Mantra is sound, a vibration, - and the correct vibration is created only when it is recited correctly, because it is a key which unlocks a higher dimension. The meaning is not as significant as reciting the mantra correctly. That’s why there is a lot of significance and importance given in India to study and learn Sanskrit (sometimes a lifetime) to be able to sing these devotional texts correctly.
Maybe many people don’t know that Mantra is already so sacred and perfect that it does not necessarily need any music. It is actually the privilege of a musician that he has this possibility to put this sacred text on his music and sing it! To honour this privilege and to give its full respect to the sacred texts, it is fundamental to treat the text in the right musical context.
The truth is that mantra has always been from India, so it must always have an Indian musical element incorporated within. Indian music has evolved from the meditative people who have been able to express their higher state of consciousness through music – that’s why Indian music has the highest music to bring people into meditation.
One of the most important elements of the Indian arts is Rasa – Rasa means a flavour or juice, so Indian raga music is able to add different flavours of Rasa or emotion to the texts, according to their requirements. Therefore, there can be a rasa of devotion, love, courage, energy, imploring, longing, etc.
So Indian music has to bring that Rasa into the mantra music also, which will create more depth to the sacred text and give it the right direction. This would be honouring the mantras as a musician. Moreover, they are sharing this wisdom incorrectly with people who do not know what the right way would be.
But the sad truth is that most of the western mantra singers have very little o no knowledge of Indian music, Sanskrit and the Rasa element required to compose and sing a mantra adequately. So they share the wrong idea of this tradition or millenary science and wisdom which should be an immensely powerful tool if properly imparted. Most of them are putting Sanskrit texts into pop songs and they call themselves mantra/Kirtan singers. Then it is something undefined, and when they sing in Sanskrit or even Hindi (my mother tongues), myself i cannot even understand what they are saying!
One has to understand that simply being a musician does not qualify to become a mantra singer – at least not a public performer or model because they play with the ignorance of the audience about the genuine mantra tradition, delivering something from India which is truly not from India. It would be like singing flamingo or Swiss traditional music in Indian style… which would sound hilarious and ignorant.
Beyond the lack of Indian music style, what happens is that then there is no connection between the text and the music, to explain it in a more simple way. The text, tradition or science which has originated from India must have some Indian element, if not all. They should at least immerse themselves into Sanskrit and Indian musical culture. Justifying this by “having the right intention” is definitely not enough. It needs proper knowledge, training and understanding of the Indian music and the depth of mantra sounds. Even a musician from India never stops learning – and spends years before performing - this is the tradition and the respect given to this field.
Some American and European so called kirtan-singers are also doing anything but kirtan. It's a pity they use the name kirtan, they should call it something else... because it is not kirtan what they do. Sometimes these singers scream like crazy when they sing the kirtan dynamic part - but it's not about screaming! in India the people have trained their voices since childhood to sing in that way (like an opera singer doesn't scream - it's a lifetime trained voice as well.)
Indian people are very tolerant … that’s why they overlook at this misrepresentation of the mantra and don’t pay much attention. Otherwise mantras wouldn’t be allowed to be sung in this way in public concerts and published in CDs, like it would happen in other cultures or religions. These are millenary traditions!
Even having my own personal style, I have always maintained these roots and genuine elements, and I would never compromise its authenticity - for us in India is a matter of values, of respect. This is such an ancient, mysterious and wise tradition coming from the depth of wisdom, so is deserves to be respected and kept intact… it cannot be treated like rock n’ roll. It is, first of all, sacred sound and there are rules.
This situation reminds me also of an article i read recently, about the distortion of what Yoga is (Are White Westerners Culturally Appropriating Yoga?) ... just by observing yoga magazines covers or going to a yoga 'festival', one can see that even the publishers and organizers don't know what really Yoga is all about: they relate it to sexist yoga, body-focus, fashionated, showoff-circus-poses, slim bodies, etc. It's a true shame to 'sell the soul' of such an ancient lifestyle in this way, distorting its essence just for commercial benefits. In the mantra scene, things are moving more or less in the same direction whenever western musicians step on this field... with some exceptions that i can count with the fingers of one hand - but probably these exceptions are people who have studied and lived in India at least ten years or more. Otherwise it's not possible... just like Jodel music cannot be done by a tango singer because he was not raised with it or was not trained in that way.
Luckily, this lack of authenticity was noticed by many people in the east and west, so this is one of the reasons i was asked (also self-motivated) to start offering workshops and trainings: to explain how these techniques work, where they come from, how they should be treated and what is the approach: an attitude of humbelness and patience.
I also say 'how to approach' because as a teacher, i have encountered hilarious situations: like studends that after learning tabla or harmonium during their one month vacation in Rishikesh, come back to the west and start offering concert gatherings, even charging tickets! As i said, in India performance comes after many years of hard dedication and has to be allowed by one's Guru or Teacher in the first place. So it is all coming from ignorance about the whole eastern musical culture, the steps needed to be taken and the right attitude. In India, a student of music will remain very, very humble, almost 'silent' meaning he won't even give an opinion. It is part of the learning process, to be ready to perform.
Another quite funny situation i have encountered is beginner-students suggesting to join me with tabla or other Indian instruments in my concerts - while in India they would never dare to ask... they would just be happy having a chance to serve a chai or pack the instrument of the teacher after he's done playing... and they would feel deeply honored to do just that... again, humbly and silently.
This is why i say, the problem starts due to wanting to learn something from a culture without understanding the basics and dedicating enough time. People want to get an instrument, take ten classes and sell chanting workshops. The basics are misunderstood and the ego-triggered results are pathetic to a knower of how it should 'decently' sound.
My work as musician and teacher is to inspire or 'enlighten' the people to use and relate to Indian devotional music like mantras with the right elements and understanding. It is a privilege for me to share this wonderful science with, which I do with all my heart… and with a lifetime of learning and dedication.