Holy Ghost Sessions

by Bhagavan Das

CD Review by Suzanne Taikyo Gilman, MRO

What I like best about American gospel and folk music is tunes that are earthy and spare. When I first heard “Black Cat Medley” I recognized the traditional spirituals of southern church music, interpreted with terrifically gritty vocals and slide guitar. But there was something unique in the performance that was hard to place. The singer turned out to be Bhagavan Das, an American-born, iconic yogi playing blues on the single-stringed Ektar. The man named the “Jimi Hendrix of Indian Music” in the 1960s had arrived in church a few decades earlier, singing “dark was the night and cold the ground, the place that my Lord, he lie down. On my way… on my way! Jesus is going to make up my dying bed.”

The Holy Ghost Sessions were recorded in 1999, a collaboration between Bhagavan Das and Richard Sales, a blues and folk musician from the Pacific northwest. It is a mesmerizing collection of American traditional gospel melodies performed with the energy of devotional chanting. Other tunes include “Shyam Radhe Shyam,” an invocation of the names of God with slide guitar and vocal harmonies, and the gospel “Light from the Lighthouse,” an uplifting medley that calls for both sing-along and an amen.

Bhagavan Das has been described as a master of Nada Yoga, the mystical practice that explores the nature of reality through sound. He was featured in the 1960s classic “Be Here Now” by Ram Das (a.k.a Richard Alpert), as the person who introduced a young Alpert to Neem Karoli Baba, the man who would become Alpert’s guru in India.

I quickly became a fan of Bhagavan Das. Searching for more of his work on the internet I found “Now,” a collaboration with hip-hop icon Mike D of the Beastie Boys, producer of the album and co-writer of several of the songs.

Overall the album incorporates danceable rhythms with traditional Indian instrumentation and a credible world-beat sound. A few of the tunes are truly spectacular. “Ragupati” is layered and rich, and “Radhe Bolo,” the love song of Krishna to his consort, is passionate and haunting. Less effective is a revisiting of earlier gospel work like “Shiva Gospel,” which incorporates an out-of-place drumbeat into a traditional blues tune. However, the brief liner notes corresponding with each of the eight chakras of the human body are a nice touch.

America has tended to secularize its devotional music, leaving it outside of the mainstream industry, or co-opting it as exotic themes for otherwise secular recordings or New Age mood sounds. Music that inspires us to “know God,” to dig deep and know ourselves, is rare. The fusion of “popular” music with devotional spirit is what Bhagavan Das does very effectively in these collaborations, as both “righteous yogi” and­—to borrow Richard Wright’s phrase—native son

Suzanne Taikyo Gilman has been an MRO student since 1994 and a diehard gospel and blues fan for many years.