A few years back, Krishna Das came to perform at the Buddhist program house at my college. He drew a decent audience, mostly based on his association with Ram Dass, Timothy Leary’s partner at Harvard and the author of the trip-spiritualist manual Be Here Now. I was characteristically skeptical of the event but went along at the behest of my friend, who had just returned from a semester in India and was concerned with American appropriations of Eastern religious practices.
Harmonium in tow, K.D. sat at the center of the room; the rest of us surrounded him in a circle. He invited us to join in on meditative song/exercises, offering a hand in the form of call and response. I’ll spare the details — I’ve forgotten most of them, except for the errant phrase “Si-ta-ram” — except to say that the atmosphere was one of naïve mysticism and perhaps a bit of awe. When the concert ended, and the initial gusts of praise blew over, my friend turned to me with a knowing look of disapproval. “That was not Buddhism. That was Krishna Das.…”
To be fair, Krishna Das had not purported to anything Buddhist – his music stems from the Bhakti Yoga tradition of Kirtan, or chant. Yet there was something decidedly strange about his religiosity: made easy, like a product on late-night television. It was as if all of the troubling emotions that cause college students to smoke pot and claim they’ve found God had physically manifested in the form of a casually charismatic middle-aged man.
Which brings me to Krishna Das’s Heart Full of Soul. It’s difficult to judge something like this — it’s niche enough that a statement like “the record succeeds at certain points, but it’s no Person Pitch” won’t do. I suppose, then, Heart Full of Soul should be considered in terms of its audience — presumably white, middle-class professional types looking for an easily digestible version of the things that are, with apologies to the Flaming Lips, too deep to be adequately expressed in major pentatonics.
The album begins simply enough with “Hanuman Prayer,” in which Krishna Das trades tones with a chorus of devotees, above a central harmonium drone — perhaps a blessing for the more ornately arranged songs that follow. The next track, “Shri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram,” reaches the 22-minute mark, with tabla, chiming percussion, guitars and the massive, omnipresent chorus guiding the way.
Save some tempo changes and the occasional modulation, the songs on Heart Full of Soul all pretty much sound the same. Which may in fact be the point: Das is primarily concerned with chant as yogic practice, and Heart Full of Soul is an artifact of what he considers an “opening of the heart and letting go of the mind and thoughts.” Yet a central disconnect grates against the overarching message: How, I wonder, can these people sit in a circle and sing in languages they don’t understand, in a washed-out interpretation of rarified devotional music, and think that they are getting closer to any sort of truth, spiritual or otherwise? The fact of the matter is they probably just like making music with their friends. Not to superimpose my perception of their being, or anything.
After eleven variations on the same theme, Das shifts gears and closes things out with the east meets west foot stomper “Jesus on the Main Line.” As the only song with English lyrics, it is an obligatory nod to the old hippie admission that all religions are essentially the same — a fine sentiment, but one that obscures the intent focus of the album as a whole.
The rating attached to this review is merely reflective of Heart Full of Soul as I hear it — funny, in a bad way. But as Krishna Das would be the first to say, each man’s insight is his own.