Dave Stringer
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Dave Stringer

Los Angeles, California, United States | INDIE | AFM

Los Angeles, California, United States | INDIE | AFM
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Yogi Times: Eighty-four shows in eighty-four cities: a friend of mine said that this reminded him of George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers marauding across the nation in a station wagon. What do you think of the comparison?

Dave Stringer: Well, I’m pretty sure that that marauding part of it is just P.R. spin. A tour schedule always looks great on paper. The idea of the road conjures up images of spontaneity and adventure and freedom, but my actual experience of touring is that it requires major amounts of planning and self-discipline.

The economics of touring dictate playing five or six nights a week. We have found it essential to look at the entire tour as a yoga practice, extending the metaphor of asana to every aspect of it, repeating the sequence of asanas every day, surrendering to the pose, trying to stay aware of and follow the movements of our breath.

The size of the ensemble I travel with varies from week to week. Sometimes it’s a four-piece band, other times it’s been just me and Miles, my tabla player. Everyone has different physical rhythms and emotional cycles that need to be considered. We love each other a lot, but it can be a kind of a stuck-in-a-lifeboat-at-sea experience. You need and depend on each other absolutely, but there’s no escape from each other either. Stuff comes up. Things get worked out. Music is made in spite of and because of.

It’s necessary to greet each new crowd with enthusiasm, and to play with full commitment and joy. This involves offering up everything that has happened during the day, and using the practice of chanting to transform it into useful energy. It takes strength, stamina and flexibility to make it through, but my voice is actually much more clear and powerful and supple now than when I started the tour.

YT: A little bird told me that they weren’t all yoga centers. Is that true? And if so, was that the oddest venue?

DS: The oddest venues for kirtan are often what would be considered to be normal venues for other kinds of music. For example, a few years ago, I was invited by a yoga studio to come and perform in Jackson, Mississippi. As far as I know this was the first time anyone had attempted a kirtan in Mississippi, and I was frankly amazed that there was a yoga studio there at all. When we arrived we found that the yoga studio had booked us into a bar. I tried to put aside my astonishment, and asked the yoga studio owner as sweetly as I could what she was thinking in booking a kirtan event at a smoky bar. She said that people in Jackson wouldn’t come to a music event at a yoga studio, so we had to go to them where they were used to hearing music.

I couldn’t really argue with her logic, but I was deeply uncomfortable until I realized that she was giving me an opportunity. From a yogic perspective, any place you put sacred intention is a sacred place, including a bar in Mississippi. So I projected the mantras on a big American flag, introduced kirtan as Sanskrit karaoke, and quoted Ben Franklin to the effect that beer is proof that there is a God and he loves us very much. The crowd drank and smoked and sang along, and we ended up having a great time. By refraining from judgment and going where the people were, we probably opened a few doors and created some awareness where there wasn’t any before.

YT: Everyone likes a victory but even yogis really crave a great defeat. Was there a remarkably bad show along the way?

DS: I wouldn’t say there were any bad shows, although some crowds are juicier than others. My band and I work very hard to be consistent, and I’ve learned that even if I didn’t have a magnificent time, the chant is experienced by everyone very subjectively. Sometimes people will come up to me after the show and tell me about an amazing opening they had, usually right when I was thinking, well, tonight kind of sucked for one reason or another. So I’ve learned not to judge.

YT: And for our higher selves, a most inspiring gig and/or a most inspiring transcendent road moment?

DS: The most transcendent moments are often when something ordinary suddenly seemed imbued with a light or an awareness that made it extraordinary. The taste of an apple I picked in the Berkshires, the sound of the rain as we sat in silence after a kirtan in Calgary, a chance meeting on the Staten Island ferry with a long-lost friend as the sun was setting over the industrial moonscape of New Jersey, wading in the vast mirror of water covering the Bonneville salt flats in Utah the day after a thunderstorm.

YT: You’ve literally just traveled through ground zero of the yoga movement in the US. Does it feel like a movement to you? A ripple? A retreat? A storm? A wave (forgive the reference)? A revolution?

DS: I’ve been on tour for much of the past six years, and have now played in nearly every major city in North America. During the 2004 presidential election campaign, my band and I played in both red states and blue states, and talked with quite a cross-section of people. You could really feel the tension and division in the country, but I was struck by the fact that everywhere I went, yoga was prospering. As unbelievable as it might seem, there is a thriving yoga community even in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area, where many of the people who practice yoga are connected in some way to the US Navy, including one of the yoga studio owners, who is married to a Navy officer.

