Krishna Das — KD to his fans — is an acknowledged master of the kirtan ("praise" or "eulogy" in Sanskrit), a call-and-response chanting performance style that originated centuries ago in India. During the kirtan, KD leads the audience in chants and hymns ranging from Hindu-derived "Om Namah Shivaya" to gospel standard "Jesus on the Main Line." These kirtans begin in a contemplative manner, building up to a state of collective bliss as the audience sings along, dances and helps propel this highly energized form of worship.
This Friday, the world-renowned vocalist brings his blend of music and mysticism to Northeast Florida when he performs with tabla player Arjuna Bruggeman and electric bassist Mark Gorman at the Karpeles.
KD's approach to choosing songs for each kirtan is essentially unplanned. "I've been doing this for so long, it's like this long wave that just keeps changing gradually. New chants replace older chants, older chants come back at some point; there's no real thought behind it. Basically, I'm just a selfish guy and I sing what I want in the moment," he laughs. Although kirtans are spiritually based, KD shrugs off aligning himself with a specific tradition: "When I sing, I'm not singing as a Hindu to the heathens. I just happen to sing these chants because that is where I woke up."
His spiritual awakening did not begin on a joyous note, however. Born Jeffrey Kagel in 1947 on Long Island, as a youth he displayed an aptitude for music and by his teens, the blues-loving Kagel was performing in folk clubs. Kagel's musical prowess was tempered with an equally marked tendency toward restlessness and depression. As the Vietnam War escalated, Kagel's internal conflicts intensified. In his late teens, he underwent psychiatric care and was prescribed antidepressants. After twice dropping out of college, Kagel was drafted, but his mental health status exempted him from combat. In his 2010 memoir, Chants of a Lifetime, he describes how his ongoing anguish was the key that unlocked his spiritual search.
"I think suffering is a requirement to wake up spiritually," he says. "We are pretty dull in terms of how much pain we have to endure until we begin to recognize, or even hope, that there might be another way to live."
In his early 20s, Kagel drifted aimlessly, living alone in a rural farmhouse and working as a school bus driver. In the spring of 1969, Kagel met Ram Dass, who'd recently returned to New Hampshire from India. While over there, Ram Dass had met the man he accepted as his guru: Neem Karoli Baba, known to his followers as Maharaj-ji. During this same period, Kagel was invited to sing for the band Soft White Underbelly, which would later morph into Blue Öyster Cult. But Kagel turned his back on possible rock stardom to follow Ram Dass' lead. In 1970, he traveled to India to meet Maharaj-ji.
Once he arrived at the storied guru's ashram, Kagel was overwhelmed by the love that seemed to emanate from Maharaj-ji. The guru was initially reluctant to deal with the increasing flux of American youths — and celebrities — making a pilgrimage to meet him, due in large part to Ram Dass' unsolicited, albeit sincere, publicity campaign. Many of these young seekers were drawn to Maharaj-ji because of dissatisfactions with their Judeo-Christian heritage. One of Maharaj-ji's first suggestions to this eager flock was to read the Gospels. When one baffled seeker asked Maharaj-ji how they should practice meditation, he responded, "Meditate like Christ. He lost himself in love."
In conversation, KD's voice softens when recalling this teaching. "That is still one of the most powerful moments of my life," he says. Kagel adopted the name Krishna Das and began chanting as a form of Bhakti yoga, the Hindu path to God fueled by sheer devotion. After two and a half years in India, KD returned to the States.
In 1973, Maharaj-ji passed away. In the aftershock of his guru's death, KD strayed from spirituality, and the specter of depression returned. He tried to quell this pain by freebasing cocaine, nearly destroying himself in the process of addiction. Realizing he'd need to return to his spiritual practice if he wanted to survive, KD kicked his coke habit and surrendered fully to chanting. In the years since, KD has devoted himself to songs that vow eternal love to God's myriad forms.
KD still regularly struggles with faith. "First, I bitch and moan. Loudly," he says with a laugh. "Yet there are all kinds of spiritual practices you can do in those moments — and most of the time they don't work! But just the effort to do these practices when you are fucked up in the head is an extraordinarily powerful act. You are recognizing that you are not that state of mind, while making a very strong karmic call-to-action at that moment."
The now-66-year-old musician has been leading kirtans for more than two decades, and has achieved a level of success that has made him the Mick Jagger of Lord Rama. He's sold more than 300,000 albums and enjoys a fan base of spiritual seekers and secular listeners alike. Last year alone, he was the subject of a documentary, his 2012 release Live Ananda received a Grammy nomination for Best New Age Album, and he performed at the awards show, a historic first for any kirtan artist. His latest album, Kirtan Wallah, continues his merging of Eastern and Western musical spirits.
In the decades since Jeffrey Kagel became Krishna Das, America has increasingly embraced Eastern-born concepts like karma, meditation, yoga and vegetarianism. While KD doesn't claim to hold sage-like wisdom, he does offer this theory as to why more Westerners are seeking fulfilment at meditation halls rather than strip malls: "We are brought up in a culture that is completely materialistic. We are taught to gather as much shit together as you can, have as much pleasure as possible, avoid as much pain as possible, and when you're dead, you're dead. And that's a very small piece of the pie." o