In houses and apartments across L.A., people are gathering together to practice a little-known, but growing, devotional ritual called kirtan.
Somewhere between a singalong and a group meditation, kirtan (KEER-tan) is a call-and-response spiritual practice that has roots in Indian religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. It was introduced to America in 1923, at a performance in Carnegie Hall. Since then, it has transitioned from an exotic performance to a common practice.
Many of the people practicing kirtan are not otherwise religious. Like meditation or yoga, it is accessible to anyone. Krishna Das, an American-born kirtan performer, is one of the people bridging the spiritual practice and mainstream American culture.
"He's been a lot of people's entry -- for Westerners -- into the power of devotional singing," said Australian pop singer-songwriter Ben Lee, a kirtan enthusiast.
Das, born Jeffrey Kagel, became a student of spiritual teacher Ram Dass in 1969 and traveled to India with him in 1970. There, Das encountered his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, known to most as Maharaj-ji.
Under Maharaj-ji's guidance, Das adopted his new name and began chanting as part of following the path of Bhakti yoga -- the yoga of devotion. In 1971, shortly after Das returned to the U.S., Neem Karoli died.
"I went through a lot of years of really dark unhappiness," Das said. Eventually, though, he found his way back to kirtan.
He began performing publicly in 1994 and has since sold more than 300,000 albums, including collaborations with Mike D of the Beastie Boys, Sting and Rick Rubin. He is currently embarking on an international tour in support of his new album, "Heart as Wide as the World," and his new book, the cheekily named "Chants of a Lifetime."
The book combines autobiography with musings and education about kirtan, and includes a CD of Das' music. The performances are engaging and hypnotic. Track two, "Baba Sita Ram," consists of one line repeated over and over to become a mantra: "Seetaaraama Seetaaraama Seetaaraama Seetaaraama." The track is 16 minutes and 47 seconds long.
Still, the sounds are not unfamiliar to anyone who has heard rock or blues, as Das stays close to his background in jazz and world music rather than Indian devotional forms (he dabbled in music production during the '80s). "I sing what I like," he said, "what comes out of me naturally."
Clearly, it's working.
Lee, who saw Das perform in an apartment in New York, said, "[Das] has a really massive career, but it seems very clear that it is first and foremost his spiritual practice -- and I think that's what gives it its juice."
Das may be the "rock star" of kirtan, but he comes to the music with no showmanship and no proselytizing. "If they like it, they like it, whaddaya going to do?" Das said. "There's nothing to believe, first, but that you want to feel better and live in a better way -- this is one of the ways of doing that."
It makes sense that kirtan is gaining widespread practice in L.A., where the yoga mat-carrying, meditating vegan is a Hollywood staple.
Zat Baraka, who founded the Kirtan Collective in Los Angeles, sees the city as a hub of kirtan. "L.A. is really -- particularly the Westside -- the most progressive part of the U.S. for healthful living," he said. "There are so many kirtans going on, and so many people using this medium as part of their daily life."
On Saturday, Das will perform at the 1,270-seat Wilshire Ebell Theatre, and he will also appear in September at the second annual Bhakti Festival in Joshua Tree, where organizers expect 5,000 to 6,000 attendees for four days of kirtan, meditation, yoga and seminars.
Kirtan's growing popularity connects with Americans looking for a meditative and self-help practice that enhances, rather than supplants, their personal spirituality. Das openly talked about his own struggle with depression and how kirtan allows people to "let go of our stuff -- our anger, our fear, our jealousy . . ." his phone rang in the background and he laughed, adding, "our telephones."
It can be difficult to meditate in the middle of hectic city life, but Das notes that chanting engages the mind and body in a way that can cut through.
"There's so much fear these days, so much tension," Das said. "People want to find a way to release those tensions, to deal with stuff. Chanting can do that."