundamental."
Nichtern also pushed KD to draw on his gift for storytelling by penning some original lyrical content. The words are intended to serve as portals to the chanting of the Divine Names on traditional hymns such as "Sri Ram Jai Ram" and "Narayana."
KD is clear that he is first and foremost a devotee, with the sharing of his practice a profound act of his faith. Nevertheless, KD has become an iconic music presence, drawing in other artists, including Sting, Madonna, Mike D, jazz bassist Stanley Jordan, and Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, some of whom are yoga devotees, while others are simply moved by the power of the music.
No less an expression of his faith and love than his previous works, the potency and pleasures found in "HEART AS WIDE OF THE WORLD" do not depend on any one belief system. Electrifying and unbound, Krishna Das' devotional music is as powerful and moving as the purest rock 'n' roll.
"The chanting just hits you and you want to be a part of it," KD promises. "That's the point of this whole thing. That's what cuts through all the bullshit. You get lit up. You don't have to know what it means."
More Information on KD's catalog:
In 1990, Krishna Das founded Karuna/Triloka Records, a leading distributor of world music recordings. His debut album, One Track Heart, released in 1996, focuses on updated chants from the ancient tradition of Bhakti Yoga. His second album, Pilgrim Heart, released in 1998, features a guest appearance by Sting, who sings on the tune, "Mountain Hare Krishna," and plays bass on "Ring Song." Krishna Das released the double CD Live on Earth...For a Limited Time Only in early 2000, and followed it with Pilgrim of the Heart (Sounds True), a recording of many of Krishna Das' stories about his experiences with Maharaj-ji and, later, in America (re-released in 2008 as a three-CD set).
2001's Breath of the Heart was produced by Rick Rubin and features a kirtan choir of fifty people (including Beastie Boy Mike D) and ten top eastern and western musicians and was followed in 2003 by another Rick Rubin production, Door of Faith, a departure from Krishna Das' signature call-and-response-style chant that is, instead, a deeply moving collection of solo prayers. Greatest Hits of the Kali Yuga, released in 2004, is a compilation of old favorites and new chants accompanied by a DVD, One Life at a Time, featuring clips of live kirtan and interviews with Krishna Das and friends.
Krishna Das' next CD, All One, is a dynamic 70-minute recording of the Hare Krishna mantra in Krishna Das' own unique style – that moves from a contemplative style, reminiscent of the hills of India, to a rocking South African 'township' finale.
This was followed by Flow of Grace – Chanting the Hanuman Chalisa in 2006, in CD/book form, offering the reader/listener some background on Hanuman in different traditions, photos, translations, and a variety of melodies in which he sings this 4-verse traditional hymn from India.
Next came 2007's Gathering in the Light, a collaboration between Krishna Das and composer/overtone singer Baird Hersey and Prana, utilizing only voice and percussion to create new arrangements of seven of Krishna Das' most beloved chants.
Krishna Das' CD release, Heart Full of Soul (two-CD set; fall 2008) is a vibrant live recording that immerses the listener in the joyous experience of an evening of devotional chant with Krishna Das, from beginning to end.
Chants of the Lifetime (February 2010), includes 230 pages of KD's stories of his youth, his time with his Guru, and his experiences on the Path - written in his own words, with photos, and a CD especially designed for the reader/listener to develop her own chanting practice.
Heart as Wide as World (March 2010), his first studio album release in a few years, reveals the merging of KD's youth in the American rock'n'roll world with his spiritual roots in the Indian tradition. We find new tracks of original English songs flowing into chants from the east, beautifully accompanied by western and eastern instrumentation.