The harmonium king, of Queens

It isn’t every day you hear a harmonium on the radio. So check this out from Wednesday’s The World, from PRI:

Mindra Sahadeo shares an apartment in the Richmond Hills neighborhood of Queens, New York, with his mother, sister and a rotating cast of about a dozen harmoniums.

Several of the instruments packed inside thick aluminum cases and piled inside the front door. More are stacked up in the living room, which doubles as Sahadeo’s repair shop. The word is out about Sahadeo’s harmonium workshop, and there’s a steady stream of hobbyists, yoga instructors, and professional musicians dropping off instruments for him to fix.

Sonny Singh, a member of the band Red Baraat, was relieved to learn about Sahadeo’s services when Singh faced a crisis with his own harmonium. I’d actually never seen a harmonium up close, so Sahadeo opened up one that he designed with a friend in Calcutta. Its body is a deep brown teak, with floral carving around a silver nameplate.

Music, of course, fills the apartment. When I got there, Sahadeo’s sister Nanda was in her room practicing. After we talked for a while — and, full disclosure, their mom fed me some pretty amazing Indian food — she and Sahadeo play a bit.

[snip]

“Harmoniums for us are like sacred,” Sahadeo says. “It’s part of us, our culture and tradition and everything. I saw some harmoniums that came here — terrible, terrible condition. I always tell them, ‘Please, I’m gonna fix it and everything, but please, can you just, a little bit of care.’”

You of course should be able to hear one tomorrow, as part of a Hanuman Chalisa for Hanuman Jayanti.

Posted by Steve

A conspiring life: Days away from the mat

Life is piling on Bobbie and me this week. Lots of little (and not so little) things all happening at once.

The result? No practice for four, maybe more days in a row.

Unused yoga mats, via bestyogamat.org

I believe I’ve written before that, a year ago, this would have been a big, big deal for me. I was still at a point where I felt like my Ashtanga Momentum (or AM, which often would lose steam due to the a.m. practices) was pretty shaky. The thought of missing a few days inevitably led to thoughts of, “Will I make it back to practice?” (AM, like prana, also is fueled by coffee.)

Today, I’d say I’m mildly annoyed that even Thursday is up-in-the-air for practicing. And Friday, at best, will be a fairly short one at home.

That’s a major improvement. I would have been freaking out a while back. (Truth be told, when I wrote it all down and see that even Friday is tentative, I’m a little sketched out.)

So, what’s changed? (Or at least changed a bit?) Well, in keeping with the beloved blogging tradition of lists, here are 6 reasons.

  1. The practice has set. Like plaster or grout, I think the practice is established and more or less permanent and here to stay. It is part of the routine, part of my daily expectation. I don’t feel like I’m dabbling anymore.
  2. I’ve learned that sometimes rest does do a body good. While I am still struggling for advancement — as measured by looser hamstrings and more open shoulders — I now know that giving the muscles some time to “take stock” of what they’ve been doing can help move me toward my “goals.”
  3. There’s a shala in my life. A year ago, there wasn’t. (Omkar is about to celebrate its year anniversary, in fact, this Saturday.) So I know the external impetus from that will be there.
  4. I’m not eating wheat. I mean, seriously, if I can not eat wheat for a month, I can recover from a few days off practice.
  5. I know there are other ways to practice yoga than just asanas. That’s been a progression this year. Maybe the harmonium comes out tonight. Or maybe, worst case, I just manage to sit quietly for a little while. My reading all fits into the slow progression toward… whatever I’m trying to progress toward.
  6. We’re doing this blog. So… I have to keep having something to write about, right?

In other words, it all will be OK. So, really, the only thing I’m actually upset about is that all these things in life conspiring against our practice also are forcing us still to get up early. What’s up with that?

Posted by Steve

Wanna learn the harmonium? Here’s your guy

There are a bunch of things I adore about Tim Miller. (Obvious, right?) His Led classes. His looks and the sounds he makes during adjustments. His precision eye in diagnosing what’s not quite right in an asana.

And his harmonium playing.

Most notable, of course, is Tim’s leading of the Hanuman Chalisa. But his version of Devakinandana Gopala is wonderful and priceless, as well.

What draws me in is that it is first and foremost an act of devotion. My sense is that Tim came to bhajan and kirtan by way of Ashtanga and Guruji; I know he didn’t receive a harmonium as a gift until his 40th birthday. A lot of the leading kirtan artists — Krishna Das, Jai Uttal — had the musical chops going in. It seems for them a natural extension of things.

For Tim, it seems an expression — if you can catch the difference.

I can relate to that path, given my last music lesson was when I was maybe 11 and the only musical instrument I’ve played since then is the harmonica. (I played it a lot from high school through graduate school, but, sadly, we’re talking nearly 20 years ago. Find some Sonny Terry albums, to digress for a second.)

But I knew I wanted to learn the harmonium as a way to deepen a different part of the yoga journey. The first step was easy: Get a harmonium. (Well, it was easy for me because I got it as a gift.)

From there, though, a bigger problem presented itself: How was I going to learn? Thankfully, the solution also presented itself via kirtancentral.com and Daniel Tucker.

After a short amount of time trying to see if there was anything online that would lead me to the promised land, I ordered Daniel’s “Learn to Play Harmonium” kit, which includes a book, two DVDs filled with terrific lessons and a CD of a few choice kirtan pieces.

The kit is wonderful, and Daniel’s teaching style is open, understandable and very interactive. (Bobbie, who has been a teacher for 25-odd years, walked by once while I was following one of the DVD lessons, watched for a bit, and said how good it was. That’s a real stamp of approval.)

