By Dennis K. Chernin
(Dennis Chernin and Glenn Burdick wrote an article on the tenth anniversary of Ann Arbor Kirtan for Crazy Wisdom Community Journal's May through August 2015 issue. Dennis was also interviewed in "From Dawn to Dusk: 12 Notable People in Ann Arbor’s Body/Mind/Spirit Community Share Their Daily Rituals," which you can read here.)
I’ve never really considered myself a musician or a singer. I even got kicked out my seventh grade choir for swaying in the front row. I also think the music teacher, who was a very stern guy, thought I smiled too much. He gave me a B+ in the class, saying I had a nice voice but that my behavior was dreadful. To be honest, I was happy that I no longer had to participate in the choir because it gave me more time to play basketball and baseball after school. You see, my identity was that of a jock and not a music maker.
The only other musical experience I had as a youngster was during the time my parents made me take piano lessons. In a sixth grade play, I actually had the role of a young Edvard Grieg, a prominent Norwegian composer and pianist. I was really embarrassed to be playing the piano in front of the whole school in my pajamas.
Yet, here I am the co-founder, lead singer, and harmonium player for a kirtan musical group, Ann Arbor Kirtan. Ten years ago, my good friend, Glenn Burdick, and I decided to share our common passion for meditation, mantra, and chanting with the local community. This led to the creation of Ann Arbor Kirtan. Our vision was to create an opportunity for people who love chanting in a setting that was not affiliated with any religious group.
Chanting is a form of spiritual self-expression and can help a person experience mental calmness and a sense of unity with all creation and consciousness. It uses primal sounds to connect the cells of the physical body to the subtle qualities of the mind. In nada yoga (the yoga of sound and vibratory frequency), mantras are chanted or repeated mentally leading to a joyful and meditative state.
In kirtan, names of Yogic and Hindu deities are chanted. As a Jewish person who was taught that there is one God, I used to feel uncomfortable chanting multiple names of the divine. What I came to understand is that the deities represent different aspects of divine consciousness that pervade our inner psyche and nature. The deities endow universal energies and forces with voices, faces and personalities that touch us personally. Deities also represent various aspects of Brahman — existence, consciousness and bliss.
In essence, deities are cosmic, symbolic, and poetic anthropomorphisms. They mirror the diverse attributes and functions of the seen and unseen universe. We know them with different personalities, gifts, powers and weaknesses that reflect our own qualities. On a higher level, kirtan enables the unfoldment of the deity energy and symbolic forces of universal consciousness.
Kirtan integrates mantra yoga, nada yoga (the yoga of vibratory frequency and sound), and bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion and the heart). Chaitanya Mahaprabu (1486-1533) began spreading congregational call and response chanting of the holy names of universal consciousness throughout India, and started the sankirtana movement that continues worldwide today. He brought chanting to the streets, to the temples, to the common man and to communities.
Ann Arbor Kirtan, combines Indian and western instruments and melodies, which has included guitar, dulcimer, cello, tambura, harmonium, violin, flute, cymbals, tabla, khol drum and an assortment of other drums. Kirtan is a participatory and cross-cultural musical experience in which the participants are of equal importance as the chant leaders and musicians.
Ann Arbor Kirtan sponsors two monthly kirtans. We meet the second or third Friday of each month at the Friends Meeting House as well as the first Wednesday of each month at one of our member’s homes. We invite all people from the community to attend, regardless of religious or spiritual affiliation or quality of singing voice. We chant beautiful melodies together with some people singing loudly, others just humming the tunes quietly to themselves and still others closing their eyes and letting the tunes and energy of the chanting community envelope their bodies, open their hearts and transform their minds.
For more information about kirtan or more specifically about Ann Arbor Kirtan, please visit our website at kirtanannarbor.org or call 734-973-3030.
Dennis Chernin, M.D., M.P.H., is a leading holistic doctor and homeopathic physician, and is the author of several books on meditation and holistic medicine as well as homeopathy. He is also the co-founder and lead singer/leader of Ann Arbor Kirtan.