We’re in a golden age of kirtan albums. The offerings are diverse: In May, Ananda Monet’s Inevitable Time told us the story of the Mahabharat in theatrical, epic style; and Madi’s Bhakti Without Borders stuck in our heads with its catchy pop sensibilities.
Now, Jahnavi Harrison’s Like A River to the Sea (July 24th, Mantralogy) takes us on a journey. Sometimes it’s to a holy site like Pandharpur, Mayapur, or Vrindavana, evoking a real sense of place. Often, though, it’s deep into our own hearts, to connect with our true selves and deepest yearnings.
The album is the culmination of Jahnavi’s own journey. Growing up in what she calls an idyllic childhood at the UK’s Bhaktivedanta Manor, she was familiar with kirtan from a young age and would learn the words to songs by the Vaishnava acharyas by heart.
But it wasn’t until she went on North America’s Krishna Culture Festival Tour at 19, and was exposed to the greater world of Vaishnava youth, that she became comfortable in her identity as a devotee and found her voice as a kirtan leader.
That was when Jahnavi’s life changed. She was invited to tour with kirtan artist Gaura Vani, chanting and playing her trademark violin at yoga studios across North America, South Africa, India, and Australia, and reaching out to a wider audience back home with Kirtan London.
After a torrent of requests for an album, Jahnavi finally accepted it as a direction from Krishna, and recorded Like A River to the Sea with Gaura Vani producing and Jai Uttal’s award-winning engineer Ben Leinbach mixing.
The cover of Like A River to the Sea, created in watercolor and pencil by Jahnavi herself
The album’s title is a reference to the famous prayer by Queen Kunti to Lord Krishna, “As the River Ganges forever flows to the sea without hindrance, let my attraction be constantly drawn towards You without being diverted to anything else.”
The watercolor and pencil cover image by Jahnavi herself is a beautifully peaceful and evocative depiction of a young woman looking out at her boat navigating its way down the river of life.
The image is based on wisdom from the late Yamuna Devi, an early disciple of Srila Prabhupada who deeply inspired many ISKCON youth including Jahnavi.
“She once told me that we have to expect bends and dips in the river of life,” Jahnavi says. “But we should make our way down it without fear, raising our hands above our heads and trusting Krishna that the river is always flowing in the same direction -- towards Him.”
Yamuna Devi’s presence is felt strongly on several of the album’s eight tracks. On Hymn for Govinda, Jahnavi sings her own wistful melody, backed by African kora harp and violin, of the Brahma-Samhita prayers Yamuna was famous for recording.
The CD booklet
On Heart on Fire (Hari Hari Biphale), Jahnavi might just draw a few tears with her intensely yearning rendition of Yamuna and Srila Prabhupada’s favorite song, which they sang together on numerous occasions. Stripped back with just Jahnavi on violin and Grammy-award-winning John McDowell on piano, it lives up to its name.
Finally there’s the wonderfully poignant last track on the album, a recording of a spontaneous moment during Yamuna Devi’s last rites in Vrindavana, when all the women standing on the banks while her ashes were scattered in the centre of the Yamuna river, began singing the Govindam prayers together.
The river Yamuna itself is also an inspiration for the album. On the astonishing English language bluegrass-style title track, Like A River, Jahnavi laments the “external degradation” of Vrindavana in lyrics written when visiting the sacred village for the first time in many years: “The well I drank from has run dry; the riverbed has moved over years; cellphones ring instead of bells; the sacred hill has almost disappeared.”
But she searches for spiritual vision, intertwining her English lyrics with the Govinda Damodar Stotram of Bilvamangala Thakur, who who was externally blind but could see Krishna with his inner vision.
Elsewhere Jahnavi and an impressive host of musical talent – including Asha McCarthy on cello, Ravi on the West Africa kora harp, Purusartha Das on bass, Gaura Vani on guitar, Namarasa on mridanga, and Jahnavi’s father Kripamoya, sister Tulasi, and brother Namamali on vocals – serve up a diverse mix of styles.
A Krishna greeting card included with the CD album
The first two tracks, Vrikshavalli Hare Krishna and Ceili in Braj (Hari Haraye), are stunning traditional kirtan pieces that build and soar. Vrikshavalli, with its toe-tapping call to Lord Panduranga, a form of the Lord worshipped in Maharashtra and Karnataka, is pure joy that takes you to a timeless place. And Hari Haraye’s achingly beautiful chorus, sung by an international choir of devotees, builds into a celebratory, danceable tune that’s purely infectious.
Meanwhile Mayapur Dawn (Gaura Hari) is an incredible achievement – a seven-minute-long acapella track that not only holds the attention but absorbs. With a traditional Bengali melody sung in cascading harmonies, it’s inspired by Jahnavi’s experience chanting japa on Mayapur rooftops while watching the sun rise over the Ganga, and transports you right there.
Like A River to the Sea, with its ten-minute tracks and often meditative pace, may not be for every mood. But there’s enough variety here for everyone. And Jahnavi’s deep, sincere devotion is refreshing and catching, attracting a wide audience to the Holy Name -- last week, incredibly, the album reached number eight on the Billboard World Music charts.
“For people already familiar with kirtan, I hope it can give some fresh inspiration, and serve their meditation in some way,” she says. “And for an audience new to kirtan, I hope that it’s artistically appealing enough that it connects them with spiritual sound vibration and makes them want to keep coming back. I think that Srila Prabhupada really believed in music, dance, and drama as very powerful mediums to connect with people. And I see a renaissance happening now in devotional art, which I hope is going to captivate peoples’ hearts and minds.”
Like A River to the Sea is available on Amazon.com, Mantralogy.com, iTunes, Google Play, and Spotify.[ bhaktivedanta-manor ] [ jahnavi-harrison ] [ london ] [ mantralogy ] [ music ] [ radha-krishna-records ] [ uk ]