Despite the overwhelming culture of materialism and immediate gratification, America is also one of the most spiritually inquisitive and searching places on earth, with probably more available spiritual options than just about anywhere else you can go. Many spiritually motivated people, turned off by the polarized worldviews of the religious establishments, have found fresh air to breathe in yoga. But yoga also speaks to America’s traditional values: the ethics of self-reliance, self-improvement and self-empowerment, while also addressing our concerns for finding connection to both our environment and each other. Because of this, I think yoga is in the process of becoming very much a part of the fabric of American society. The spectacular growth of the last ten years may slow a bit, but I think the cultural impact will continue to widen.

Is yoga a revolution? Maybe, in that it has the capacity to increase the number of people who act from compassion and self-awareness, and that will in turn have a huge effect on the world. But the word revolution feels drastic and sudden, and I think the changes that yoga elicits are much more gradual and subtle. Still, the growth of a seed into a tall tree can be seen as both a slow, modest, incremental process, and as a rocketing toward the sky. It all depends on what time scale you want to view it through.

YT: Is all that chanting just the right amount of meditation or does it ever get to be too much?

DS: I’m fortunate in that what I do continually keeps pressing the reset button in my brain. No matter how difficult my day has been, I’ll feel a lot better once I’ve finished singing. The silence that follows the music is incredibly intoxicating, but I don’t know if it’s possible to ever OD on it. I do get tired of the ‘big S’ spiritual thing though. Do we always have to put a frame around it? It’s not necessary to try to be spiritual. We already are spiritual.

YT: Did you always want to be a kirtan star when you grew up ? What do you want to be when you grow up?

DS: I had no idea there was such a thing as kirtan until I got hired to go make some films for an ashram in India. I had no intention of leading kirtan on a regular basis until a yoga studio asked me if I would do it. I had no ambition to be a professional kirtan singer until I realized it was already taking up all of my time. That there even is such a thing as a kirtan star is both amusing and amazing to me.

I have a lot of ideas about the directions I want to take my music in. For one thing, I’m increasingly interested in presenting kirtan as a kind of participatory theatre, and collaborating with visual artists who share my concerns and intentions. When I grow up I still want to be an architect or an astronaut or an ambassador, though I guess there’s actually some of all of that in what I do now. But how do you know when you’re grown up?
- Yogi Times


On Friday, May 24th, Center for Yoga hosted a kirtan, celebrating the release of a new CD entitled Planet Yoga. A kirtan is an ancient Indian call-and-response tradition where the leader chants a mantra to be repeated by an assembled group. The invigorating evening of spiritual music was led by two local performers, Wah and Dave Stringer, who recorded tracks for the new release.

Dave Stringer and his seven piece ensemble are featured on Planet Yoga. The band consisted of a bassist, guitarist, violin player, and percussionist who played a unique kit, including a tabla set, a high hat, a kick drum and a crash cymbal. Two back up vocalists and Dave Stringer on harmonium completed the group. Showing versatility, Stringer’s band also brought in a honking saxophone and the serene sound of a recorder on two tunes.

The first thing I noticed about Stringer was his staid appearance. Before long, as he led his first chant, ‘Ganapati Om’, I realized that his plain exterior masks a volcano of a voice. He set a passionate tempo, pumping the harmonium furiously and the band followed dutifully. Stringer transported us to another time and place. His fiery soulful voice gave the entire room a feeling of a down home gospel jam, and one couldn’t help but sing along.

The height of the evening was Stringer’s fourth mantra, a dedication to Lord Krishna. The Sanskrit words ‘Devakinandana Gopala’were loosely translated by Stringer. “Everything is beautiful manifesting in myriad forms. It’s inside you and everyone else. Recognize it and you will be at peace.” Members of the audience stood as they chanted along, raising their arms to the heavens. The temperature of the room warmed with each ensuing verse. Sweaters and shawls were shed. Blissful grins and prayers were shared among those of us in the crowd.
- LA Yoga Pages


This week, we have a fascinating recording that combines Western musical values with Indian influences, though less the familiar sounds of Indian classical music, but instead is based on what is called kirtan, or chant singing. It's a CD by Los Angeles-based Dave Stringer called Brink. Brink, while showing a good deal of Eastern influence is hardly an album of traditional music. The CD mixes Eastern and Western influences easily, often with traditional Indian instruments like the tamboura and tabla drums mixing with music in Western 3/4 or 6/8 time, with unexpected combinations of instruments including harmonium -- a pump organ -- cello and trumpet.

The CD has a mix of pieces with English lyrics, along with traditional chants and poems in Sanskrit, in one case dating back to the 9th Century. But despite the traditional material, the sound is contemporary, with enough domination by Western influences that it does not come across as a particularly exotic world music album.

Leading off is one of the pieces with original English lyrics, Checking the Arithmetic. The piece is quite interesting lyrically, while the musical setting spans influences ranging from folk singer-songwriters to the Eastern sound with the tabla drums and tamboura.

