The self-titled debut album from US-based chant group The Hanumen has just been released on June 25th. And it’s about to set the world ablaze.
“The UN has given us country status so that we can come and play music as an official country at the United Nations from now on,” says band member Gaura Vani.
He says it with such a straight face that for a second I think, “They can do that?” before bursting into laughter at his sillyness for saying such a thing, and mine for believing it.
That’s The Hanumen for you. Mixing the profound with the profoundly silly, Benjy Wertheimer, John De Kadt, Gaura Vani and Purusartha Das have a healthy male comraderie and a great sense of humor that makes them instantly likeable—an important quality for performers.
But it’s about more than that. Behind their good vibes is a mission to create a mood of love amongst audiences that makes differences seem inconsequential.
“If you love someone, small shortcomings and disagreements don’t amount to a whole lot,” says Gaura Vani. “But if you never develop love for someone, even the tiniest disagreement can turn into a full scale war, as human history has shown. So we want to create a mood of love and understanding. Then the small areas of disagreement become points of dialogue, rather than points of contention.”
The Hanumen have started this mood amongst themselves. They describe the group as an experiment in musical interfaith dialogue.
“Each member has his own perspective, and we’re coming together and using music as an opportunity to explore our own faith in connection with others,” Gaura Vani says.
The Hanumen (from left to right) - Gaura Vani, Purusartha Das, John De Kadt, Benjy Wertheimer
The Hanumen, started four years ago, indeed represent an eclectic mix of faiths. Benjy Wertheimer is a Buddhist, who also studied Shaivism. John De Kadt has lived at the Kripalu Yoga Ashram, and explored Native American spiritual traditions. Gaura Vani grew up in ISKCON with the Gaudiya Vaishnava faith. And Purusartha Das became a disciple of ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada in the 1970s, and is a pioneer of chant in the US.
Rather than trying to change each other, they all aim to deeply understand and follow their own spiritual practices, while at the same time encouraging and nurturing each other’s practices.
Meanwhile, the group is just as eclectic musically.
Benjy, of kirtan/world music group Shantala, is an internationally renowned classical Indian musician, who studied tabla with Zakir Hussain and raga with Ali Akbar Khan. He’s an expert on the Esraj, a stringed North Indian instrument, and in The Hanumen he also sings and plays tabla and piano.
John, meanwhile, is a respected American poet. He also recites others’ works, such as poems by the Sufi poet Rumi and Mirabai, the great devotee of Krishna from the 16th century. And he plays a variety of percussion instruments from around the world, including the cajon, a Cuban box drum; the ghatam, an ancient South Indian instrument in the shape of a clay pot; and the bodhran, a traditional Irish frame drum.
Gaura Vani, of course, is well known as a solo kirtan artist and has often played with fellow ISKCON second gen groups As Kindred Spirits and The Mayapuris. He grew up singing kirtan, and in the Hanumen he sings and plays harmonium, bansuri Indian flute, and the mridanga and dholak drums. He also brings some rock and pop sensibilities to the group, and sings his own songs in English accompanied by acoustic guitar.
Finally, coming from a jazz background, Purusartha Das brings some funk to the proceedings with his electric bass.
“The bass is so vital,” Gaura says. “It gives audiences a bridge to assist their apprecation of kirtan.”
Sometimes, The Hanumen are also joined by Jahnavi Harrison, a second generation ISKCON devotee from England, who sings, plays violin, and helps arrange music and harmonies. When she’s on board, she adds the feminine touch, and occasionally a slight name change to “Sita and The Hanumen.”
So, what’s with that playful name? Devotees may figure out that it pays tribute to the legendary monkey servant of Lord Rama, an avatar of Krishna.
“A Superman fanclub might call themselves The Supermen, and consist of kids who all want to be like Superman when they grow up,” says Gaura. “In the same way, we are the Hanuman fan club. We’re his servants, and pray that one day we may be blessed to live in the same mood of service as he did. We aspire to be like Hanuman when we grow up!”
The Hanumen’s live performances are just as fun and service-oriented as their name. Their two-hour sets blend music, stories and mystic poetry from world cultures with jams, jazz, original English songs and traditional chanting to create an adventure into the world of sacred sounds.
“It’s all about exploring the nature of divine sound, and the relationship of the individual soul to the divine supreme soul,” says Gaura Vani.
In their live performances, The Hanumen aim to go deeper into and strengthen their own faiths, as well as that of their audiences. And with their comraderie, they hope to show people that religion doesn’t have to be a source of disagreement—it can be a source of wonder and celebration.
“We want to encourage people who listen to us to take their own spiritual practice more seriously,” says Gaura. “And to see the connections between all the traditions, and how we’re actually all worshipping the same Lord in different forms. The Vaishnava saint Bhaktivinode Thakur said that real interfaith dialogue is when we look at a person of another faith and think, ‘How wonderful it is that my Lord has appeared to this person in such a different form!’”
The Hanumen hope to take this message to as many people as possible, and their goal has taken them beyond traditional kirtan venues. Thus as well as playing temples and yoga studios, they’ve also played at performance art theaters, retreat centers, churches, homes for abused children, prisons, and hospices.
Wherever the venue, however, their music has had a powerful impact.
“We played for John’s father in a hospice,” says Gaura Vani. “We gathered around him and did a concert for him in his bed. And he said he was ‘ready to dance up through the roof.’ Afterwards, John said that in his whole life, he had never heard his father use words like that. Ever, about anything. He just wasn’t one of those guys.”
It’s no surprise that the Hanumen’s music inspired such change. Their debut album is nothing short of magical, the sound of the soul connecting with the Divine.
There are only seven tracks, but each of them bar one is an epic, ebbing and flowing and building to a rousing finale—opener Govinda is no less than sixteen minutes long.
Govinda, which Gaura Vani calls “a journey through the universe towards the feet of Radha and Govinda” mixes the exotic sounds and devotion of the East with reggae rhythms.
Come Dance With Me, which starts with a poem by John De Kadt, is an invitation from God to simply dance with Him. A standout that has already proved a hit with audiences, the song features lush harmonies and is one of the most joyful, carefree things this reporter has ever heard. It’s the sound of peace and love on earth.
And it’s the sound of the spiritual world, building to a heartfelt chorus of the Hare Krishna mantra.
Walking to the River is a brief instrumental interlude, leading into Wade In The Water, one of The Hanumen’s most eclectic offerings. A gospel hymn featuring the refrain “go home to my Lord and be free,” this track sounds like something from “O Brother Where Art Thou” by way of the East, punctuated with Purusartha’s funky bass grooves. There’s even a snippet of the bhajan “Hey Natha Narayan” in there. You just can’t help jiving to it.
Then there’s I Love You, an acoustic guitar ballad that Gaura Vani calls “an experiment in English mantra.” Essentially, it’s a love song to God, interspersed with chants of “Sita Rama, Jaya Sita Rama.”
The album ends with Manipuri Hare Krishna, a slow and beautiful meditation on the maha-mantra with bansuri flute and more of John’s poetry read in his deep, comforting voice.
This is preceded by Zydeco Hare Krishna, another Hare Krishna mantra chant, this time to the French-inspired Cajun music of Louisiana. One of the most curious tracks on the album, it’s also the most fun, a kind of kirtan hoedown that makes you want to square dance back to the spiritual world.
“We played the track at Oregon State Correctional Facility last September,” recalls Gaura Vani. “Those are serious guys—they’re all in there for twenty-five years to life. And the whole group of inmates were stamping their feet and singing Hare Krishna at the top of their lungs.”
“It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life,” he says. To download The Hanumen’s self-titled debut album, please click on one of the links below: