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An interview with: SOMA Kirtan

Introducing the New Jersey (USA) based Kirtan musical collective: @soma_kirtan


Comprised of members Kalpa, Shivanesh, Nataraja, Stephen and Vasudeva, SOMA Kirtan play a mystical blend of traditional Indian inspired Kirtan music. Their most recent album Burning is Learning was released on 19th March 2024 on Centripetal Force Records.


Read on below for the full interview...


How did you all meet and how did the name SOMA Kirtan come around ?

Kalpa: I met Shivanesh/Robert through skateboarding when we were both about 15-16. We were both in hardcore bands shortly after, and our bands played a bunch of backyards and small local clubs together. We started going to the Brooklyn Hare Krishna temple around 1988-89. Vasudeva/Mike and I met through a Bhagavad Gita course I was offering at another Soma members yoga studio at the time. We became instant friends, and have all been on this path together for the last 5 years or so. The name SOMA had first come up in conversations that Shivanesh and I were having discussing the ancient sages of India and far Middle East that had used entheogenic substances (soma/haoma) in religious/spiritual rituals and ceremonies used to pierce the mundane veil of the 5 senses. During that first ceremony, so much intrinsic knowledge was revealed internally about the potential of harnessing the effects of tripping. Not just as a joy ride, but an actual vehicle for crossing broad expanses of consciousness in a short and concise manner. The anagram for SOMA also revealed itself to me. Sacred Order of Mystic Apogees.
Nataraja: In the Puranas (Hindu mythology) we see that Soma, the nectar of immortality, comes from the gods and demons churning of the primeval ocean of milk. Essentially, it is a gift and a boon. From my perspective Soma (the band) is exactly that. For each member of this band sadhana (spiritual practice) is the main focus of life, and us coming together to play this music is simply a result of that. Without each member’s dedication to their sadhana, this band would not exist. We were graciously given this gift to share with each other and all of you. As a listener and participant in kirtan allow these divine sound vibrations to be Soma for you as well!

If possible, how would you describe what 'Spirituality' means to you ? 

Shivanesh:  The most important lesson I have learned in what I consider the spiritual path was I had to completely annihilate my idea of what I thought spirituality is. The quest for Self discovery is life long pursuit built upon the awareness of existence, consciousness and bliss . With grace and humility, we pray to awaken that in our lives .
Kalpa: It has meant many things at different times based on my level of experience and understanding. The underlying theme has always remained the same for me. Purification of mind, body, soul. Working with intention and mindfulness toward a state of complete self acceptance, in which all conflicts naturally resolve themselves. Disappointment is proportional to expectation. Less desire yields more freedom.
Vasudeva: To me, spirituality means the practice of reflection and the softening of the heart. Reflecting on what we truly are, not what we tell ourselves we are or should be. Softening and eventually dissolving our existing ideas of self, status, ego, relationships with others, and recognizing the oneness of it all. A dear teacher says "Make your life into a prayer", and to me that is the shortest and most concise answer to what spirituality means to me. 
Nataraja: Spirituality to me means getting to know one’s Self. Not the relative self, not our qualities, skills, aspirations…none of that. It is also important to remember that spirituality is not a game of collecting new things. Taking spiritual initiation, a spiritual name, engaging in practices, hanging certain pictures on your wall, even hanging out with so called spiritual people can be just as much of a way to hide and avoid one’s self as anything else. You think Jack Daniel’s is a good hiding place? Hah! It’s got nothing on hiding in a so-called spiritual life…but I digress. If it is subject to change, it’s not YOU. What is it in you that is unchanging? Get to know that.

What does the AUM represent to you as musicians? How would you describe the state of consciousness you are in when creating / performing music ? 

Kalpa: For myself, Aum has always been present in my spiritual journey. In layman’s terms, it is like dialing the area code before the number. It’s an access code to the universe. I use it regularly in my daily meditation for calming the sympathetic nervous system, which allows deeper access to one’s own consciousness and harnessing the power of other mantras. 
Vasudeva: Aum to me represents the all encompassing sound, the sound of creation, the portal to hear and see the sounds of the worlds beyond the seen world that reveal themselves through Aum. The state of consciousness during kirtan is very much that. Aum is present in all sounds, and when creating this music and singing these names and mantras, it becomes a key to open the deeper parts of myself and the other worlds we can access through these types of practices. It very much polishes the mirror and allows access to find the person of the heart. It becomes the vehicle to get us to the other side. 
Shivanesh: Om is The Pranava mantra, which in Sanskrit means "to give life ". Om is the seed containing the entirety of the life force of the universe.  The creation , sustaining and dissolving of every breath , every birth, every moment , sound and song. The constant which remains as all things change. The Big Bang, Alpha Omega, The Tandava dance of existence. As people we have access to this golden eternity through the sound Om. When playing music and creating art, its that  consciousness that leads you to harmonious song. It's that consciousness that is the telepathy shared between musicians united in song or the relationship between the painter and canvas guiding the hand toward creation.  
COSM Event Poster (2024)

Where did your love of Hinduism and ancient music begin ? 

