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Men cry over chants by devotional singer Snatam Kaur

21 November 2009 No Comment

By Helen Kaiao Chang

See original story on SDNN

Thursday, November 12, 2009

When visiting a convenience store, Snatam Kaur was confronted by a clerk at the check-out counter, who said in an irritated voice: “Why do you wear that towel on your head?”

The Sikh follower looked down, paused a moment, then said, “So I can remember to have compassion.”

Kaur is a devotional singer, whose music inspires listeners with peace and compassion. Rooted in Indian chants, her singing is a blend of ancient songs and contemporary melodies.

Her exquisite music draws worldwide audiences. Her albums have consistently ranked in the New Age Retailer’s Top 20 lists, selling more than 50,000 albums annually. She has performed at more than 100 venues annually, including sharing the stage with pop singer Seal.

Since launching a full-time singing career in 2005, Kaur has visited San Diego several times to perform, including at a Deepak Chopra retreat in Carlsbad.

Kaur plays this Saturday at the NTC Promenade at Liberty Station in Point Loma. Local kirtan singer Bhava Ram opens the show with his own performance.

Concerts for peace

At concerts, Kaur’s pure voice weaves interchangeably with those of her male ensemble singers. The melodies blend elegantly with the sounds of guitars, violins, harmonium and table drums.

Her song lyrics move from ancient languages to English, making traditional prayers accessible to Western listeners. Kaur invites the audience to join her in chanting, singing, and even deep breathing. As the music reaches the sublime, Kaur asks audiences to devote the energy to peace.

“It’s at that point in the concert that the vibration for prayer is so incredibly strong, and that’s when we devote the most peace on the planet,” she said, during an interview on the grounds of Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in Encinitas.

Healing music

Soothing and uplifting, Kaur’s CD albums have touched people in deep ways. Pregnant women have given birth to Kaur’s melodies. One man on his deathbed listened to her chants when he passed away.

A soldier returning from the Iraq War refused to talk to his wife about his experiences. But when he listened to Kaur’s music, he broke down sobbing.

”Every emotion that you can imagine, these sacred chants transform it and take it to the next level,” said Kaur.

An American Sikh

An American follower of the Sikh faith, Kaur spends two hours each morning meditating and practicing yoga, which provides a wellspring of inner calm that infuses her music.

During the interview, she was dressed in traditional Sikh garb of a flowing white cotton gown, her hair up in a crisp turban. She was accompanied by her husband, Sopurkh Singh, who serves as the tour’s graphic artist.

Sitting on a bench overlooking the ocean, her eyes sparkled with joy. Her face was free of any make-up, yet glowed. Her voice was soft, yet deliberate.

“Every time I sit down to chant, I put my whole experience into all the singing. I put my entire self into the chant, and the sacred energy of the chant embraces all of me and in that way, I consistently find deep healing,” she said.

Musical family

Kaur grew up in California with Sikh American parents who loved music. Her stepfather was the manager for the Grateful Dead and her mother sang Indian devotional songs. Raised on Jerry Garcia and chanting, she played the violin, guitar and harmonium.

Kaur first visited India at age six, when her parents traveled to the revered Sikh Golden Temple. There she met Bhai Hari Singh, her mother’s music teacher, whose family welcomed the young girl as their own. They spent many hours singing call-and-response chants, called kirtan.

As she grew up in the States, the girl came to embrace the Sikh faith as her own. When her biological parents divorced when she was eight, the devotional chants she had learned healed her pain. As a teenager, the songs gave her joy and celebration.

“Many times I have cried while chanting and poured my emotions into the chants,” she said. “It was very difficult, but every night I would chant, and it gave me a real sense of strength.

“My (biological) parents could be going through what they were going through, but I could pray and have a place of sanctuary,” she said. “When I share these sacred chants today, it comes from a real place of experience.”

Peace ambassador

As a young adult, Kaur returned to India to study kirtan music with her mother’s teacher. “For a Sikh, music is life,” she explained.

Back in the U.S., Kaur worked as a food technologist at a progressive food company called Peace Cereal, where she continued to sing and write songs.

Kaur released her debut album Prem in 2002 to great success. When she started performing full-time in 2005, the company sponsored her worldwide tour as its “Peace Ambassador.”

Her musical ensemble includes an Indian tabla drummer who played with renowned musician Ravi Shankar and a former rock guitarist who founded the Spirit Voyage label, which produces her albums. To date, she has released eight albums, which continue to top industry charts.

Amazing blessing

But even on tour, Kaur takes time every morning to remember the source of her music.

“Being on tour as a musician and creating the music is such an amazing blessing, and it’s so astounding to see how many people are touched by the music,” she said.

“But I am still on my spiritual path and growing everyday and humbled by my own sense of humanity. It’s a daily journey.”

Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenChang.

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