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Are chords an authentic part of kirtan?
posted by Daniel on March 2nd, 2012
Either way, your ear imagines them playing chords on their harmoniums. Krishna Das adds characteristic ornaments between his chords, Jai Uttal often improvises within an Indian scale before moving to the chords, and many kirtan musicians add a bit of the melody interwoven with the chords. But the chords are still the foundation.
That said, kirtan in India... didn't have chords!
When I was first learning harmonium and realized this, it startled me, made me feel like the chord-based kirtans I was learning were inauthentic. Eventually I reconciled it as an important part of us westerners making kirtan our own - expressing our love of the divine names through the musical elements that are woven into our fabric through a lifetime of listening to (and perhaps playing) western chord-based musics.
Then I had an amazing experience. On my third trip to India, I sat with a Bengali kirtan wallah in Mayapur. He was teaching me traditional kirtan songs based on simplified ragas - very Indian style - and yet, as he demonstrated the songs, his right hand kept adding chords into the mix! As I listened to other Bengali kirtan wallahs, I would also occasionally hear chords tossed in, though the foundation was clearly melody.
In the 20th century, Western and Indian music began a love affair that affected all genres - American rockers like the Beatles added raga-scales and sitar sounds to their repertoire, sure, but equally Indian pop music producers picked up electric guitars, and Indian classical musicians adapted the use of saxophones and keyboards. And finally, kirtan musicians are using chords now! Not all the time, but as an added color in their palette.
Copyright 2010-2012 Daniel Tucker