Deva Premal’s name may not be a household word but her voice certainly deserves to be. Her amazing rendition of the Gayatri Mantra on YouTube (see above) has 1.5million views and counting. She will be touring with Miten, who plays with her on this video. Mandy Nolan caught up with them about what we can expect when they play in Byron
You talk about creating a sacred space with your music – what do you mean by that? Well, we don’t claim the responsibility of creating a sacred space. We just show up, along with other like-minded souls, and together – with the intention of being open to something more than is usually visible – something magic happens. It’s not a performance as such. It’s not about entertaining a crowd.
What inspired you both to become ‘divine’ musicians – isn’t all music divine? Yes, all music is divine – it’s a medium that expresses what we cannot say in words. Basically, in our case, because of the nature of the mantras themselves, which are sound formulas that have the potential to effect our physicality – and our meta-physicality – we’re freed from the usual emotionally based lyricism. We’re not attempting to say something nobody else has said, kind of thing… we don’t put ourselves under that kind of stress…
Most songs are love songs, right? Sure mantras are love songs too, in a way, but they’re addressed to no-one in particular… plus they’ve already been written! They don’t ask for anything – they don’t necessarily ‘describe’ anything – they’re concerned with a different dimension, where emotion is secondary… where the sound itself is the point. (You know that Leonard Cohen song – Love Itself Was Gone? – that’s a clue.)
Mantras are by their nature repetitive – do you ever get bored with singing them and long for something new? Here’s the thing: we’ve been chanting these mantras now for 20 years and I swear to god, every time we rub the lamp we just hang on because we know we’re in for a wild ride – it’s an ecstatic experience to watch them do their thing.
And the point is – and this is easily missed or misunderstood – that the power is in the repetition… we chant and we start losing our usual perspectives – we have the opportunity to move into a more expanded space… and yes, it can look a bit stupid – a bunch of people chanting themselves into a trance, but then, so does making love if you’re on the outside, looking in. It’s a drug. Once you get it, you’re hooked. A beautiful obsession, as Van Morrison says.
Can you write your own mantras or songs in the style of the traditional kirtans and mantras? Sure you can – the way it works for us though, is that Deva – who was born to the sound of her father chanting the Gayatri Mantra and who chanted it as a little girl all through her childhood (she was a weird kid) – brings a particular mantra to me that she resonates with (there are thousands) and we feel it out until something melodic appears which expresses the vibe of what the mantra is about.
My Sweet Lord is a pretty cool example of how you can incorporate a mantra into contemporary music. Not that contemporary any more! But since we’ve been enjoying the Scorsese movie on George Harrison, the song comes to mind.
How has your musical and creative process changed you? Well – we’re still playing the same music we were making in Pune at Osho’s ashram 20 years ago, but like anything, the more you do something the better you get at it. We’ve grown into it – we like to explore the boundaries.
Deva’s last album was recorded with some great young jazz musos in Denmark. It’s not a jazz album, but we were curious to see how jazz musos would respond to mantras. I guess you could say we’ve grown, more than actually changing from one thing to another.
You talk about the divine and awakening the spirit within, but what is your sense of spirituality? How do you communicate this in your music? Trying to conceptualise something as abstract as ‘awakening the spirit within’ is huge… basically, we just found something that nourished us internally – it came from being in the presence of an enlightened being – you can’t argue with stuff like that. It’s too big.
We found out that the less self-conscious we are the more ‘spirit’ comes through. We’re not ‘holy’ people, Deva and I; we’re pretty down to earth.
To answer your question about how we communicate spirituality – you could say we see ourselves as messengers… we have something to report – and we can do it pretty well – so we do it.
Our sense of spirituality is that everyone with a voice can experience their divinity… and I’m not talking about vocal cords
We remain open to miracles.
We’ve been taking the mantras into prisons lately – because we wanted to see if they REALLY worked, you know! And every time, we are left in tears – there is something too incredible, being in the presence of a bunch of men (or women) who are in such a different reality from ours – who come with a kind of tenderness (that’s the only word I have), and who are open to absorbing what’s happening… the last one we did, in the San Pedro Penitentiary… we actually heard the men singing with us. Not like, LOUD, but they were with us… we remain penpals with some of them to this day.
Does being on the road sometimes get tiring – how do you set space for yourselves and maintain your privacy being such public identities? I’ve heard from musician friends that being on the road all the time can be tiring – they have homes and families etc. In our case, it’s kind of different. We don’t have a ‘home’ in that way – no real base – so we’re never looking over our shoulders.
Somehow, we’re always home – this is not a spiritual concept – it just happens to be the way it is… when you don’t have anywhere to go back to – you make your home wherever you are.
So, no, being on the road can be tiring at times, sure (we played in 25 countries last year!), but it’s never draining. Every time we play, we get a re-boot.
As for being public identities, we just cannot relate to that. We’re not performers – we have nothing to live up to. People who love our music are friends of ours – they’re all good people – no weirdos – no Mark Chapmans in our world – so when we meet someone, it’s always with a hug and eye contact… simple stuff.
At the Byron Community Centre on Saturday and Sunday at 7.30pm. Tix available at the box office or byroncentre.com.au.
Also at Byron Spirit Festival doing something they’ve never done before, which is two pieces with the Gyuto Monks on Saturday 18 February with Yeshe and Nomadic Voices at the Mullumbimby High School, which is being transformed into a giant temple!