The recording artist Krishna Das and friends took a small group of men at San Quentin on a journey of enlightenment through the soothing sounds of modern instrumentation and chanting.
The yoga rock stars filled the Catholic Chapel with ancient and contemporary melodies for the Devotional Music of the Heart event.
“Chanting is a way to train ourselves to let go of our thoughts and then we can free ourselves of the pain,” Krishna Das said.
Das opened with the divine harmony of the group’s first song/chant, “Shriram Jai” (“Hey God”), a funky instrumental with the drum beat of any hip-hop song. Das’ baritone voice connected with the crowd of about 30 inmates as he played the harmonium, an organ-like keyboard that produces tones with free metal reeds activated by air forced from a bellows.
The perfect and angelic background vocals of Nino Rao (who also played finger cymbals) and the rhythmic drumming by Arjun Bruggeman on the tablas touched the deepest chords in the listeners.
“It was light,” said inmate Kenny Cunha. “It removed everything negative from my life; it was cleansing.”
Gino Sevacos added, “It was like drinking nectar. It opens up the heart.”
The spiritual chants praised different Indian Hindu gods and goddesses, focusing on love and the universe.
“The beauty about chanting is it’s available to everyone,” Rao said. “You don’t feel you have to be Hindu to tap into your inner self. It’s about well-being, no matter what is happening outside of you.”
Das performed “Govinda Bhaja,” loosely translated as “to praise” or “to remember.” He blended the song with chants and English. He sung lyrics like “My foolish heart, why do you weep, why do you cry yourself to sleep” and added the chant “Govinda Bhaja Govinda.”
“We are all part of God in our hearts,” Das said. “You never know why certain things happen. It might be a lesson; you just have to be present in the moment.”
Das has produced countless best-selling CDs and is currently on tour, but he stopped by San Quentin to perform for the second time.
He has become a worldwide icon in the field of chanting, and is the subject of the documentary “One Track Heart.”
“I had met Krishna Das back in the late ’90’s, when I helped him first get gigs here in the Bay Area,” said Susan Shannon, sponsor of the Devotional Music of the Heart events.
“Though we’ve crossed paths several times since, I was unaware of how his career had skyrocketed — dozens of CDs, a feature film about him, a constant and grueling international tour and teaching schedule, zillions of fans … still, his response to my request was a solid ‘I’d love to’ and agreed to make it work sometime when he was on this side of the country.”
Das talked about his travels from New York to India to study with his teacher in the Himalayas. One of the surprising memories was of a friend asking the teacher how he should meditate, and the teacher told him to mediate like Jesus. The friend asked him what that meant, and the teacher stood still for a long time, and tears fell from his eyes. The teacher told him Jesus lost himself in love.
Das then sang “Jesus on the Mainline,” causing the crowd to sing along. He said, “You should see the faces when I perform that song in India” and “They are like ‘what!?’”
To close the April 19 show, Das performed “Jaya Bhagavan,” meaning “one with” or “one who has blessedness.” The chant repeated there is blessedness in each one of us and not outside of us.
“It was a beautiful experience being here,” Bruggeman said. “We been to so many places and what I realize is that everybody have the same heart.”