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Music To Make Your Heart Smile

As spring finally arrived in NYC, a three-piece Brooklyn-based band called Kirtan Soul Revival played Laughing Lotus for their first-ever Bhakti concert at the studio. They had everyone responding to their calls a few bars in, and on their feet and dancing with abandon and joy by mid-set.

Three-part harmonies and slick instrumentation filled the room for two hours of devotional expression. Soul-fueled anthems like “Only Here for Love” blended seamlessly with traditional chants like the “Maha Mantra” and pop classics “Hey Jude” and “Sea of Love.”

Kirtan Soul Revival are Calia Marshall, Helen Styring Tocci, and Todd Keller (joined often by percussionist Terrence Pompey). They call themselves “NYC’s funkiest devotional mantra music experience,” and those who have been in their presence—kirtan artists and attendees alike—have concurred. Kirtan artist Sean Johnson may have said it best: “KSR will make your heart smile.”

“Todd and I met in 2000, and Helen and I met in 2001,” says Calia. “She and I became super-close. We were both modern dancers and ran a dance company together for six years.” The three quickly found harmony. “Todd is a singer songwriter and we had been working with Todd on his music,” says Helen. “And we didn’t know we were going to form a band. ‘Let’s just play!’” we said. “And we got excited about (the idea of) kirtan.” The group utilizes a wide range of instruments during their performances, including guitar, harmonium, ukulele and various percussion. “He can pick up pretty much any instrument and in ten minutes get a great sound out of it,” says Calia of Todd, who plays guitar, bass, harmonium, drums percussion.

“I really love my uke!” adds Helen. “I’ve played the guitar but I have the teeniest hands. So when I found the ukulele, I said, ‘Great! I can play all these jazz chords’. Although sometimes, trying to tune all the ukuleles to the harmonium…” she grins and raises an eyebrow.

The group has played everywhere from Jivamukti to Kripalu, from small studios to big yoga happenings like BhaktiFest and the Nova Scotia Berwick Festival. The band notes that they will often tailor their sets to the vibe they’re getting. “It’s partly about where we’re going and what we’re feeling,” says Calia. “We’ve been to Integral Yoga Institute many times, so when we’re there now we like to bring in our newer stuff.”

“We just went to [chant artist] David Newman’s studio in Philly, Yoga on Main,” says Helen. “Amazing studio, where we knew we wanted to do a more traditional thing. They have a deep kirtan practice. And we also went to Sacred Studio in Brooklyn, where did all of our soul stuff as they are the most soulful, amazing community.”

In addition to performing, KRS also holds chanting workshops called Divine Harmony, where they guide as many as 80 devotees at a time in the art of harmony and musical improvisation. “We’ve also done it for small groups,” says Calia. “We demonstrate how different sounds come together, melodies come together.”

And how spirits come together as well: as Helen tells the throngs at Laughing Lotus, “Speaking these words into the universe will make them true.” “It’s a very spiritual practice to sing in front of somebody,” she adds. “A woman in her 50s came up to us after a workshop,” says Todd, “and she was crying. She said, ‘I haven’t sung since I was a little girl.’” The woman explained that her uncle had secretly taped her singing into a hairbrush and embarrassed her with it in front of the whole family—silencing her for decades. “I need to thank you for opening my heart and my mind to singing again,” she told the group.

KSR’s first full-length album, Here For Love, is about to become a reality thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. They album will feature high quality studio renditions of their kirtan favorites, and surprise guests. The album will be released in July and the band will be launching the album at Shambhala East at 1000 Dean Street in Brooklyn on Saturday, July 12th, at a special Release Party at 7pm.

The group is touring the North East this summer. For more info about where they will be and some sweet sound samples, click here.

--Jim Catapano

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