Snatam Kaur

The promise of peace

Snatam Kaur offers it in her devotional music and its accompanying tradition of healing.

By Naila Francis

There are those who advocate peace and those who embody it. Chant artist Snatam (sun-ah-tum) Kaur is among the latter, her petite frame exuding a lucent serenity, her words, measured and earnest in conversation, emanating from a contemplative depth.

A singer of both traditional Sikh mantras and contemporary sacred music, Kaur travels the globe offering kirtan concerts and workshops — the call-and-response chanting rooted in Renaissance India — as well as yoga and meditation classes. An ambassador for the United Nations affiliate 3HO (the Healthy Happy Holy Organization), which encourages a healthier, more vibrant lifestyle through Kundalini yoga, meditation, a vegetarian diet and a philosophy of compassion, she even includes some of those exercises in her concerts.

So when this former food technologist brings her Celebrate Peace Tour to the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia on Saturday — including her band of sacred music icon GuruGanesha Singh on guitar and vocals, tabla maestro and composer Manish Vyas and multi-instrumentalist Ram Dass Singh on vocals, clarinet and piano — audiences should expect more of an experience than a performance.

“Each concert that we do is a prayer for peace,” says Kaur. “We’re so impacted by the general media and by the daily stress of our lives that we don’t give ourselves those quiet moments or those moments of prayer.

“My feeling is that every single moment that we in our lives and in our minds have a vibration of peace, that is affecting the planet around us and that our collective way of thinking and existing has created the reality that we live in today. Maybe it’s harder to measure, harder to see, but I feel it’s really, really important and powerful to have inner peace.

“It’s such an important mission and I see a lot of other people starting to realize that, even though they’re working for Greenpeace or are working in Darfur or working in a homeless soup kitchen, that we’ve all got to have that inner vibration of peace because that’s really what spreads and that’s really what will help us to change the vibration of the planet so we can make more conscious decisions as builders, more conscious decisions as consumers, more conscious decisions as neighbors and friends. That’s really the work that we’re doing.”

It matters not that most of the chants are sung in Sanskrit, passed down from gurus in the Sikh tradition, taken from ancient texts or learned from her own late teacher Yogi Bhajan, renowned for promoting Sikhism in the West. Set against buoyant rhythms and mellifluous layers of sound, with Kaur’s crystalline vocals occasionally weaving in devotional lyrics in English — she also plays harmonium, violin and guitar — the chants brim with a quiet, though infectious, joy.

“I believe that we bring these sacred chants to life when we sing them. These chants have lived for thousands of years before me and will continue to live for years after that. There’s a real magic that happens when we chant these words and I don’t question it anymore,” says Kaur, 35. “It’s kind of a medicine balm, a healing balm. They come from the yogic meditative tradition where the idea is you can sit down and chant these sacred words and be healed.”

She points to a letter received from a veteran of the Iraq war as an example of their inherent power.

“It was from a woman and she said, ‘I finally came back from Iraq and when I listened to your music, it was the first time that I could cry and begin to heal from what I had been through.’ For people who haven’t been exposed to our music, our music is dedicated to opening the heart and giving people the opportunity to sing and to pray for peace on the planet,” says Kaur. “We believe that the power of prayer is the greatest power we have as human beings.”

Hailing from Trinidad, Colo., and later Bolinas, Calif., she was raised in a family that practiced yoga, meditation and chanting as part of the Sikh lifestyle. Kaur even traveled to India at age 6 where she met one of the master chanters at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and later returned there to study with him. But her musical exposure extended well beyond the sacred, especially since her father for several years served as manager for the Grateful Dead.

“I got to go backstage before I really knew what they were all about. I wasn’t so much into the music but they had great candy bars back there,” recalls Kaur, who also studied violin and played in her high school orchestra. “Today in our concerts, we do a lot of improvisational musical interludes and a lot of that comes from my inspiration of hearing the Grateful Dead.”

A budding songwriter as a youth, she performed her song “Save Our Earth” at an Earth Day concert in San Francisco before thousands, the Dead’s Bob Weir shepherding the project. Still, Kaur planned on a career in health care, and with a degree in biochemistry, landed a job formulating cereal flavors — “behind every cornflake, there’s five Ph.D.’s,” she jokes — for the Oregon-based Peace Cereal company after college. Her singing on the job, however, inspired the management to support and serve as an early sponsor of her recording and performing career. Today, she enjoys international appeal as a New Age artist, her albums, which include “Live in Concert,” “Anand” and “Grace,” selling by the thousands each year.

“When I started on my first tour, I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing,” says Kaur, who lives in New Mexico with her husband Sopurkh Singh Khalsa, now touring with her for the first time as her road manager. “In the past couple of years, I really feel that I am answering an inner calling and really doing the work that I’m meant to do.

“My name is Snatam, which means ‘universal,’ and I always learned that your name is something to live up to, to live by, so I’ve been really inspired to reach out to people of different faiths, different paths and different cultures. … For me, my bottom line is whatever opens the heart and gets people to sing, that’s what I’m going to do.”

– The Intelligencer