Very much in the traditional Eastern sound is Shivo'ham Shivo'ham, with lyrics from around 800 AD. The refrain translates from the Sanskrit "I am consciousness and bliss." After the meditative beginning, the piece gains momentum, in the tradition of the kirtan singing, though the added elements bring a more Western sound to the piece.

One of the most eclectic pieces on an already wide-ranging album is The Homing Instinct, with memorable lyrics about the impulse to return home among the creatures on the earth, including people. The track features a fascinating mix of instrumentation combining Eastern and Western sounds.

Ganashyãma is perhaps the most meditative piece on the album. It is a masterful combination of sonic beauty with subtle textures that add lots of interest. The 16th Century Sanskrit lyrics are about being lost in love.

My favorite piece on the CD is The Satellite Sky, which is one of the more Western-sounding songs on the album. It's a very attractive piece, on which the Eastern influence is more subtle, taking the form of percussion and the general atmospheric texture, while harmonically, Stringer's jazz background becomes evident.

Dave Stringer's Brink is a fascinating and distinctive record in the way it mixes Indian and Western sounds. That concept was something of a cliché in the 1960s psychedelic era, mixing sitars and tablas with electric guitars, but in the current period of interest in World Music, there have not been that many Indian fusion efforts, and Stringer's emphasizes a rather different facet of Indian music, the kirtan singing tradition, together with the meditative aspect. While the CD can approach new age at times, a distinguishing feature is that the Western music side contains a lot of interesting and artistically substantial ingredients, while the instrumentation is a wonderful eclectic blend with skillful arrangements and first-rate musicianship. This is music that one can not only use for meditation, but also makes edifying foreground listening.

Our grade for sound quality is rather close to an "A." The music is well recorded, and mix engineers Hans Christian and Thomas Barquee resisted the temptation to get overly spacey with the reverb effects, avoiding the hackneyed overly atmospheric sound of much new age music. The dynamic range, the scope from loudness from softest to strongest, is also better than average.

There are those purists for whom anything less than strict authenticity in styles is reason to dismiss a work as unworthy. Brink does not pretend to be authentic, and drawing as it does on both intelligent composition in the Western tradition, and the ambience of the Eastern sounds, the result is a fine album that rewards listening on a number of levels.
- WVIA-FM


Dave Stringer is known by many yogis throughout the world as one of the premier kirtan singers of the genre and deserves the recognition he doesn’t often receive. Stringer’s been performing for chanters for years and often travels from Cuba to France to New York in the course of a few months to bring the names of God to thousands of devotional yogis. Mala is Stringer’s latest release and certainly his most ambitious and best work to date. Incorporating the best world sacred musicianship the Los Angeles basin has to offer, Stringer seems to have gone back to his roots as a devotee of Muktananda with this effort. He refrains from using any English texts and makes excellent use of some of the Sanskrit chants that he’s been performing live for years.
The pay-off for Stringer is that he isn’t trying to overproduce himself or impress anyone with his often brilliant ear for production. Instead, Mala is a delightful collection of popular North Indian chants produced with authentic devotion and professional execution. Each piece of music here features Stringer’s excited voice dipped in boyish enthusiasm and love for the path. Girish’s tablas and percussive rhythms are always a pleasure to listen to, while the response vocals by Allie Stringer and C.C. White offer flattering harmonic replies to Stringer’s lead.
Mala is an important addition to anyone’s collection of kirtan albums. It is by far Stringer’s finest release and while we still anticipate his first attempt at a live kirtan album someday, Mala certainly will help his fans endure the wait.
- LA Yoga Pages


A celebrated figure in the yoga community known for his intoxicating chant sessions, Dave Stringer has been chanting since the early 90's and has performanced all over the country. JAPA ( a Sanskrit term that refers to the repetition of mantras) was recorded in a series of live studio sessions and features five elongated call-and-response style kirtans. The music is a mix of Eastern and Western instruments, including harmonium, guitar, sarod, saxophone violin, percussion and other sounds. Stringer's voice is rich and expressive, making a nice counterpoint to his backing ensemble, which includes vocalists Toni Childs, Seane Corn and Donna De Lory as well as Girish on percussion, Domonic Dean Breaux on flute and many others. A fusion of different sounds and cultural elements, this divine mindtrip is one you won't want to miss. - Ma's India


Nashville – In a classic example of niche marketing toward a target audience, “yoga-centric” acts are taking their music to such nontraditional but logical venues as yoga centers and yoga retreats and conferences.
Kirtan chant artists like Bhagavan Das, Krishna Das, and Dave Stringer have long made their recorded music available at yoga centers. Increasingly, the trend includes live performances as well.
“It works as a lifestyle event because yoga centers play a lot of that type of music anyway,” says Jesse Lombardi, GM of Laxmi Recordings and former head of the Yoga Marketing Co. “Yoga conferences and conventions are another main draw for these artists. This is an organic thing that’s blossomed over the past few years, and it’s absolutely growing.”

