Asian Music and Dance

Like a River to the Sea

The debut album from kirtan artist Jahnavi Harrison – composer, arranger and principal voice of the collection ‒ takes kirtan to a place ripe for genre-crossing. Kirtan is Hindu devotional music that is based on the call and response singing of sacred names. Jahnavi herself grew up in the Hare Krishna community of Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire and, as she says, kirtan was ‘the sound track’ to which she lived her childhood and growing years, and still does.

Kirtan music in the West, spurred by the growth of the international Hare Krishna community but also of yoga studios in the US, has built up an extensive kirtan circuit with performers like Jai Uttal and Krishna Das filling vast auditoria and getting up to a million YouTube hits. Jahnavi Harrison toured extensively in the US with the group Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits (producer of the CD) from 2009‒12, giving violin accompaniment, singing, dancing and storytelling. Jahnavi brought her training in Western classical music along with Carnatic violin and vocal, as well as her study of bharatanatyam to the mix. Influences of British contemporary musicians like Nitin Sawhney gave her a vision of how these multiple influences could share a harmonious existence.

At 28 years of age, the fruit of the long apprenticeship is a first album of astonishing ripeness and sweetness. The tone is mellow, rounded and rich; it draws one to a profound inner space, but stays in touch with life lived full of joys, sorrow and heartbreak. All this emotion is expressed while only taking the many names of Krishna.

In the opening two songs,  ‘Vrikshavalli Hare Krishna’ and ‘Ceili in Braj’, Jahnavi establishes the roots of her practice of kirtan, which is a communal activity, and performs the ‘Mahamantra’, the well-known ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama’ refrain. We hear her solo voice lead and the whole choir responds. She acknowledges the influence of Irish folk music, which she listened to with her father Kripamoya Das, the second voice that weaves with Jahnavi’s own in ‘Hari Haraye’. It is an enchanting rendition, with a triplet time-signature that recalls an Irish dance. The changes of key ensure that the listener’s attention never wavers.

In the three solos ‘Hymn for Govinda’, ‘Heart on Fire’ and ‘Madhava’s Lullaby’, the singer-composer establishes her musical authority. She arranges the compositions of the medieval bhakti saints with a deft touch and sensitivity. The rhythmic pace, the brush-strokes of the accompanists, the pauses — all are perfectly timed. In ‘Hari Hari Bifale’, Jahnavi’s voice soars and dips, and the heart-wrenching sentiment of the devotee’s doubt and self-recrimination is beautifully expressed, making this the centrepiece of the collection. On a lighter note but equally entrancing is ‘Madhava’s Lullaby’, based on the Carnatic raga Nilambari, which has the sweetness of a loving mother easing and cajoling her infant to sleep. The gentle rhythmical sway is echoed by Ravi’s kora (African harp) to great effect.

‘Mayapur Dawn’ has the echoes of a South African gospel choir singing in unaccompanied harmonies. It provides yet another element that distinguishes this bhakti CD because of the variety and contrast it offers. Equally, the touches of field recording from the temples connect us with the ancient and timeless India, making Like a River to the Sea simultaneously traditional and modern.

Finally, the excellent accompaniment, spare and restrained, allowing the voice to come through but adding layers to the musical experience, must be applauded: Manose Newa (bansuri, flute), Asha McCarthy (cello), Gaura Vani (vocal, acoustic guitar), Ravi (kora) and Nama Rasa (mridanga) are just some among a host of others too numerous to single out.

This CD, with a beautifully illustrated cover and inserts that tell us about the genesis of the songs, is truly a gift to our times. As spiritual music, for this reviewer it shares ground with the music of composers like John Tavener and Arvo Part. It will touch anyone with a passing ear for music. 



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