It’s fitting that the new album from Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe, Rock On Sat Nam, was released on the Fourth of July, because these tracks are explosive! Rock On Sat Nam blasts you off on a rocket ride of Stow’s undulating, straight-from-the-heart vocal fireworks and sends you soaring on a current of hard-driving guitar riffs and percussive alchemy riddled with brilliant interludes from that wizard of woodwinds, Richard Hardy. It’s a seamless fusion of edgy, urban rock and sacred mantra-with-a-message. It will very likely have you dancing like a wild man and contemplating the nature of your true existence. Simultaneously.
Mantra Rock With a Message
Perhaps this CD should come with a warning, something like: “Caution: This is NOT your average kirtan.” The band doesn’t call this kirtan, in fact, describing it instead as mantra rock. You won’t find a mantra rock category on iTunes, but the moniker is not new. In 1960’s San Francisco, there was a famous counterculture event led by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada himself (the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, popularly known as the Hare Krishnas) that featured hot rock acts of the day, including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane.
Like we imagine the “Mantra-Rock Dance” did in Haight-Ashbury in 1967, Rock On Sat Nam melds full-on jam-band rock music with sacred Sanskrit chant and wraps it all up in an underlying message of love and self-realization. But it’s not all sweet and serene. There is a hard-edged urgency to this wake-up call, and the Tribe kinda gets in your face about it. Like, WTF are you waiting for?
It works. Oh how it works.
Whatcha Gonna Do With All That Love?
Rock On Sat Nam’s lead-off track, “Whatcha Gonna Do,” sets the tone of the album and lets you know straight out this music has a message. It begins with Stow’s deep gutteral vocals invoking Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, in a classic Sanskrit chant. But wait. Just as you think you’re into a sweet ode to the elephant-headed diety, Stow shakes you up with an edgy urban rap punctuated by a hard-rockin’ refrain that emphatically declares: “There’s more love here than we know what to do with.”
“Whatcha gonna do with all that love?,” Stow asks over and over…sweetly at first, then more ardently, until she is fairly screaming the question at you. The message is personal, impassioned, a call to action that’s almost desperate in its urgency: “In every single one of us, there is a seed of genius. But it takes love, and it takes intention. And the time…is…NOWWWWW.”
You can download this song free at www.larisastow.com, and hear it in this cool video from the Shakti Tribe.
Wow! And that’s just the first song. (There are eight full-length tracks and three “bridges.”)
Bhaktified Ballads & Rap ‘N’ Roll
Track 3, “Kalikayei” takes a traditional Sanskrit mantra to Kali, the fierce femme ego-slashing diety, and blows it out to ecstatic heights. “You See Me” feels like a love song to the divine, a lilting ballad of original lyrics that melt into Om Namah Shivaya and then Hallelujah over and over again, taking you higher and deeper with each repetition. If this doesn’t give you goosebumps, see a doctor.
The title track returns resoundingly to mantra rap ‘n’ roll, reverberating with clever quotables like “Redefine, refine your state of mind/With an attitude of gratitude shift the paradigm/Rock On. Sat Nam” and “We’ll see it, we’ll be it, when we believe it/There’s a gift in this moment if you choose to receive it.” Get the message?
Tracks 7 (“Saraswati”) and 9 (“Om Namah Shivaya”) go back to bhakti with age-old mantras spun Shakti-Tribe style. Which is to say, rockin! The latter culminates in a Gospel-esque chorus of vocal harmonies evocative of an old-fashioned Christian revival or a Baptist service in the Deep South. If this doesn’t get you dancing, see a doctor.
And then there’s the cool-down, in true bhakti fashion. “Guru Life” has a country-ballad feel to it, for some reason taking me right back to a Nashville siren my mother played on LP’s back in the day. Stow’s voice is softer here, the song almost a lullaby that weaves her own divine-love lyrics (“I’m here to love you…”) with the Tibetan Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. It flows seamlessly into the final track, a gentle, haunting 108-times repetition — japa style — of the same mantra. Gentle breath (or is that the wind?) is the last thing you hear as you bask in the vibration of this powerful ancient invocation to compassion.
Even in an era when the boundaries of kirtan are being pushed wide open — there’s soul kirtan, reggae kirtan, gospel kirtan, and so on — Rock On Sat Nam blows the top right off any preconception one might have about sacred music.
In a recent interview with Stow, we asked if she ever felt “push-back” from more traditional kirtan artists who question her unconventional, edgy style. “Oh my God YES!” was her emphatic reply. “There’s a perception of what a kirtan wallah is,” she says carefully, pointing out that when she first encountered kirtan a decade ago (at a smallish Krishna Das concert), “the dancing had not begun; it was much more sedate back then.”
“My bhakti has a very different expression,” she said. “Any time you have people who are really pushing it, there can be huge push-back. But that’s what pushes people deeper into devotion.”
She embraces the role of paradigm pusher, pointing to Amma and Gandhi as inspirations. “I’m doing what I need to do to be honest and authentic with myself. By doing so, I hope that I can help give permission to the person next to me, who may have a different expression, to be uniquely who he or she is.”
“I want to create a bridge so more people are exposed to Sanskrit mantra, which is so powerful, in a way that feels safe and inviting.” Rock On Sat Nam, she said, “is probably the biggest bridge we’ve ever created.”
In addition to Larisa Stow, the band includes Kimo Estores on lead guitar, Benj Clarke on bass and loops, and Richard Hardy (Carole King, Dave Matthews Band, Lyle Lovett, David Lindley) on woodwinds. Occasionally sitting in are “good friends and honorary tribe members” Walfredo Reyes Jr. (Santana, Steve Winwood, Traffic), and Victor Bisetti (Los Lobos, Elvis Costello).
Until July 18 you can NAME YOUR OWN PRICE to own Rock On Sat Nam! See www.larisastow.com for details.
And get ready for fireworks.