Band Members: Sean Johnson, vocals and harmonium; Gwendolyn Colman, percussion and vocals; and Alvin Young, fretless bass and guitar
Albums: Devaloka, Calling The Spirits
Current Projects: After their major label debut titled Devaloka on Canada’s Nettwerk Records, Sean, Alvin, and Gwendolyn are working on a new album coming out later this year. Sean’s recent projects also include an essay on yoga and creativity and a music video for Yoga Journal, and work co-curating Putumayo World Music’s cd compilations of global music designed for yoga practice. He also teaches at Wild Lotus Yoga, the studio he founded, and just wrapped up Soul School, Wild Lotus’ signature teacher training program.
For the benefit of readers who are less familiar, what is kirtan music? Specifically, kirtan is the practice of call and response chanting of mantras, powerful energy based sounds that help to clear the clutter from our minds and awaken deeper spiritual connection. The mantras help connect us to qualities that we all have inside us no matter what language we speak, what culture we come from, or what our spiritual path is. Traditionally kirtan is a form of participatory sacred music from India. As yoga has spread beyond India, a growing group of international musicians are creating kirtan music that integrates mantras with instrumentation from a variety of cultures and genres. For example, we express kirtan from our own American and New Orleans roots merging mantras with rock, funk, and soulful grooves.
More universally, I believe kirtan is just another word for a transcendent musical experience where a crowd of people is invited to actually participate and sing, rather than just be a spectator. I’ve experienced this kind of interaction in many genres of music including gospel services, rock concerts, Irish pubs, and more.
How does kirtan connect to yoga practice? Kirtan comes from a branch of yoga called Bhakti Yoga, which celebrates music as a path to a devotional, heart centered relationship with the world. Kirtan is often used to accompany yoga classes and many touring kirtan artists have helped transform yoga studios overnight into thriving concert and dance halls. More and more festivals featuring kirtan music are popping up around the world. A growing number of yoga teachers are chanting in their classes, being more creative with their yoga music selections, and utilizing music as a powerful tool to share inspiration with their students. As yoga has boomed in New Orleans, we’ve experienced more and more people turning onto the power of kirtan music.
Which came first for you, yoga asana or Bhakti yoga through music and chanting? I was actually exposed to yoga and chant music at the same time while I was a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, an alternative college founded on a philosophy of interdisciplinary education. I enrolled in a class called PATH, which stood for “Practices Acknowledging The Heart”. The professor who offered this class, Doranne Crable, became a great mentor to me. She introduced me to practices from many traditions including asana, chanting, Buddhist meditation, sacred dance, mystical poetry, journal meditation, and much more. It was an amazing and transformative experience. So many seeds were planted then that have now blossomed into every day of my life. Sadly, Doranne passed away several years ago. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to her for all that she shared with me, and for what she saw in me that I didn’t see fully in myself at the time. For example, the first yoga class I ever taught happened because Doranne called me and said “Sean, tomorrow I’m going to be away unexpectedly and I want you to teach for me.” Trial by fire!
All the practices I was learning blew my mind and heart wide open. I was so excited to continue studying at Evergreen that I kept petitioning the college to take more classes, even though I had enough credits to graduate. They finally told me that I had to graduate! I was so hungry to study and experience more spiritual traditions and practices that I went on a hunt for a graduate program where I could continue the study that had started at Evergreen. That quest led me to a graduate program at The Naropa Institute, which had a location at the time in Oakland, CA, where I did an apprenticeship in the yoga of sound with Russill Paul for two years. Russill is a fantastic musician and vocalist from south India who wrote the book “The Yoga Of Sound” and has released several CDs. In 1999 after graduating from Naropa, I moved back home to New Orleans and started teaching yoga and sharing kirtan full time.
How did you meet the other members of your band, bass player and guitarist Alvin Young and percussionist and vocalist Gwendolyn Colman? I initially met Alvin over ten years ago through his now wife Tricia Lea, who was one of the original Wild Lotus teachers. Alvin would come to lots of classes and occasionally sit in and play music at our weekly kirtans. Alvin is a great musician and so humble. I didn’t know much about his musical history in New Orleans until we started to play together more seriously. For example he shared very quietly one day that he once had Wynton and Branford Marsalis in his band. He also played regularly with local legends James Black and James Booker, among others. He adds so much skill and depth in our process of making music together. He’s one of the most melodic bass players around and when it’s time to get funky, watch out!
I met Gwendolyn in Asheville, NC on our post-Katrina kirtan fundraising tour. She was friends with Allen Frost, who was drumming with us at the time. To make a long story short, she and Allen basically traded lives post-Katrina. Allen fell in love with Asheville and became a farmer, and Gwendolyn moved to New Orleans and became our drummer. Not many people were moving to New Orleans at that time- I will always admire her for that. Gwendolyn is the mother-engine of the band, a magical drummer who can play so sweet and subtle and also rock the house with her fancy fingerwork. She is also a powerful and soulful singer.
