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First We Sing

It was difficult for Rabbi Andrew Hahn to accept that a traditional rabbinical path was not his calling. Then he discovered Krishna Das’s music. A harmonium purchase came next, and he began composing music based on Hebrew melodies using the call and response structure of kirtan.

With two successful albums, his new gorgeous and deeply spiritual album Nondual fuses electronic and ambient textures with energetic modern beats while maintaining the integrity of Hebrew sacred prayers—he’ll be singing from it at his CD release party at Integral Yoga Institute on Feb 28th.

YogaCityNYC’s Kathleen Kraft caught up with him recently to learn more about how he weaves it all together.

Kathleen Kraft: How did you become Kirtan Rabbi?

Andrew Hahn: I’d gone to rabbinical school, and I’d always been into music—that’s what drew me into Jewish life—you know, sitting around the Shabbat table singing and banging my fist. I was living in Colorado and was looking for work as a pulpit rabbi or as an academic and fell under the influence of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

I had always been an academic sort, but something was telling me I had to do something else. Meanwhile some of my friends had gotten into kirtan and passed along a Krishna Das CD to me. I was in Boulder at the time, and I wasn’t finding any jobs and I put his Breath of the Heart on, and it simply made me happy. I thought this form of chanting would go really well with Hebrew, which is a language that is meant to be sung… It has a vibrational quality to it akin to Sanskrit. I had already been interested in the harmonium, and I started going to kirtans, and I would watch the leaders—Krishna Das, Sham Dass, Jai Uttal—as one would watch another service leader, someone who represents the community as that’s what they’re doing in some sense.

At first it was just for me, and I took songs I knew from the synagogue and “kirtanized” them. I sung them with my Tai Chi tribe, and it grew. My mission became to take this form into the Jewish world through singing in Hebrew.

KK: How did you get to Integral?

AH: I was not looking to do this in the yoga community, but at some point I reached out to Integral Yoga—I had gone to many kirtans there— to see if they were interested and they enthusiastically said yes. Their swami had had a relationship with one or two rabbis. I did one and it was completely sold out.

KK: You’ve quoted Abraham Joshua Heschel saying “First we sing, then we believe.” Tell us why this phrase is particularly resonant for you?

AH: It’s kind of my motto… It not important what language you sing in, just sing. I call it Hebrew Kirtan, not Jewish Kirtan, because that’s the language I sing in. Music is a universal language, a direct conduit to God. And the kirtan form is very special because it has to do with the exchange—it’s as much about listening as doing. You listen and the audience repeats, and you echo them—it becomes this wonderful exchange. The great philosopher Martin Buber said there is no “I,” no pure self that is not in relationship with another, and kirtan is that I-you exchange… I try to be improvisatory—I hear someone make a “mistake” and I riff on it…

KK: Your new album is called Nondual. What does that mean in this context?

AH: Yes, all the chants are based on Jewish phrases that are examples of non-dualistic declarations. It is this idea of the unity of all things where all the religions meet. You might think that being led by a man singing would be dualistic, but it’s actually less so than if we were all just singing together, because there’s the possibility of what in Sanskrit is called the lila—the play, the back and forth. God happens between people and that happens beautifully in kirtan.

KK: Tell us about your new album.

AH: It’s very different from the other albums—it’s completely guitar based, and it rocks out. There are more musical interludes and solos. The chants are about the idea of God being everywhere. By the end of it, you’ve been put in a psycho-vibrational state—we’re doing things with the sound to bring you into a good connection with the divine.

When we were putting the album together, my friend Benjy Wertheimer from Shantala said he could get Bibi McGill to play with us, and I was like Who’s that? He told me she was Beyonce’s lead guitartist. We met and she was so humble—she didn’t know if she could play this kind of music, but she heard the album and loved it. She’s a yoga instructor and is seeking this… I’m bringing her in for the CD release party, and we’re probably going to do more projects together.

KK: Is there a biblical story that resonates with you in terms of your passage? I was thinking of the Exodus.

AH: I’ve never thought about that before… I would go back even further to God telling Abraham to leave his home. Lech lecha which means go forth—leave your mother and father and canon behind and go to the place which I will show you. I think this happened to me. Lecha actually means “to yourself.” I had to get rid of the “shoulds” of the world and go toward myself. Psychotherapy helped me do this, but I realized there were two important things—one was to meditate and the other was to be creative. Doing something creative overcomes comparing yourself to others… Kirtan is about burning off ego, it’s ecstatic—it can transform us and push those voices away.

Kirtan Rabbi will be singing at Integral Yoga Institute on February 28th at 8pm. $15 in advance/$20 at the door.

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