Vasudeva: In my early teens I had been given a few books by Krishna devotees, which made me realize the way I had been thinking was far more in line with what was in these books as opposed to how I was raised. Musically, growing up in punk and hardcore, the early Krishnacore movement was very much my first exposure to kirtan and bhajans that were circulated from the bands of that time and sampled on their records. As I grew older and became more exposed to psych rock, the Grateful Dead (specifically Mickey Hart's records with Zakir Hussain and Jerry's record with Sanjay Mishra) the spiritual jazz movement and more experimental sounds, my love for Hindustani music and instruments traditionally used in Indian and Arabic music grew deeper.
Kalpa: I was directly influenced/introduced to Hare Krishna by NYC hardcore band Cro-Mags.  A few of the members were practicing at the height of their buzz. Never looked back since.
Shivanesh: Personally I found my way through Krishna Core in the 80s but that was up ended as soon as I heard classical Indian music. Anything from Classical Carnatic music to Druhpad vocalizing, or The singing Bauls of Bengal; I was just moved by all of it. As Vasudeva mentioned The music of John and Alice Coltrane , Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, and Don Cherry showed me the unlimited potential of making devotional music.   

Have Psychedelics influenced your creative process in any way ? 

Shivanesh: Psychedelics have been a huge influence for me for the last 30 years . Beginning with LSD and Mushrooms, and culminating In 2008 with drinking Ayahuasca . This was a hugely invigorating catalyst in my personal practice and artistic expression. Everything that has been shared with me in ceremony I have tried to establish and cultivate in every aspect in my life. 
Vasudeva: Absolutely. Psychedelics have very much played a role in my life as an individual in regards to my own personal practices and realizations , as well as within SOMA. Many songs and ideas have come from sitting in ceremony together.
Kalpa: Most definitely. It has opened channels in my brain not previously available. The improvement of focus and synaptic response was noticeable after my first ceremony.
Stephen: They’ve opened pathways where I’m able to express from the deeper layers of my make up.  An expansion and contraction of our natural state through the mind and senses.  Open and connected.

Viewing music as medicine, how can meditative music help people to heal in modern times?

Shivanesh: Sound , Song, Mantra,  Kirtan, Bhajan, Icaro , Psalm can all have incredibly beneficial and healing properties.  I'm not saying in anyway are we curing cancer or healing age old traumas, or upending war. What I do think the power of song can do is completely alter your perspective which can actually bring to the threshold where healing can happen. Finding one's voice, raising awareness, transmutation of energy are essential tools one can use to heal. Music works on so many levels and his been used for thousands of years for this purpose maybe now more relevant and needed than ever before . 
Kalpa: Mantras are keys that unlock the primordial entanglement of material identification.
Vasudeva: An experience that stands out for me is during a previous stay in Varanasi, We we're chanting next to the cremation grounds late one evening when two teenage boys came and sat with us and sang for an hour or so. Once we had finished, the one boy approached us and told us how he was there with his family, paying respects to his newly deceased mother and mourning with his family all day. He had heard the kirtan and came to join in. He told us how badly he needed to sing and how deeply it moved him. That was very much a real time lesson in both the healing powers of music and the healing power of community and association. What I find most beautiful about kirtan is that the power is not just in the hands of the people leading it, but equally among all participating in it. So in that sense, we’re all healing and connecting with these things together every time we sing these mantras and names.

Tell us about your new album, what's the concept behind it and how were you all feeling when you made it ? 

Stephen: The idea going into recording Burning is Learning was to capture more of a live sound.  We worked with a really supportive recording engineer and producer that helped us achieve that. We already had some of the material for this album shortly after SHIVA/SHAKTI came out. We took that material along with some general ideas and watched it unfold. The creative process is always an exciting adventure and something I feel that we all appreciate as a band.
Nataraja: This is my first album with Soma. Essentially upon my entering the band I set the intention to be of support and to be used as I was needed, which is much different than past musical endeavours in which I was much more focused on creating. It has been a very nice and refreshing process.
Vasudeva: The album was very much inspired by a pilgrimage myself, Kalpa and Shivanesh made to Varanasi in 2022. It is very much an homage to the most powerful place I have ever been. Nestled in the recordings are samples we recorded there, field recordings of the subtle sounds of the city and temples, Melodies we had learned and shared there, and songs that were nurtured and solidified during our stay.
Shivanesh: Varanasi definitely had a huge influence. The title "Burning is Learning " is actually street slang used by the locals at Marnikarnika, The Cremation grounds there. Sonically, the overall sound of the album was manifested by Phil Caivano who produced the record. He saw us perform at the beautiful, historic Trinity Episcopal Church in Asbury Park, and he really strove to recreate those sounds he heard that night. 
Kalpa: For me it’s an expression of gratitude and reverence towards my peers and teachers I’ve met along the way.

How did the chance to perform at COSM come around and how has that been ? 

Vasudeva: I had just sent an email and everything just happened to work out. It was a lovely experience. Alex and Allyson have really created such an incredible space and community of all types of artists, musicians and seekers. We left there with Many new friends and are eager to return. 
Shivanesh: What Allyson and Alex and The team around them have created there is a living , breathing Mystery School. What a huge gift to the world, it was a high honor to play there . 
Kalpa: If ever the Sistine Chapel was remade, I can only say Alex is Michael and Allyson is Angelo. I left a different person.
SOMA (Event poster, 2024)
 

You can discover more of Soma Kirtan's music via their:



- ASTRAL MAGAZINE

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