Praise the music! For the June collaborative blog, two members of the collective discuss some of their favorite spiritual music. From Southern gospel to Hindu mantras to spiritual jazz, there's religious music that even secular fans can enjoy.
A. Iwasa's Pick
I’ve already written a feature length piece on T&E about Krishnacore, my runaway favorite devotional music genre. Godhead is a Krishnacore band I’ve been introduced to since then and they are a great testament to the (sub?)genre’s continued relevance on par with the band Safe, who had been the only contemporary hardcore band I had known to be continuing this tradition.
Here are some of my favorites categorized by their spiritual group or musical theme:
While my knowledge on the rich history of spiritual jazz is so relatively miniscule, it is definitely my subgenre of jazz music. In an abridged description, spiritual jazz culminated in the mid-1960s in the midst of the civil rights movement, taking the transcendental aspects of free jazz and pushing the constraints even further - oftentimes incorporating non-Western ethnic musical traditions and always rooted in a quest for spiritual awakening. This subgenre (in my understanding) was first epitomized by John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane, two pioneers with two completely distinct sounds. For those reading that are new to the spiritual jazz genre, I would recommend with starting off with John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and my personal favorite jazz album of all time, Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda:
For further exploration into the spiritual jazz genre, here is a great crash course from one of my favorite radio shows, Observations of Deviance. This three-hour, all-vinyl mix shares both some of the must-know names in the realm as well as a bunch of deep cuts from DJ host David Mittleman’s exquisite and extensive record collection. Highly recommend listening for both people wanting an introduction to the genre and folks who are well-attuned, guaranteed either way you’ll find something new.
If you wanna go even deeper in that rabbit hole, he has another four-hour spiritual jazz mix here. And while we’re on the subject of spiritual music, he also did an incredible show that was all about religious music, focusing on smaller and non-Western religions:
I used to be one of those kids that claimed “I love all music except for country”. Until of course I was about 10 years old and saw O Brother, Where Art Thou? for the first time. I must’ve listened to that soundtrack every day for a year straight. I imagine for many other people my age, that soundtrack forever changed my understanding and appreciation for roots music - bluegrass, blues, soul and the core of it all, gospel.
I’m not Christian. In fact, I lean on the idea that modern day, right-wing/conservative “Christianity” is perhaps the greatest disease that faces our country today. I am a firm believer, however, that anyone from any background can appreciate the classic era of true gospel music. The lyrics transcend the Christian jargon to touch on the most human aspects of our lives - joy, love, death, etc. You hear the origins of blues and rock ‘n roll, some of the finest singing and instrumentation from the early 20th century, and most of all - SOUL! Sublime, genuine and ecstatic soul.
Here are two compilations from the Smithsonian Folkways label that shine the light on the beauty of classic gospel music.
Classic African American Gospel
Classic Southern Gospel
Going back to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, I’d say the song that really struck me the most and remains my all-time favorite gospel song is “I’ll Fly Away”. Originally written in 1932 by Albert Brumley, this song is perhaps the most recorded gospel song of all-time with over 5,000 licensed recordings. There are so many great renditions of this song. In fact - one of the very first T&E articles was on ten great renditions of “I’ll Fly Away” written by Ronny Kerr. I highly recommend that article for more history into the song, and also a glimpse into the vast influence gospel music has had in so many other genres.
For me personally, the 1956 recording of the twin Kossoy Sisters is my favorite recording. The harmonies are unrivaled.
All of this gospel-worship being said, you couldn’t pay me to listen to a modern day Christian album. Well, I dunno, except for some of the ‘60s psychedelic artists that decided to stop doing drugs and instead get freaky for Jesus. The obvious examples would be The Byrds with their song “The Christian Life”, a twangy shredder of a country rock song with legendary vocals, and of course “Turn Turn Turn” (which I didn’t know until recently that takes its lyrics from the Book of Ecclesiastes):
Those ‘60s songs are about as current as I can appreciate for gospel music. But as I said earlier, I think that everyone can find something beautiful about gospel music. Even the most brutal, Satanic heavy metal-worshipper could find something to dig into. After all, Christian imagery is pretty kvlt. Which reminds me, there are bands that mix metal with gospel. Take for example Zeal & Ardor, a Swiss avant-garde band that combine elements of post-black metal with African-American spirituals:
Just going to say this right off the bat, this is my all-time favorite vocal performances within this genre. Makes me weep every time.
This is an original track (I’m pretty sure) by singer Narges Nouhnejad Fani. In this song, she is praying for the son of the Baha’i prophet, ʻAbdu'l-Bahá, to take her hand as she is alone and seeks guidance and strength to follow her journey’s end. Whether or not you believe in a higher power, this performance speaks to so many of our deepest universal emotions. It is a beckoning for love, a desire to be lifted from our darkest places, a plea to feel connection and understanding before our ultimate deaths. When you watch Fani perform this song, you can see and feel an astounding array of emotions - sorrow, strength, vulnerability, and overall, a profound yearning that comes from the depths of her soul. She stands there in front of a choir of about 100 people, a full orchestra, and still commands the entire stage with the singular power of her voice. (Aside from her voice, I should also add that I LOVE the melodic arrangement of this song.)
