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It was a warm, early summer evening in the charming suburban town of Glenside, as members of the audience began to arrive at the historic Keswick Theater to see Krishna Das and his Samsara by Bus Tour. Samsara, a Sanskrit term, translates as “continuous movement” or “continuous flowing” and refers to the Buddhist concept of a cycle of birth and consequent decay and death. Krishna Das was born to Jewish parents in Long Island, New York, in the 1940s, but, as a young man, his spiritual quest brought him to India, where he met his guru Neem Karoli Baba and received the spiritual name by which he is now widely known. It was in India that he developed his skill as a singer and musician of Kirtan, a devotional chant, invoking and singing the praise of Hindu deities. This chant is often characterized by having each musical “statement” immediately answered by a backup chorus echoing the lyrics of the lead singer.

As we filed inside the theater, ushers offered us a printed list of potential chants, including some of the lyrics, not only to educate us, but, more importantly, to help us serve as the choral backup for most of the performance. Once seated, we were greeted by KD (as he prefers to be called). After the chanting of several Oms, the performance itself began.

I’ve been to one Krishna Das concert before, two years ago in New York City. At that time, KD was accompanied by a group of musicians and singers. This time, besides KD (clad in his typical plaid flannel shirt and jeans) playing the harmonium (a free standing keyboard instrument similar to a reed organ) and serving as the only vocalist, there were only four other musicians: one played bass guitar, another played acoustic guitar, a drummer played traditional Indian drums and a violinist.

The performance began with the chanting of “Sri Ram,” typical of many Kirtans, slowly and repetitively allowing the audience to follow easily and serve as chorus. The tempo and the volume gradually increased, resulting in a very palpable magnification of the energy in the entire theater. Even though KD’s Kirtan performances are based on traditional Indian models, there is a definite Western influence both instrumentally and rhythmically. The violin and guitar added their grace as accompaniment to the Kirtan. Many of the chants, such as “Jai Jagatambe,” “Om Namaha Shivaaya” and ” Hare Krishna,” had a more traditional Indian flavor and were sung in Sanskrit. Others, such as “My Foolish Heart” and “Jesus on the Mainline” (which KD belts out with revivalist gusto), were more typically Western, sung entirely in English.

Considering that this show came at the end of long and strenuous nationwide tour, KD’s performance, although not intensely energetic, was still very upbeat. Krishna Das, with his mellow and soothing baritone voice, embodied ageless soul singing with experienced depth and mature wisdom.

The performer’s gentle humility and his obviously warm and respectful connection with the other musicians in his group conveyed the feeling of a loving family performing together on stage. During most of the concert, there were more than a handful of people swaying and dancing in the aisles to the beat of the music. Some of them looked blissfully lost in devotional ecstasy. During the intervals between pieces, KD shared bits of spiritual wisdom, while also relating anecdotes about his experiences in India. In closing, he wished the audience “ease of heart for whatever comes to us in life,” and he very genuinely expressed for all humanity, “the peace that goes beyond all understanding.” This was both a beautiful and inspiring performance.

by Allyn Sterling

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