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King of kirtan

Before joining spiritual writer-teacher Ram Dass, Jeffrey Kagel made it to Long Island for a Jimi Hendrix gig at his alma mater, Stony Brook University (SBU), in 1969. His old pals, including Sandy Pearlman, then the producer-manager for Soft White Underbelly (which soon became the legendary rock band Blue Oyster Cult), were waiting. Pearlman asked Kagel to rejoin the group (he had earlier hooked up with the band while in his second year at SBU). The watershed moment had arrived. He decided to spend the next year travelling as Dass’s student and dreamt of making a journey to India, a country he had only seen in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. That pilgrimage led him to Neem Karoli Baba (Dass’s guru). And suddenly Jeffrey Kagel ceased to exist. Enter, Krishna Das or KD.

This “kirtanwala” is in the running for the Best New Age Album Grammy with Live Ananda. t2 tracks down KD.

First things first: why Krishna Das?

Neem Karoli Baba, my guru, gave me that name. He gave a name to my inner being, my deepest heart.

How important is this Grammy nomination for you and, looking at the bigger picture, for kirtan?

It’s a great honour to be included among musicians and artistes who have been nominated before. I don’t really see myself as a musician. I’m a kirtanwala! But that’s not a category at the Grammy’s yet. It’s wonderful that more people will become aware of kirtan through this. Spiritual practice is growing in the West and it is certainly needed in these anxiety-ridden and fearful times.

Will you attend the Grammy Awards on February 10?

Yes and I will be presenting a kirtan at the ceremony.

How did Live Ananda happen?

It’s called Live Ananda because it was recorded at an ashram in upstate New York called Anandashram. It is the most simple of all my CDs in terms of production values, but it was produced and engineered by one of the great recording engineers of all time, Jay Messina, who is known for his work with Aerosmith and John Lennon, besides other great mainstream artistes (Miles Davis, Rolling Stones, Lou Reed).

How did you meet Ram Dass?

I met him in 1968, soon after he returned from his first India trip where he had met Neem Karoli Baba the first time and his life was transformed. When I first met him I intuitively understood that real unconditional love existed and one could find it. That changed my life completely.

What turned you towards kirtan?

When I first visited India in 1970 to be with my Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, I heard chanting and was immediately and deeply affected. I had never heard such joyous music in my life and for it to be a spiritual practice as well just blew my mind.

This was also the time when foreigners were speaking about Ravi Shankar....

I never met Ravi Shankar, but I always loved his music. I, however, did meet and got to know Ali Akbar Khan in the 1990s and I am deeply moved by his music.

And you have also worked with Madonna and Sting....

Madonna was about to make a movie in which she played a yoga teacher. I think it was called The Next Best Thing. She wanted (in the movie) to do a chant at her yoga class and asked her yoga teachers, who were my friends, to ask me to teach her to sing a chant. I did and we had a great afternoon together.

Sting’s yoga teachers were also my friends. They were going to Italy to lead a week-long workshop at his house. Meanwhile, he (Sting) had been doing asanas while listening to my first CD, One Track Heart. He asked his teachers to invite me over. And we had a great time.