BUILDING A COTTAGE INDUSTRY
Tom Frouge, GM of Triloka Records – the label for acts like Das – adds, “We have built a bit of a cottage industry on yoga centers. It’s a very targeted, attentive audience, very interested in new music.”
Carlos Menjivar, who books the talent for well-known yoga studio Jivamukti in New York, says the studio works as a venue, with capacity for as many as 500-600 people. “It’s almost like a concert hall, with a stage and a sound system. We don’t have chairs, but sometimes we use blankets for seating arrangements.”
Yoga centers can be fulfilling venues for artists. “From the perspective of a musician, these places are beautiful to play because the audience is really focused and incredibly respectful, and when things are set up right, the atmosphere is conducive to great playing,” Stringer says. “The downside is these places generally don’t have sound systems, so as a performer we have to haul around and set up [production], which adds a few more hours to our setup.” Sometimes the concerts are free, but Menjivar says they typically charge. “If an artist like DJ Cheb I. Sabah comes in from California, he needs to be paid,” he says, certainly not sounding like a typical talent booker when he says Jivamukti has a different objective in mind than simply turning a profit.
“The main thing for us is not to bring in an artist to make a buck,” Menjivar says. “Our major concern is to make sure the artist is trying to achieve a different state of consciousness and elevate people via their music. In that way, we provide a service to the community and uplift the consciousness of the people. We want to promote peace and inner dialogue within oneself.”
Stringer built much of his yoga-center circuit by playing the retreats or conferences. “The conferences tend to be regional, with people from a large area, and when I play I get invitations to play individual studios,” he says. “Increasingly, we’re getting yoga studios to cooperate in co-promoting shows at larger venues to bring the entire community together. We’ll get two or three yoga centers to come in together and bear the promotional and financial responsibility and hold the concert at a neutral venue.”
Peachtree Yoga owner Graham Fowler says Stringer’s fall visit was his third to the facility. Fowler has also brought in another, similar artist, Prem Joshua. “The No. 1 objective for bringing musical artists is to have fun and get people from the yoga community together in a different way from just the yoga mat,” Fowler explains. “The atmosphere and camaraderie are great.”

INTIMATE INTERACTION
Stringer notes that the center can be an avid promoter of an artist. “One of the benefits of playing these places is the crowds are intensely loyal, and we tend to build a grassroots following this way. Promotion tends to happen on a very personal basis. If my CD is playing on a local – usually NPR – station, and there is an article in the local alternative weekly, that helps, but people more often hear my music in their yoga class, played by their yoga teacher.”
Stringer says most yoga centers sell music. “They generally have a little boutique with 50 or 60 titles, and [playing the studio] means my CDs will get significantly more display and play. I’m happy to be in Barnes & Noble and Borders, but they have thousands of titles, and finding something can be difficult. At the yoga studios, I’m visible.”
Fowler explains that the live music itself generates audience involvement. “Kirtan is a call-and-response thing, and Dave will sing something and then the audience sings it back. It starts to create a feeling of, instead of the audience just receiving, actively participating in the music.”
Fowler charges $18 per person for an artist like Stringer, who will draw 80–120 people. “I’ve yet to make any money on it, but I don’t care,” he says. “If I had my druthers, I’d make money, but the key thing is to bring people together. It’s good for business to give people the feeling that Peachtree Yoga is a good place to hang out.”
- Billboard


Singer Dave Stringer spent his early years in the jazz world, and echoes from that experience continue to resonate through his performances of the Indian chant music known as kirtan. His appearance Saturday at the Golden Bridge yoga center in Hollywood, backed by a six-piece ensemble, was a fascinating display of how effectively he has integrated those elements — as well as traces of blues, gospel and rock — into his music.

The origin of kirtan dates to the devotional Bhakti yoga movement of 15th century India. Traditionally, a lead singer (and ensemble) presents melodic mantras and the audience responds, and that's essentially what Stringer offered to an audience seated on the wooden floor of the new yoga-performance venue.

It is an experience, according to Stringer, in which "the mantras quiet the mind and the music frees the heart."

In this particular version of that experience — the sort of interactive event with an eagerly enthusiastic, hand-clapping crowd that Stringer regularly offers at yoga centers — it also called up an earlier era best typified by the Hare Krishna scenes in the musical "Hair."

The most fascinating aspect of Stringer's performance was the way in which he shaped the experience into a far more compelling musical encounter.

His chanting of the mantras was enhanced by his continuing rhythmic rearrangements of the phrases, often throwing them off-center, daring the crowd to follow him — they usually did — through a maze of rhythmic twists and turns.

His players, especially in the final mantras, embarked on soaring improvisational flights, layering the vocal dialogue with colorful embellishments and a few traces of welcome dissonance.

