Chant open your heart
The first time I heard Heather and Benjy Wertheimers music, I was in yoga class, head inverted, stretching into a down dog. Their soft, uplifting sound built a perfect background to tune into the body and breath.The duet’s live show, however, is a whole different bag of prana.Twice a year, and for the past two months, Heather and Benjy have toured across the US and Canada performing kirtan (pronounced “KEER-tun”). Rooted in India, kirtan is the chanting of sacred names and ancient mantras set to music. The performance, Heather said, is closer to experiencing a yoga class than it is passively watching a concert. Audience participation is essential, and like yoga, kirtan is designed to open the heart and create emotional love. The duet lands in Edwards Tuesday to perform at The Om Zone.”Most of what we do is call and response chanting, which makes it easy for the audience,” Heather said. “Some pieces include singing in unison. Some pieces are in English, some even in Hebrew. It draws from a variety of religious backgrounds.”
Benjy and Heather, who call themselves Shantala, begin with an ancient mantra and then compose a new melody around it. Musically, it’s a blend of East and West, drawing on each other’s influences. Heather sings and plays guitar and tamboura, an instrument used to create a droning sound. Benjy plays multiple instruments, but focuses on the tabla, a classical percussion instrument from north India.”I was a folk musician, which was more separate from my yoga life,” Heather said, who has studied yoga for 16 years. “They all ended up coming together, and this is what came out.”Benjy has loved music since the age of 5, learning the piano and violin, among other instruments, but eventually gravitating toward percussion professionally. From Afro-Cuban to pots and pans, Benjy discovered the tabla and never turned back. He has studied Indian classical music for more than 25 years with some of the greatest masters of the tradition, including Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain and Ali Akbar Khan. His interest in kirtan grew out of knowing Heather and practicing yoga.”I started to realize the power of music tradition associated with yoga in the form of kirtan,” Benjy said. “These sacred mantras have literally been around for hundreds and thousands of years. Certain sounds are chosen because of the way they focus people’s spiritual energy.”It was easy for him to make the connection. In India, working with sound, with vibrations, is considered sacred, Benjy said. Similar to monks undertaking a monastic order, some Indians devote a huge portion of their life solely to study the tabla.
Responses to kirtan are as different as the people chanting the mantras. Heather has watched people grow ecstatic and dance or move to tears.”For myself, I experience a feeling of peace and well being and love,” Heather said. “I feel close to myself, home to myself. It opens me up to a sense of beyond myself, feeling in touch with a greater reality, being closer to a higher being.”Kirtan is an opportunity for people who are timid about singing to belt it out in a supportive environment, Benjy said.”I see people find their voice, who haven’t sang for years,” he said.
Heather agrees, adding in a time when music is commercial art, kirtan makes it accessible to everyone.”People gathered in parlors, around fire circles for years making music. In this culture, it has become a product,” she said. “It’s refreshing to be together in a circle again, creating something special. That common focus and common intent, to me, is what creates the magic.”
Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 748-2938, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado