Mike Cohen, Kirtan Leader and Kirtan Coach

 January 21, 2016

Mike Cohen was a professional saxophonist until he heard kirtan. Today, he tours as a kirtan musician, and coaches students in the domains of musicianship, leadership, spirituality, energetics, chant writing and community building. His students have gone on to create thriving kirtan communities throughout the U.S., and some have recorded CDs.

He recently shared his thoughts about Kirtan Leadership with The Namaste Counsel.

In Kirtan There Is No Audience

Back in my teens and twenties I was a professional saxophonist. Those were incredible years, with many exciting and wonderful experiences. Although I was a professional musician, during that time I had experiences of being judged, compared and even shamed around my singing or musical ability. Partly this was a result of the time I spent inside an institution which held very high standards.

Kirtan taught me to relax the notions of performance and the role of performer. As a professional saxophonist, I was expected to show up as a ‘performer.’ Others showed up as the ‘audience.’ In kirtan there is no audience. Everyone participates. Everyone is in the band. Everyone shares their voice, and contributes to what is co-created.

Kirtan is deeply interactive. The call and response inherent in kirtan creates an energetic flow between leader/band and chant participants. One of the roles of the Kirtan Leader is to guide and support the interaction between leader, musicians, response singers and chant participants.

I like the notion of interacting as this points to the presence of mutual influence. And I wonder … just how far can we go with this interactivity, this inclusivity?

Leading Kirtan Is A Decathlon

The only thing more amazing than chanting is actually leading a group in a chant experience. It’s like the difference between being a passenger in a car, and actually driving the car. It’s fun to be driven around. However, it’s so much fun to be the one doing the driving. Something incredible happens when we hear all the voices coming back to us. When we lead kirtan we integrate the performance/guidance/leadership aspect with the element of spiritual practice.

What people find is that leading kirtan is both astonishingly fun and rewarding, and… highly challenging. Leading kirtan is a practice in and of itself. And, it is quite demanding. As Kirtan Leaders we need to be proficient on the harmonium, confident with our singing, able to develop a repertoire of accessible and interesting chants. We need to build community, and get comfortable speaking publicly about kirtan – sometimes to people who are brand new to chanting. We may also need to write original chants, tour and play at festivals. To be honest, leading kirtan is more like a decathlon than a sprint.

The Yoga of Polarities

From my perspective, Yoga, which in Sanskrit means “yoke,” is fundamentally a process of integrating both sides of a polarity. Doing so gives rise to something greater than either individual side.

Based on guidance from my teachers and spiritual lineage, since 2008 I have been exploring a Dattatreya approach to Kirtan. Dattatreya illustrates the greatest polarities that we, as humans, are always experiencing, yet are often unaware. Like fish who don’t know they’re wet as they have lived their entire life in water… we “swim” in these polarities without knowing it.

The icon of Dattatreya has three heads, representing Brahma (force of Creation), Vishnu (force of Sustenance) and Shiva (force ofTransformation) — three forces of Nature. Dattatreya also represents the integration of the polarity of Individual and the Collective (self and others). This deity is androgynous, representing the integration of the apparent polarities of masculine and feminine.