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Mantra Music hits the Mainstream Charts

Music and Mantra
by Lisa Harding, first published in the Australian magazine Nova

It's extraordinary to think Sanskrit mantras are sharing top billing with rap and hiphop in the US music charts. But that’s what’s happening through the music of Premal and Miten.

When they released their latest recording this year, a rather amazing thing happened. Their CD Dakshina hit the number one selling spot on Amazon.com's New Age music list. However more extraordinary was the number 14 position their CD reached on the mainstream US chart! Here was an album of ancient Sanskrit mantras, woven into contemporary music, rubbing shoulders with the slickly marketed, massively popular mainstream acts that usually fill such lists.

Deva Premal says she and Miten don't even warm to the rather limiting label of "NewAge" music. When attempting to categorise what they create, they prefer instead the description “sacred contemporary music”.

“I think that really says it in a nutshell,” Premal says. It's prayer in music, it's ancient prayers set to music in a way that appeals to us as Westerners. Miten and I like to be able to bring the ancient mantras and the ancient prayers to people so that they enjoy singing them - in a way that they just can't help but sing them."

Many commentators have remarked on the palpable absence of ambition or ego as a driving force or presence in their music. Deva Premal attributes this, in part, to the way in which their musical union was conceived. She and Miten met in India when they both lived in Osho's commune, in Pune 15 years ago, and proceeded to make music for the meditation gatherings held there daily.

Miten had been a successful rock musician who had worked with recording artists such as The Kinks and Ry Cooder, and opened for Fleetwood Mac during their 1980 "Rumours" tour. He had left the world of rock behind, sold all his guitars and devoted his life to his spiritual search. He'd lived the life of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll and found it ultimately unfulfilling. (Still, it's nice to have tried it!)

Deva Premal was a young German woman learning Shiatsu, who had been steeped in music and mantra during her unconventional childhood in Germany. She was a classically trained musician on both piano and violin, but never believed herself to have a gift for singing.

So they met in India, fell in love, shared a love of music, and Miten encouraged her to find her exquisite voice.

'That was a kind of apprenticeship for me in Pune, being able to start my singing there," Deva Premal recalls. "Because every time we sang there, people would all have their backs towards us because we were playing for meditation, we were just making the soundtrack to a meditation basically, so it was not focused on us and it was not giving us some kind of egotistical satisfaction.

"It's exactly what I still feel I'm doing when I make music now. I connect to a feeling of service to the whole, and give whatever is needed in that space. And in so doing we have learnt a sensitivity to what type of music brings more silence, rather than what music is entertaining. When you play for people who are sitting in silence with their eyes closed, they are so vulnerable and so open, you have to be so sensitive and respectful to enhance their space, rather than intrude on it, and that's what I feel I learnt in Pune."

Deva recalls that for years Miten was regarded as 'The Musician" and she was "The Girlfriend" who lovingly, joyfully did backing vocals to his music as it came back to him after his disenchanted years, refreshed by his spiritual devotion and cleansed of the egotistical motivations that drive so much contemporary non sacred music making. Then, after seven years of making music like this – Deva Premal's harmonies supporting Miten's voice – she gently rediscovered mantras taught her in her childhood and returned to them with a new appreciation.

“I never thought I'd become a singer. I just didn't think I could sing. I grew up with music, with violin and piano, but I didn't have an outstanding talent with my voice," she laughingly recalls.
'And then I found Miten and I realised 'Wow, I can sing a little'. I supported Miten for many years, which means singing second voice in his songs, and then when I was 28 I rediscovered the mantras. That opened my voice up in whole new way, so I realised I had something to give also, with me singing the lead part. The mantras opened this whole world up for me."

The mantra that Deva Premal is most renowned for is the Gayatri, an ancient mantra reputed to be one of the oldest on the planet. Deva Premal's parents sang it to her in the womb and during her childhood as a lullaby, and she herself sang it to her late father at the time of his passing, so its place in her heart and life can only be imagined.

"The Gayatri mantra is said to be the oldest mantra known to man, and there are different opinions as to how old it is, but I've heard estimates of 8000 years," she says. "Basically it's a prayer to the sun, asking for all beings to be enlightened, to see the light, so it's a very universal prayer. It stimulates all the energy centres in the body, so it's very purifying for the one who sings it and the one who listens to it. I think it's maybe the most widely known mantra in India. I've been hearing it ever since I was born, so that's a special connection."

When I ask her if she can say what the Gayatri mantra means to her, or what its effect is on her, she answers, "It's indescribable. When you sing it you feel a certain way and to put it in words is very difficult. It's like a benediction. It's transformed my whole life."

'Most mantras are in the Sanskrit language, and Sanskrit is like Latin in that it's an ancient language. In those days human beings were very familiar with the effect sounds have on the body, on the energy systems, on the chakras. It's like medicine – it's like every word, every syllable had a certain purpose to address a certain issue in your life or to open a certain chakra. And so just like with a medicine, you don't really need to know what's in it. You know if you take your medicine that it does you good, but you don't need to know all the ingredients. Somehow the mantras are like that, you don't need to know which syllable is for what, you just take it and it makes you feel healthy and whole."

She and Miten travel the world, singing and, paradoxically, creating spaces of silence and stillness. Their concerts are not concerts in the normal sense of the word, where the audience is divided from performers. Instead, concert-goers participate in the singing, and there is so great a sense of communal harmony in the group that applause rarely arises, because there is no star act performing entertainment for the crowd. Instead, there is just a group of people celebrating life.

With fans as diverse as the singer Cher, who will only do her yoga asanas to the sound of their music, (don't let your mind go there!), spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and a certain Holiness the Dalai Lama, the appeal of Miten and Deva Premal's music seems near to universal, and growing. Deva Premal says that if the endorsement of these stellar fans helps spread the chanting of healing mantras, then she is happy.

In a world wrestling with some dark prospects and forces, Deva Premal sees mantra as one subtle but potent way we can cast some light. It's the balance – as it gets more crazy and dark on the planet in some respects, the other side is also getting stronger.
"Miten and I travel all the time, and we meet this family or community of people everywhere who are working to bring more light on the planet. This community is getting so big now, and also it's not confined anymore to people who we might think of as "alternative". So I feel it's very beautiful what's happening on the planet, I guess especially because it's getting so crazy we're all more ready to be open to the moment and bring more love and light into the world."

Miten and Premal are in concert in London at The Shaw Theatre on June 10th at 3:00 pm & 7:30 pm Tel:+44-870-0332600 to book