A quick description for those unfamiliar, the Baháʼí Faith is a 19th century religion that began in Iran Unlike other religions, it does not have a clergy or have many established places of worship. Therefore, it isn’t necessarily common to hear Baháʼí music or big performances as most gatherings are smaller get-togethers in homes and local community centers (not to mention, Baháʼís also face persecution and are not allowed to practice in their own home country). So with that being said, this performance is a rare gem.
Of course, there are some independent artists who make Baha’i-themed music. Fun fact: Alden Penner, formerly of 2000s indie rock band The Unicorns, became a Baha’i after the group disbanded and started a band that sang scripture called The Hidden Words. You can’t find much online, but here’s a performance that’s pretty great. You can definitely hear his indie folk-rock influences but in an entirely different context.
Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was also Baháʼí and quite outspoken about his faith. While his music wasn’t literal religious music, he felt that his music was an extension of his spirituality. Here’s a great rare clip of him speaking with Seals and Croft (also Baháʼí) about his faith and music:
Since the 13th century, Sufi poetry has been accompanied by Persian, Arabic Turkish and Indian classic melodic styles to create some of the most beautiful and influential spiritual music in global history. My knowledge of its musical originals and traditions is rather limited, but here are a few of my favorite current bands that are carrying these ancient traditions into the present day:
Niyaz is an Iranian-Canadian duo that combines traditional Sufi music with trance and electronica. This performance was from their early 2020 tour (one of the last shows I saw before the COVID-19 shutdowns) which featured live visual-mapping and the presence of a whirling dervish.
Arooj Aftab is another phenomenal neo-Sufi singer from Pakistan. She combines Hindustani classical with minimal jazz for a very delicate yet rich sound. She recently won a Grammy in 2022 for Best Global Music Performance. If you hadn’t heard of her before this post, you were bound to find out about her sooner or later as her career has really taken off.
Hindu and ISKCON Mantras
Similar to Sufism, Hinduism (and its many branches, such as the Hare Krishna/ISKCON movement) go hand-in-hand with musical traditions. According to the ISKCON website,
“The Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit books of spiritual knowledge, prescribe invoking our original blissful spiritual consciousness through the medium of sound, a process considered especially effective for this current age. The joyous feelings awakened through the melodious glorification of the Divine are a kind of sonic theology, in which both performer and audience gradually awaken spiritual understanding of the self and the Supreme Self, or God, in ways difficult to achieve through other means.”
I was pretty blown away the first time I went to an ISKCON temple. Seeing people dance and sing mantras, feeling the beat of the drums, swaying along with the harmonium, getting in a repetitive mantra trance…it was way better than any energy I was seeing at any other dance floor in Tucson! We spoke about this more in length in T&E’s Cults and Music podcast, but the bliss from these kinds of musical experiences is palpable. (For the record, I don’t think of ISCKON as a cult, but definitely an important subject when discussing music and religion.)
There are countless Hindu-related songs and bands that have entered the American cultural zeitgeist, especially in the '60s when psychedelic music became so interwoven with Eastern musical traditions. Some big examples include “My Sweet Lord” - George Harrison, a song that even Atheists could bop their heads to, or even Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” featuring a chorus of Hare Krishna singers. And of course, as A. Iwasa mentioned in his pick, there’s the entire punk subgenre of Krishnacore! Definitely read his article if you haven't already.
While there is so much out there, I'll just mention a few renditions of my favorite mantras:
Jagjit Singh is perhaps the most prolific of his kind, and credited for the resurgence of the ghazal style in popular music. The video above is is a lovely recording of him singing a mantra for Krishna and his beloved partner Radha. He exercises such beautiful control of his voice in this song and manages to capture the tenderness of the spiritual love expressed in this mantra.
There are countless recordings of the Hare Krishna mantra, but the following video by Singh will always be my favorite. It’s so heady and ethereal, starting off with a slow burning flame and stoking it to an ecstatic ending. I used to listen to this on loop for hours.
This is a beautiful kirtan from the Kirtaniyas, featuring the voices of school children from the holy city of Vrindavan. While children’s choirs can be so trite, this is an example of how beautiful it can be when executed well. Just pure innocence and joy in this song.
And finally, two of my favorite Hindu mantras. I don’t know much about the singers of these particular videos, they’re just two versions I came across many years ago when searching online and have remained my favorite that exist online.
Jaya Jaya Jagannath, a praise of the deity Jagannath:
Sacisutastaka sung by Swarupa Damodar Dasa. This is a mantra in praise of the saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu:
A sentiment I’ve echoed many times in this post, but you don’t need to know or believe the words in the music to still be swept away by their beauty.
[Post Edit: I just realized I completely left out Tengri musical traditions from Mongolia, but I cover that music quite extensively on my global radio show which you can stream on T&E! You can also read the interview I did with Mongolian rock band The Hu on such traditions here.]
Collaborative Blogs & Playlists