Before Katrina the “Wild Lotus Band” consisted of whatever musicians showed up to jam for a kirtan. My brother Matt was also a great presence at that time sitting in on guitar and tenor sax. After Katrina Alvin, Gwendolyn, and I made a commitment to tour and share the music as a trio and we’ve been at it for 7 years now! Not many relationships of any kind last 7 years, much less a band. We’re grateful for each others’ company on this path and I think one of the things that has nourished our endurance is a sense of humor, not taking ourselves, yoga, or life too seriously.
You’ve referred to kirtan as “Indian gospel music.” As a kirtan band you naturally glean much of your material from the traditions of India, but your music also has elements of soul and funk that are unique. Can you tell us more about these elements? Rather than trying to sound like an Indian-born kirtan band, we respect and honor the tradition, but seek to channel kirtan through the authenticity of where we come from, and our influences. Alvin and I grew up in New Orleans so you can hear jazz, funk, gospel, rock, and street rhythms. I have a background in Irish singing, which comes through as well. Gwendolyn has a history playing middle eastern rhythms and flamenco percussion so she adds even more spice to the mix. Instead of straight ahead call and response chanting with little variation, we like to create spacious arrangements and dynamics that serve to deepen the experience of the mantra. We also try to celebrate the relationship between soul and spirit in our music. The soul quality is about moving deeper, into the mystery, into the roots, which is so present in day-to-day life in New Orleans. The spirit quality is about elevation and transcendence. We want to bring the two together, seeking to explore the dark and the light in our music. Get down and get up!
You were the first kirtan band to ever play Jazz Fest. What was that like? We were incredibly excited and honestly a little nervous. Would kirtan translate at Jazz Fest? Would people participate? When we climbed up onstage, the amphitheatre around the Lagniappe Stage was packed. I told the crowd that we were about to play what is essentially another form of gospel music, just in a different language. From the first note we played, the people dove right in. They sang, clapped along, and danced wildly. We closed with our version of “I’ll Fly Away, ” a tribute to my grandmother who had recently passed, and there were a lot of tears out there. It was a thrilling experience to share kirtan with people who had no idea what they were getting into and opened their hearts to it. Writer and Wild Lotus yoga teacher AC Lambeth wrote a really sweet article about kirtan’s debut at Jazz Fest featured on Elephant Journal.
Do you feature any local musicians at your studio Wild Lotus Yoga, or on your yoga class play lists, that you would like to recommend? Wild Lotus has hosted many world music concerts over the years, including kirtan. We host the sacred music room at the annual Anba Dlo Festival at The New Orleans Healing Center each year as well as The 1st Annual New Orleans Sacred Music Festival. Andrew McLean is a wonderful local musician and long-time friend. He plays tabla and sarod and guitar and has been one of New Orleans’ primary ambassadors of Indian music, founding many projects and concerts promoting dialogue between Indian and New Orleans artists. He also teaches singing meditation classes in the yoga community. Currently one of my favorite local world music projects is Kora Konnection, a band that merges West African music and jazz, and features Morekeba Kouyate and saxophonist Tim Green. We are also going to be starting a monthly Friday evening Happy Hour class taught by Farah with live DJ Tom Harvey on May 11, 6-7:15pm at Wild Lotus Yoga-Uptown.
For vinyasa classes, some of my favorite tunes by local artists include: Galactic’s Heart of Steel featuring Irma Thomas; Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) featuring the rapper Guru; the Meters Stormy; Rebirth Brass Band’s Freedom; Dr John’s Walking On Guilded Splinters; and The Neville Brothers’ Healing Chant.
You recently wrote an article for Yoga Journal and debuted a video of your new song Unity on YogaJournal.com in coordination with the article. Can you please share more about that. I taught a vinyasa class called “The Groove Is In The Heart” at one of Yoga Journal’s conferences last year, accompanied live by the band. The class explored how we can practice bhakti yoga on the mat. The practice included creative vinyasa sequences, chanting, poetry, and storytelling to open the heart. Yoga Journal’s editor Kaitlin Quistgaard attended the class and asked me afterwards if I’d be interested in writing an essay on the relationship between the yoga tradition and creativity. The premise of the essay is that finding an authentic voice requires respect for tradition and a spirit of innovation, and I share a little bit of my own challenges and insights in that process. The essay appears in the May 2012 issue of Yoga Journal and you can also read it online.
Yoga Journal’s music editor Shannon Sexton proposed that we also accompany the essay with a music video of one of our newer songs called Unity that merges kirtan, rock, and the poetry of Rumi, so we shot a live performance at Wild Lotus Yoga-Downtown. Watch the Unity video now.