For the past seven years, David Newman (also known as Durga Das) has been traveling the world with his wife Mira and other band members (including beloved LA-based musician Philippo Franchini) sharing the art of kirtan (call-and-response devotional singing) live and with albums like Lotus Feet and his newest, titled To Be Home.
This year, he was inspired to write the uplifting tune “Stay Strong,” which instigated a community project culminating in a collaborative single featuring a roster of renowned musicians and yogis. They completed the bulk of the recordings, both audio and visual (keep your eyes peeled for the joy-filled star-studded music video) at Bhakti Fest in September, 2010. The official digital release of “Stay Strong” is scheduled for February 8, and there will be a global campaign to share the message of “Stay Strong” on Valentine’s Day, February 14.
All of the proceeds from the sale of “Stay Strong” will benefit the nonprofit environmental organization Global Green, and more collaborations may be in the works, including a possible Yoga/kirtan biodiesel bus tour.
Between gigs in Southern California, Durga Das took some time to talk to LA YOGA about staying strong, his observations of the global awakening we’re experiencing and the power of practice and community.
Felicia M. Tomasko: First, start out by telling me a bit about how the “Stay Strong” Project began.
Durga Das: This summer, I was traveling a lot, as usual. It was a time of economic downturn and the Gulf oil spill. I talked to a lot of people who were feeling discouraged, hopeless and oppressed by doomsday feelings. I started writing the melody for “Stay Strong” and then the lyrics came forth, including, “Stay strong, keep your faith alive.” We all need to hear this sentiment in challenging times.
Joy is the essence of Bhakti Yoga and kirtan. We touch joy in the practice and ultimately realize that the joy comes up from within us and not from anywhere else. Community, now more than ever, is essential to help us experience this.
Seeing a lot of yogis who were feeling hopeless and down was troubling to me. I feel that the role of yogis is to have faith, to follow grace and to believe that everything will unfold perfectly, even amidst the challenges of life. So I wanted to get the message of hope out in whatever way I could. It came out through song.
The song led to the following vision: Wouldn’t it be really cool to gather musical colleagues and folks from the Yoga community to put this message out there? This was in the midst of the Gulf soil pill, and we wanted to make a wholehearted offering of this music and then donate the proceeds to an environmental organization working on the gulf coast cleanup. Mira and my vision launched a domino effect.
We contacted Bhakti Fest to secure permission to film and record while there, which we received. And as we were making plans, we had dinner with Sean Johnson in New Orleans and then another dinner with Richard Wegman from Global Green. These conversations led to partnership with Global Green, who works not only in New Orleans, but across the country and the world on environmental issues. We felt their constructive work was a perfect fit with this hopeful project.
We contacted kirtan singers and yogis and yoginis to gauge their interest and happily received enthusiastic replies. Initially, we recorded “Stay Strong” in Philadelphia with local musicians and then gathered together a film and recording crew to travel to Bhakti Fest, where we captured on film and tape everyone aside from Sharon Gannon and Snatam Kaur, whom we recorded in Rhinebeck, New York.
Sometimes in life we receive various levels of either support or resistance from the Universe. In this project, every step of the way was graced by perfect support. Nutone Records came forward to distribute the single, Tara Hogan (from Ink and Wit) offered her graphic designer services and our web designer Krista Fuentes (Amaru Interactive) did the Stay Strong site pro bono.
The single will be released on February 8 on exclusively through digital media including iTunes. It is accompanied by a digital booklet with photos and more information. Then in May, we’ll launch a deluxe release including the video.
When we first conceived this project, our focus was on the Gulf oil spill cleanup. While the cleanup is still a major issue on the Gulf Coast, the scope of the project has since expanded. By connecting with Global Green, we’re supporting environmental initiatives across the board. All of the proceeds from the sale of “Stay Strong” will benefit Global Green.
FMT: Now that it’s been months after you’ve recorded “Stay Strong,” how does the message continue to be relevant to you?
DD: This is a timeless message, for myself included. There are always challenges in life. All of us are faced with those situations when the rug could be pulled out from beneath us at any level, vis a vis the environment, the violence that surrounds us, in our own life; we could be left wondering if we’ll be able to pay the rent or if we’ll be able to be taken care of or take care of ourselves at any level. We can’t always see how things will turn out.