The result was a departure from ancient kirtan. But it also was an intriguing example of what can happen when a mind such as Stringer's finds a convincing way to apply his own creative impulses to the transformative overview of a classic musical form. - Los Angeles Times - Don Heckman


Herr Stringer, was für Menschen kommen an Ihre Konzerte?
Das Publikum ist sehr gemischt: von der tätowierten Yogafrau bis zur Grossmutter, die aussieht, als ob sie sich auf dem Weg zur Kirchenchorprobe verlaufen hätte. Ich lerne Wissenschaftler und Surfer, Punkrocker und Soldaten kennen. Häufig kommen Mütter mit ihren Kindern, die Zuhause bei meinen CDs mitträllern. Sie wollen nicht nur zuhören, sondern selber an der Musik teilhaben.

Was passiert beim Kirtan singen?
Wenn man in der Gruppe singt, entsteht etwas Grosses. Man fühlt sich irgendwie vertraut mit all den Fremden um einen herum; es ist grösser und intensiver als das eigene kleine Lebenskonzept. Das Singen öffnet emotionale Türen und auch die neurobiologischen Vorgänge beim Chanten sind interessant: sie steigern unsere Leistungsfähigkeit und verbessern unser Wohlbefinden.

Erzählen Sie uns etwas über den Ursprung des Kirtans
„Er geht aus der Yogabewegung des 15. Jahrhunderts in Indien hervor. Eines seiner Hauptmerkmale ist das Prinzip von “Call and Response”, wie man es auch aus Gospel und Jazz kennt. Jemand gibt Melodie und die Worte vor - die Gruppe antwortet. Mit der Zeit steigern sich Intensität und Rhythmus des Kirtans. Eine wichtige Rolle spielt Sanskrit, eine der ältesten überlieferten Sprachen. Ihre elementaren Laute sind uralt und bilden die Mantren, die meistens aus Namen und Beschreibungen des Göttlichen oder des universellen Prinzips bestehen.

Im Plattenladen findet man Ihre Musik unter „Worldmusic“ – ist das treffend?
Es ist mir viel lieber als “New Age”, obwohl ich nicht genau weiss, was Worldmusic genau bedeuten soll. Ich mache Musik und lebe in dieser Welt, das Label ist also nicht ganz unpassend. Was mir am Kirtan gefällt, ist dass ich Einflüsse wie Flamenco, Jazz, ostindische Musik, Bluegrass, Gypsy und Stadionrock miteinander verbinden kann.

Wie können Sie bei ihrem unglaublichen Tourplan die innere Ruhe bewahren?
Meine Band und ich haben gelernt den manchmal schwierigen Umständen <ins Gesicht zu lachen>. Ich pflege keine besonderen Rituale vor dem Konzert, wenn ich anfange zu singen, fühle ich mich wohl. In acht Tourjahren habe ich kein einziges meiner über 1‘000 Konzert abgesagt und noch nie meine Stimme verloren. Die alltäglichen Schwierigkeiten beim Reisen sind für mich eine Art bewegte Meditation geworden.

Mit wem treten Sie an Ihrem ersten Berner Konzert auf?
Jason Kalidas aus London begleitet mich mit Tabla, Cajon und Basuriflöte. Spring, die wunderschöne Singer-Songwriterin aus Los Angeles mit den blonden Dreadlocks singt, spielt Gitarre, Fingerzimbeln und Tambourin.

Schweizer gelten als nicht sehr extrovertiert, wie werden Sie sie aus der Reserve locken?
Ich bin schon mehrmals hier aufgetreten und ich war überrascht, dass Schweizer sehr wenig Ermutigung benötigen um zu singen und tanzen. Im Gegenteil, in Europa gehören sie zu den wildesten. Wir haben viel Erfahrung im Aufbauen einer Verbindung mit dem Publikum, sobald es klatscht, ist es einfach. Abgesehen davon ist unsere Spielfreude sehr ansteckend. - Berne Kulturagenda


Sitting Down With: Dave Stringer

Felicia Marie Tomasko

FMT: I’m going to start with your name. Dave Stringer. You’re one of the few kirtan singers with an English name.

DS: Part of it refers to how I got involved in this. I wasn’t signing up for yoga or interested in being anyone’s devotee. I went to India because I was hired to go there to make some films. And at some point in my involvement with the Siddha yoga ashram, I felt moved to get a spiritual name. So I went up to ask Gurumayi for one, and was told that I already had one. I went, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Dave, in Sanskrit, means God, or shining, bright or light.”

As I thought about it, it felt to be a way of saying, “Keep your name, that’s your name.” I think if I had been given a spiritual name, I probably would have used it, but it just didn’t happen.

FMT: How long have you been touring?

