Hand-pumped, bellows-powered

“Most people practicing yoga don’t know Kirtan exists."

Pilgrimage of the Heart Kirtan Band chants in Sanskrit but also performs modernized mantras in English.
  • Pilgrimage of the Heart Kirtan Band chants in Sanskrit but also performs modernized mantras in English.

“The Kirtan scene [in San Diego] is pretty small,” says Tom Warner, bassist in Pilgrimage of the Heart Kirtan Band, which has performed on over 400 occasions throughout Southern California. “Most people practicing yoga don’t know Kirtan exists, unless they have listened to [Western Kirtan musician] Krishna Das. We are the only weekly practice that I know of in San Diego and we’ve been doing this for eight years.”

Warner notes that Kirtan originated in ancient India within the Hindu tradition, and his group honors that tradition by singing in the original Sanskrit as well as modernized mantras in English. Wheezing harmonium and dry, melodic bass lines put an Americana folk twist on the classic devotional songs. You can almost hear Bob Dylan or Sixto Rodriguez crooning over the group chants in tracks such as “Aum Govindaya Nama.”

“Traditionally, since the mid-1800s the harmonium has been the main instrument,” says Warner, who also plays in Irish folk band Poor Pilgrim. “The harmonium is a hand-pumped, bellows-powered, wind-driven reed organ, somewhat similar to an accordion. When England colonized India they brought harmoniums from France and Germany with them. They were easier to transport than grand pianos. The crafty Indians fell in love with it and it has become the main instrument used in the devotional practice. Now almost all harmoniums are made in India.

“Other traditional instruments include the sitar, tabla [Indian drums], tanpura [sort of like bass], and others. We use the harmonium and tabla and incorporate modern instruments: guitar, bass, and drums. Many chants are in Sanskrit, the lost language of India. The most famous is the Gayatri Mantra, perhaps the oldest chant in the world. It’s found in the Rig Veda, one of the oldest sacred texts extant. Across the globe, the Gayatri Mantra is being chanted by millions of people at all times, 24/7, and has been for thousands of years. It has never stopped.”

Join the chant at Pilgrimage of the Heart’s second annual Festival of Yoga from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 17, at President’s Way Lawn in Balboa Park (free).

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