This song was a particular response to a dark time I was experiencing, yet it speaks to the fact that we all have challenges, whether they are physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. In my own path, I’m digging within myself to offer something to bring more beauty into world. I feel a strong impetus to speak and share this message and mission. The beautiful thing about expressing this idea through music is that any song means different things to different people. The message can hit home and touch people in different ways.
FMT: Was there something special about Bhakti Fest as a place where you could manifest this project?
DD: On a practical level, ninety percent of the folks whom we invited to participate in this project would be at the same place at the same time (at Bhakti Fest). If we had to travel around the country to do this, it might not have been feasible. That being said, the energy at Bhakti Fest was fantastic. With four days of nonstop chanting, it was a spirited place to get the juice to pull this off.
At Bhakti Fest, the seven of us had a cottage that we converted into a film and recording studio. Each day we would film and record, beginning at 10:00 A.M. and continuing through to 7:00 or 8:00 at night. For example, at 10:00 A.M., we’d record Seane Corn, then at 11:00 A.M., Jai Uttal, and so on.
FMT: After you were done filming for the day, would you have time to hang out at the festival?
DD: We would take breaks throughout the day, and then we would wrap up around seven or eight in the evening to listen to chanting. We had a number of opportunities to enjoy other aspects of what was happening at Bhakti Fest in addition to recording “Stay Strong.”
FMT: How do you feel about the project now at this stage?
DD: I feel good. It’s amazing because there were so many potential obstacles throughout every step of the project. First, we had to record performances, some from yogis who may not be accustomed to being in front of a microphone. Since everyone was recorded individually, we had to figure out how the performances would work on their own and together. We had amazing support from Trina Shoemaker, our gifted mixing engineer in Nashville, who had to sort through the recordings to see was best at delivering different lines. The audio mix was then sent to the video editor who had to fish through hours of footage to look for each person singing their particular line and look out for things like, while KD was singing, was he looking at the camera or was he fixing his headset? There were so many unknowns for it to come together into a cohesive whole. So I’m thrilled it all worked out. We had a limited budget and amount of time and we created everything on the fly.
All things considered, I feel that what we brought forward embodies the two most important aspects of this project: A sense of unity and a feeling of joy. I feel that we captured both in the presentation of “Stay Strong.”
FMT: How do these two qualities, unity and joy, relate to everything else that you do through kirtan?
DD: In this project, we brought together our colleagues: kirtan singers and yogis. Not just in this project, but in the community as a whole, unity is important. We see the growth of community in festivals like Bhakti Fest and the growth of festivals in Europe. It’s happening throughout the year as well, for example, Girish and I recently participated in a festival together in Santa Cruz.
Coming together in community at any level is important to me and kirtan itself is a practice of creating unity. It’s not really a performance. There’s a magic that occurs in the joining of individual voices that merge into one voice and the gift of kirtan itself is that it is a unifying experience.
As I travel, I’m seeing the powerful acceleration of global consciousness and awareness. Through practices like Bhakti Yoga and kirtan, we can support each other as we grow into new territories of consciousness. Joy is the essence of Bhakti Yoga and kirtan. We touch joy in the practice and ultimately realize that the joy comes up from within us and not from anywhere else. Community, now more than ever, is essential to help us experience this.
In the shifts occurring within myself in my own life, I could not have gone through them as gracefully without being in a community, without the support of loved ones and in turn offering support to them.
FMT: At the Bhakti Fest Ommersion in April, do you think you’ll be offering “Stay Strong” on stage with whomever is there?
DD: I would like to, but I haven’t gotten that far in my planning. I’m still putting my band together. Since Mira and I are having a child in May, which is a new dimension in my life, Mira won’t be at Bhakti Fest in April.
While on tour recently when possible, for example, at Bhakti Yoga Shala, we’re singing “Stay Strong” with whomever is in town, such as with Donna De Lory, Govindas and Radha, Dave Stringer, and other folks. I try not to over plan things. Even “Stay Strong” really just arose. Each step of the way, as the inspiration came forward, I just followed it.