DS: I started touring in 2000. I’ve played 100 or so events a year, which often means I’m playing five or six nights a week in one city or another. At some times, it’s a tremendous adventure, at other points, a tremendous hassle. And at all times, that road has just kept leading me back to myself, my awareness, my habits, my traps and my drama. When I first started to do it, many yoga studios were just opening. The past 10 years have been a tremendous explosion.

FMT: You produced your first CDs yourself and worked with Spirit Voyage on your upcoming CD. How has this been different?

DS: For one thing, when you do it yourself, you have a greater illusion of control.

FMT: The illusion of control, not necessarily the reality.

DS: Right. Any time you do anything that involves collaboration, there’s a surrender of control and an illumination that comes from other people. I can’t control what happens in a kirtan. I can set events into motion. But even if I told other people in the band what to play, it wouldn’t necessarily come out that way, because there’s a crowd that’s interacting with us, that’s what makes it exciting.

I sometimes have a feeling that years of hard work is progressing me to a place of what I hope is greater ease. There was a time when I found my mantra was not being helpful: “It’s very difficult to be moving a band around the country in a van,” trying to deal with uncertainty with complete evenness of mind and good humor. Those things have turned out to be the benefit of doing this; that state of peace and ease. But there was a time that I struggled.

FMT: That becomes your mantra: “This is so difficult.”

DS: That just made it harder. I realized I just had to keep saying, this is fun; this is easy. I keep using that word, ease, as my mantra, and indeed things have gotten easier. I have an awareness of a community that’s emerged that I feel like I belong in everywhere. At the same time, I’m also recognizing that there’s only so much time in my life so it’s been difficult to pull my energies back a bit.

FMT: There’s only so much water for so many seeds.

DS: Right. Self-effort and grace are required, but we need to get those into balance. If it’s all about self-effort, there’s no room for grace. There needs to be room for surprises. I’m discovering that leaving a certain amount of space everywhere in your life allows you to be flexible. Clearly you need space in your yoga practice, that’s one of the first questions in an asana, where’s the space, where can you move? Instead of butting up against an obstacle, can you find the spot? Can you find where you’re open and move from there? Can you use your breath? Those are all contemplations of space. If your credit cards are maxed, that’s a drag. You need some space. You need space in your relationships, space to contemplate an article you’re writing.

FMT: You can’t leave everything in.

DS: No. It’s really about not every possibility, but this possibility. And if you think about it, life is this way too. You know, all of us have all these plans and things we’re still making, all of these possible lives that we think that we’ll live, but one choice at time, we’re living this life, these possibilities. The older I get, the more I’m aware that I was making decisions before without realizing how fundamentally important they were. I think we all look back and go, “Oh, wow, I gave no thought whatsoever to making that particular move in my life,” and yet, everything is traceable back to that.

FMT: Like going to India?

DS: Like going to India. But sometimes we do things out of duress, too. I went to India because I was broke; because I needed a job. You know, it’s a really funny way to get into yoga. And that’s just my story. One thing that’s been a pleasure in traveling and meeting so many people is hearing their stories. The story of “How I got into yoga” is vast and complex and endlessly fascinating.

FMT: It is endlessly fascinating. Had you done yoga before India?

DS: I went to India in 1990. I showed up at the Center for Yoga in Larchmont in about ‘88, because my back was bad at that time, and some friends said, “Oh, you should try yoga, that will make you feel better,” and it did, actually. But I grew up in a period of time there was a lot of guru awareness and part of the thing was BEWARE, do not join the cult, which is why I resisted going to India in the first place.

FMT: But you needed a job.

DS: But I needed a job.

FMT: Thinking about asana, you’ve played often in teacher trainings and workshops, while people are practicing asana?

DS: Right.

FMT: What do you think happens in that space with music?

DS: I was playing a retreat, well, actually, I was playing a workshop with John Friend, I think in Atlanta, and he turned around at one point and said, “This is performance art.” And I said, “Yeah, it is.” And because it’s always been my attitude when we’re accompanying a yoga class, that the yoga teacher is the conductor and we’re the orchestra.

It’s an interesting mediation because we not only have to be listening to one another, but we have to be quite focused on whoever is leading the class, and I mean laser-beam focused. They’re focused on leading the class, so I don’t want them to have to make a special effort to direct the band. I like that it’s a state of hyperawareness that you get in because you’re not only watching the instructor, you’re also feeling the vibration of all the people in the room. When we do something, it changes that vibration.

I remember discovering how powerful that is. I was playing for a class; they were doing 108 sun salutations, and we were playing, and at around round 57, the tabla player and I looked at each other and said, “We’re not getting anywhere.” So we dropped it, and there was this huge gasp. The whole room went, “Don’t stop.”

I understood in this moment how they were depending on us. We had reached this wall, and they had reached a wall, too. They were counting on us to move through it; they were hanging onto us for dear life.

One of the things I like about yoga and kirtan is that it breaks down the wall between performer and audience and what’s subjective and what’s objective. You have to participate in what’s going on. So much modern entertainment involves just checking it out and maintaining some ironic distance.

FMT: Right.

DS: Yoga and kirtan do not allow ironic distance. That makes some people very uncomfortable. We’re all involved in this thing together. That requires a different kind of responsibility as a performer and a different kind of awareness.

Playing for a yoga class it’s not really a dance performance, but in itself it’s a work of theater in which everyone is responding to one another. One important thing I’ve found in playing music for yoga classes is that if I breathe with the class, I’m right with it. That seems to be the key. If I can find my breath in a place of synchronicity with the class, everything goes effortlessly.

FMT: It’s back to that ease, back to that mantra of ease.

DS: Right. I realize I’ve had to show myself how focused, disciplined and how hard I can work, and learn how not to do that. Now I’m coming back to this state of awareness, that the universe organizes itself on these principles.

FMT: If you think about Patanjali...

DS: Right.

FMT: How he talks about asana. Stira sukha asana.

DS: Right.

FMT: Steady and comfortable. With ease.

DS: It’s true. But sometimes, I think, you have to go through that discomfort to understand the importance, you know?

FMT: Yes. It’s like that contrast.

DS: It’s paradoxical, to suddenly have this awareness: Oh, I don’t have to work so hard. You know maybe I could just do less. It’s the same thing with production of music. I think we tend to do a lot in many of areas to mask our insecurities, you know. People make complicated food, complicated arrangements for songs, because they’re feeling like that basic thing they do isn’t enough. I’m learning how to do less in recording and have fewer musicians in a show. It still seems to be a mighty army, just naturally, and maybe I’m accepting that too. I take a certain delight in being the ringleader in the circus, I guess.


FMT: Do you listen to music when you practice?

DS: No. Because at most times there’s music going on in my head, I don’t feel so much impulse to put it on from the outside world. Often, I don’t want to be distracted from my own awareness. I sometimes find if I’m listening to music when I practice, it can direct me outward when I want to be directed inward.

And I’m not making music for people to practice to. If anything, my kirtan records have been more recorded to sing along to in the car and I’m always stunned to find that people use it in practice; it’s rather raucous. You can use any kind of music for practice. I find it funny we have this music for yoga; anything that you want to choose to accompany your practice is music for yoga.

I’m not criticizing the use of music in asana practice because at other times I quite enjoy it, and sometimes I’m grateful for it, because it actually makes things easier.

FMT: Especially when you’re on 57 of 108 sun salutations.

DS: Yes, exactly. And there are times when I show up and I’m all jangly. And music can have the effect of kind of pushing me into a place where I need to be.

At home, though, if I want to hear music, I sit down and play it.

FMT: Did you perform or play music before kirtan?

DS: I have played the guitar and the piano since I was a kid. I also played lap steel, mandolin and dulcimer, mostly stringed instruments. I played the trumpet for a while. I wish I hadn’t given it up when I did, but some people say I sing like a trumpet player.

There were different things I was doing casually, but without any eye whatsoever to trying to make a living. I made a number of recordings when I was in my early 20s, which if you listen to them, are not so different from what I’m doing now. I didn’t know anything about mantra, but I sang in a lot of invented languages. I had the opportunity to present those to people at some major labels, who said, “We don’t understand this.” It was difficult for me, because at the time, it was very heartfelt, and I felt rejected. I was working in the film industry as an editor, anyway, and I just kept doing things privately. But for a while, there was a massive loss of confidence. It was years later when I picked it up again and I realized that I hadn’t changed that much.

I realized that what had changed were the times and with my discovery of mantra and the advent of the yoga world, there was potentially an audience for what I was doing.

Sometimes art is like that: what you’re doing and what the collective consciousness is interested in comes to a place of synchronicity.

FMT: It’s interesting because there’s this Eastern music form, yet you take it into a contemporary Western setting. And most of us in the U.S. have grown up with and become indoctrinated to a certain way of hearing music.

DS: Right. The important thing for kirtan, for example, is to get people to participate. I know I’m not going to reeducate people’s ears to an Eastern way of hearing things right away. It took me considerable time to reorient my own ear. If you can’t get people to participate in the first place, there’s no space to get the rest of your message across.

In America, getting people to practice kirtan involves certain adaptations. More people are going to come if they think it’s going to be fun, if they perceive the level of musicianship to be high, if I make an effort to speak to them in some language they are going to understand. I’m explaining what we’re doing and why we’re doing it to make people feel comfortable.

If they had electric guitars in 15th century India, they would have used them. They didn’t have those sets of instruments. But we have those sets of instruments here, so we use them.

FMT: What do you say to how it says on your promotional material that you’re a leader of the new American kirtan movement?