I particularly love Daniel’s enthusiasm and obvious love for kirtan, music, devotion and the harmonium itself. I also love that he generously agreed to answer a few questions I posed to him.

Daniel Tucker, via his Facebook page

1. How did you first get interested in Indian music / kirtan?

I managed to spend a year and a half in Nepal and India exploring spirituality when I was 19-20 years old, without getting into kirtan. Years later, I would think back on that trip and remember that there actually was one kirtan I went to – but I was so totally not open to it at that time! It seemed like an interesting Indian-cultural experience, but I just didn’t catch the bug there. At the time, I was really into Buddhism, in a rather monastic sense. Though I wasn’t a monk, I was excluding various things from my life in order to focus on meditation and study. Which meant I didn’t make music for about two years, despite having been a musician since childhood. Oops.

I did catch the bug once I was back in the US though. My parents wanted me to come home for a family reunion, so I emerged from my world of monasteries and meditation retreats, and came to California. My mom brought out my saxophone, which I hadn’t played in years, and I just couldn’t stop playing it. Like being thirsty after years without drinking. I had no reason to play, it wasn’t part of my ideas of spirituality, and certainly not about a career. But my body and soul craved it. So I started playing again, for hours every day. Long story short, I wound up staying in California, and becoming a music teacher.

A friend turned me on to Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, and their CDs were a real epiphany for me: that music and meditation could be one thing – that music could actually be a spiritual path! Thank GOD! So I got a harmonium, and started going to Jai Uttal’s kirtans, and the rest is history.

2. Can you describe your “full” yoga practice? Is there asana as well as bhakti or other paths to reach “union”?

I’m rather eclectic. I can’t stop learning musical instruments – I play a couple dozen of them. And none of them as well as if I focused on just one, but I’ve tried forcing myself to do that and it’s just against my nature. Same is true with spiritual practices. In an ideal day, I wake up and do some yoga (keeps my body feeling good and old back problems away), some meditation (nice to still the mind and drink in the breath), a jog (preferably in the woods, at least in Golden Gate park), and then practice mridanga, and do some vocal warmups at the harmonium. Sometimes I even do some chanting! Then start my day ‘in the world.’

3. What brings you the most delight from playing or participating in kirtan?

The surprise! It’s a surprise, every time my heart opens. Cause I forget so much of the time… and so when I’m going to a kirtan, or when I’m finally sitting down to do some chanting in my room, I “know” that it opens your heart… But “knowing” it and feeling it are rather different. Every time it happens, if it does happen (which it doesn’t always), it’s a surprise. Like “Oh! Wow that feels good, what’s happening? What’s going on here, my heart’s feeling open and things are simple and right on, and I think I can feel my soul or something? Oh yeah! Oh, right, kirtan. Right. That’s why I do this.”

4. Do you have a favorite song, performance or kirtan album that you think is a “must have”?

I’m a Jai Uttal fanatic. His depth of Indian Classical training, paired with his eclectic rhythmic palate, just always speaks to me. All his albums. His new one “Queen of Hearts” is phenomenal, just amazing.

5. Other than the obvious — going to KirtanCentral.com — what advice would you give someone who wants to learn how to play the harmonium or other kirtan-related instrument?

Hang out with people who play! Soak it up! Instruction from a music teacher is one side of things, if that approach helps. But just “soaking it up” is the most important side of things, cause a lot about kirtan is just the feel of the thing, the mood, that great kirtan leaders embody. So, go to lots of kirtans with musicians who appeal to you… and if you can muster it, go to India! I’ve taken a couple trips to Mayapur, West Bengal, and wowsa the kirtans there are off the charts.

***

I think you can see from his answers what I was talking about: his enthusiasm and joy come through, right? As I’ve been going through the lessons, that combination has definitely helped encourage me. I’m no Krishna Das yet, but just wait!

I know — from being friends with Daniel on Facebook — that right now he is working on a songbook of Krishna Das’ “Breath of the Heart” album. Yes, the one with “Baba Hanuman.” It is part of what Daniel’s calling his “Chantcyclopedia.” I’d urge you to watch for it, and if you have been thinking about learning the harmonium (or kartals or the mridanga), I’d strongly encourage you to check out kirtancentral.com. There are great resources as well as information on how you can take weekend classes (and more!) with Daniel.

He’s got harmoniums for sale there, too.

Posted by Steve

Of Hanuman and the harmonium

Harmonium via KirtanCentral.com

Another Tuesday, another mention of Hanuman.

But why not? It’s a good way to counteract all the Mars influence, a way to make Tuesday a little less violent and a little less bad.

This past week in Shasta, I gleaned a little more from Tim Miller about which chords he plays on the harmonium for the Hanuman Chalisa. I’d heard them before, but it was before I’d really sat before my harmonium. C-F-G, I knew. But in what rhythm? When do you play each chord? Those questions were still unanswered.

Tim showed me some more on Friday. Tonight, we’ll see if any of it stuck.

But first, a step back. I’m slowly learning the harmonium (via what I’ve found to be a great DVD/book teaching tool via Daniel Tucker at Kirtancentral.com). However, time has not been my friend, and I’m still on scales/sargam. I think playing chords is still two lessons away, if I want to be strict about things.

So I’m going to cheat a little tonight and play with what Tim showed me, just to see if it makes any sense.

Why? Well, as Tim explained in Shasta, we all can probably use a little more ojas — a little more juiciness to help us slide our way through both practice and life. And devotion, as well as good fats, is a wonderful way to encourage more ojas.

While I suspect there will be plenty of ojas going around at the Confluence, I figure it doesn’t hurt to build up some excess in the meantime.

Posted by Steve