FMT: What is the feedback you’ve heard so far from the other artists involved in the project?
DD: From the exclamation point-filled emails I’ve received so far, people love it and they’re excited to spread the word. So many widespread communities have been behind this on so many levels, it’s a unifying message of song that serves the environment.
FMT: What was the response you received when you asked people to participate?
DD: Sending out the letters was the time during which I was the most nervous about this project. So much had come into focus at that point, including donations from investors to make the project happen and Bhakti Fest had agreed to our filming. The missing link was, “Would all these folks do it?” Soon after sending the invitations, unequivocal yes’s started to roll in.
FMT: As you’ve been traveling over the years, what have you observed in the growth of the Yoga and kirtan communities?
DD: They certainly have expanded; that a given. In 1992, I opened a Yoga school in Philadelphia. At the time, we were the only Yoga center in town. Now in Philadelphia, there are loads of Yoga centers. And it’s not just there; we were recently in Jackson, Mississippi, offering a kirtan and Bhakti Yoga workshop.
As people who practice Yoga feel more in tune with their inherent joy and happiness, which is the ultimate goal of Yoga, they may experience a taste of kirtan along the way. Kirtan practice is an intimate and powerful reflection of inner joy, yet it is hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it.
People may become exposed to kirtan through Yoga, and may first simply like the music, and then tune into the vibration. They may see a local kirtan band, or a traveling wallah and their experience grows from there.
For me, a significant reason why both Yoga practice and bhakti/kirtan are so accessible is because they are both tactile practices. You can engage in the practice and feel something different. While there is an esoteric quality to both, there’s nothing mysterious about doing an asana class and then having the body feel better or feeling more expansion of the heart after a kirtan experience.
In something I wrote for the Bhakti Fest newsletter, I said that every time you sing kirtan, there is a little opening, a beam of light that expands your connection to your inner joy. The more you practice, the more that expands until it pops and we experience an awakening. That is the ultimate goal: With repeated exposure, we realize who we are.
FMT: When did you become first introduced to kirtan?
DD: The first kirtan experience I had was when I was in law school in 1991 in New York City. I had met some folks who were involved with Siddha Yoga, and they took me to the ashram in South Fallsburg, New York. The program opened with one-half hour of kirtan. After that, I attended a weekend retreat at Kripalu, in Massachusetts, where I was again exposed to kirtan.
In the late 1990s, I connected to Neem Karoli Baba through exposure to his devotees, Bhagavan Das, Krishna Das (KD) and Jai Uttal. These guys deeply inspired me. They brought kirtan out of the ashram and to the Western world, originally through Yoga centers. In the 1990s, Bhagavan Das was singing again and KD and Jai Uttal were traveling. These were exciting times that led to new generations of seekers and musicians who have put it all together in wonderful ways.
FMT: What inspired you to start singing yourself?
DD: In the late 1990s, I experienced an awakening that opened the floodgates of musical creativity for me. At the time, music was a bit a of a side activity; from 1992 - 2000, I was primarily a Yoga teacher. As a result of meeting Bhagavan Das and KD, especially Bhagavan Das, I started singing as part of a Bhakti Yoga practice.
This opened new wave of creativity musically for me that came to a head in early 2000. In 2001, I was having so much fun; I recorded my first CD, Soul Freedom, for the joy of it. At the time I was a Yoga teacher, yet the positive response to Soul Freedom inspired me to continue to put music out there and record my second CD, Lotus Feet. I was increasingly invited to sing, which initiated a five-year transition from teaching full-time to letting go of teaching and becoming a full -time kirtan wallah. During this time, Mira and I came together. It’s been a fun eight years. I just turned 47 and looking back, to when I was 40, when a new direction of my life came forward, I realized that before kirtan, I hardly traveled, and in the past seven years, I’ve traveled the world, including Europe, Japan, Canada and the states. I feel grateful and graced to do what I do.
FMT: Are there any inspirational stories you can recall of this time on the road?
DD: There are so many, it’s hard to choose. Well, there’s one that happened just last night. In addition to the live experience of kirtan, where there is direct and intimate contact with others and their hearts, which is beautiful in and of itself, we make music in a recording studio and put it out there. It’s easy to lose touch and not know how that specific music touches people’s lives. So I love meeting people and hearing about their experiences with the recorded music.
Last night, a woman told me how listening to my music on her iPod helped her climb Machu Picchu in Peru. I’ve had people tell me that they’ve listened to my Hanuman Chalisa CD in the hospital after their surgery, how the music has kept them going during long drives or when there’s been a lot going on in their lives. I appreciate hearing how music has affected someone’s life while they’re in the darkness. Since music is connected to light, since it can have a positive effect, especially during hard times. I go into the deep dark places within when I write; I’m on mining expeditions and hopefully I bring back something beautiful and inspirational. This is my impetus for creating so when I hear that this effort has borne fruit in someone’s life, I have a good feeling remembering why I do this in the first place.
FMT: How does “Stay Strong” relate to your most recent full-length album, To Be Home?
DD: Before To Be Home, many of my other recordings were done over months, with different musicians and a lot of electronics. I recorded To Be Home over two weeks with a band of live musicians and it has a singer-songwriter-meets-kirtan kind of feel. I continued this singer-songwriter feel with “Stay Strong.”
Musically and stylistically, “Stay Strong” has more of an Americana kind of flavor. And “Stay Strong” was written a couple years after everything on To Be Home. But when I’m creating, I don’t think too much; I my inspiration does not always happen in a cerebral way, it comes up through images and ideas. Songs, like “Stay Strong” are connected to my experiences, things I’ve gone through in my life. “Stay Strong” came out of listening to others’ doomsday talk last summer, listening to people talk about how down they felt, how they didn’t feel any hope; those are the sentiments from which this song came forward. There was such a high after Obama was elected President, then after the Gulf oil spill, everyone felt let down. People wondered, “Why are we sitting around letting thousands of gallons of oil spill into the ocean. Where is the change?” People were bewildered.
FMT: From what you’ve said so far, it seems like you feel the antidote to this sense of bewilderment is community.
DD: Absolutely! Coming together and supporting each other is important. We can’t do it alone. Community supports our process of collectively waking up and tuning into what is real and true for us.
The relationship between spirituality and activism is part of this, and something I’ve been thinking about lately. Mira and I were recently invited to sing our song “Love, Peace and Freedom” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC as part of a rally for The Justice Movement. In my own work, I’m connected to the spiritual and Yoga communities who are largely oriented to an inner shift. I saw The Justice Movement as being a group focused on external shift, but who are not coming from a place of anger, as can be the case with many activists. They are heart-centered and want to be part of creating change.
When we wake up and come together, allowing the intelligence of spirit to move through us, it can positively affect the global whole. When activism is heart-centered and coming from a place of fullness, compassion and love, it has the power to shift thought-forms, beliefs and practices and affect future generations. We have a responsibility to make the world a better place. While there is a lot of light in the circles in which we traverse, there is a lot of darkness on the planet. I can’t turn my head away and walking away from it. Maybe I’m thinking this way because I’m about to have a child.
FMT: You’re timing a global “Stay Strong” campaign to coincide with Valentine’s Day, a reminder of our inner joy and love. If you could inspire something through this work, what would it be?
DD: It would be just that, to realize that happiness is within us. So much of what we’ve been conditioned to believe is that we have to get something in this world or we have to find something outside of ourselves to be happy. But happiness is within us and we can attract situations, relationships and jobs to us that reflect this joy back to us.
There is a synergy between what happens inside and outside ourselves, when we awaken to the truth that is manifest around us. When we show up on this path, within our intimate or our global communities, and come from a place of fullness, we can spread that happiness around us.
Kirtan is so many things, but it is also a celebration. Through the vehicle of our voices, we can reap the benefit of the protection of community by reminding each other of its power.
A global awakening that is taking place. I can sum it up by saying that we are going from being seekers to being finders. It’s time for us to let go of the belief that we are here to terminally seek. This means waking up to who we really are. In my estimation, it’s more and more the case that this is happening.
For more information about David Newman, visit: davidnewmanmusic.com.
For more information about Stay Strong Project, visit: staystrongproject.org.
For more information about Global Green, visit: globalgreen.org.