DS: Somebody else said that.

I know there’s this thing going on and there’s a number of people taking chances and reformulating kirtan. That process would be going on whether I was involved in it or not. To the extent that I have influence over it is really to the extent that I’ve just gone and played a lot of shows, and gone back to Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Chattanooga, Tennessee again and again.

There is a new American kirtan movement and it’s much more dynamic than what’s going on in India. I wouldn’t call it more abundant than what’s going on in India. I’m not sure that kirtan itself, the impulse behind kirtan, is interested in becoming a museum piece. I think that as long as it continues be stated again and again in whatever the local music vernacular is, it continues to have relevance.
- LA Yoga


Discography

Brink - released 2000, Hearts of Space Records
Japa - released 2002, Ajna Music
Mala - released 2004, Ajna Music
Divas & Devas - released 2007, Spirit Voyage Music
Joyride - released Fall, 2009

Photos

Bio

“A volcano of a voice!” --- LA Yoga Pages

Dave Stringer has been profiled publications as diverse as Time, Billboard, In Style, and Yoga Journal Germany as a leader of the new American kirtan movement. Kirtan (from the Sanskrit word meaning “to sing”) is an East Indian form of mantra chanting that is becoming popular as a participatory live music experience at festivals around the world. As Dave says, at a kirtan “You’re not just listening to the music, you are the music.“

Dave’s sound marries the transcendent mysticism of traditional Indian instruments with the exuberant, groove-oriented sound of American gospel music. A spontaneous and articulate public speaker, he probes the dilemmas of the spirit with a sly and unorthodox sense of humor. His work translates the ancient traditions of kirtan and yoga into inspiring and thoroughly modern participatory theatre, open to a multiplicity of interpretations, and accessible to all.

Initially trained as a visual artist and jazz musician, Dave started chanting in the early 1990’s when a film editing project brought him to the ashram of Swami Muktananda in India. When the editing project ended, he remained in India to teach school in a rural village, and continued studying the traditions of yoga with Swami Chidvilasananda. After returning to the US, Dave taught meditation and chanting to prison inmates, and began leading kirtans at yoga studios.

In the past six years Dave and his band have toured all over the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe, giving 100-150 performances per year. He has collaborated on recordings with Vas, Rasa, Donna De Lory, Axiom of Choice, Suzanne Teng, and Sheila Nicholls, and has performed with other noted kirtan singers Krishna Das and Jai Uttal. His voice can also be heard on the soundtracks of the film Matrix Revolutions and the video game Myst.

About Kirtan:
Kirtan is a folk form that arose from the devotional Bhakti yoga movement of 15th century India. The primary musical feature of kirtan is the use of call and response, a figure that also deeply informs Western bluegrass, gospel music and jazz. The form is simple: a lead group calls out the melodies and the mantras. The crowd responds, clapping and dancing as the rhythms build and accelerate.

The Bhaktis had no use for orthodoxy. They wrote ecstatic love poems, and went around singing all the time. They saw the expression and form of the divine in every direction they looked. Their message was simple: Cultivate joy. See the divine in one another. They taught Sanskrit mantras to common people using simple melodies, accompanied by handclaps and finger cymbals and drums.

The intention of Kirtan is consciousness-transformative, directing the singers to vanish into the song as drops merge into the ocean. Sanskrit is the mother tongue of many modern languages, and a kind of periodic table of elemental sound-meaning. The mantras are primarily recitations of names given to the divine. But perhaps the true understanding of the mantras can be found in the sense of unity, well-being and timelessness that they elicit. The mantras quiet the mind, and the music frees the heart. Ecstasy is both the process and the product.

Artist Statement:
“India blasted me into billions of spinning particles and then slowly reshaped me, a process that was somehow both excruciating and ecstatic. I can’t begin to claim complete knowledge of all of the layers of philosophy represented by the mantras I learned to chant while I was there, but I can attest to their power.

I once read that Thomas Jefferson took a copy of the Bible and cut out the parts that most resonated with him, then reassembled his selections into a work that reflected his own way of saying his prayers. I suppose it is fair to say that as an artist, I am engaged in something of a similar process with yoga. I don’t know exactly where the journey I am making ends. I’m just trying to report honestly from where I am.

Though Kirtan is rooted in a very old and profoundly joyful Eastern tradition, as a Westerner, I don’t know that it is possible for me to be traditional. I can’t help but bring my own cultural biases with me. My intention, however, is to be authentic, in the sense that what I am doing originates in my heart. For me, to align the individual-dissolving Eastern tradition of kirtan with the individual-affirming Western traditions of gospel and jazz and rock music is no contradiction. Both arise from the same impulse toward giving form to what is ecstatic and liberating and transcendent. “

Contact information: www.davestringer.com

see videos at http://davestringer.com/cms/index.php?page=video