Sean Johnson of the Wild Lotus Band
Interviewed by Daniel Tucker
February 21, 2012
Daniel Tucker: In the upcoming March 5th Bhakti Breakfast Club online harmonium class, I'll be teaching the gorgeous "Om Hari Om" from your most recent album Devaloka. Can you share a bit about this song and what the lyrics in this kirtan mean for you?
Om Hari Om is a mantra associated with Krishna as the remover of suffering. And Sharanam Ganesha and Om Gum Ganapataye Namaha are mantras celebrating Ganesha as the remover of obstacles. I usually don't include such distinct deities in the same chant, but these mantras share a similar heartfelt intention of removing suffering and clearing obstacles to living from the heart that I find very moving. The song appears on Putumayo's compilation titled Yoga and has been covered by Jason Nemer's kirtan band Gypsy Tears as well as kirtan bands in Brazil and Spain. I can't tell you how grateful I am to Farah for encouraging me to record the melody that night, otherwise I think it may have just disappeared into the ethers.
Daniel Tucker: How did you first learn to play kirtan - and did you start out on harmonium?
Sean Johnson: I grew up singing as a member of The New Orleans Symphony Children's Chorus as a child. After an embarrassing experience singing solo in a big public concert- with my voice changing harshly in the midst of puberty, I stopped singing in public for many years. Luckily an ethno-musicologist professor in college named Sean Williams encouraged me to open my voice again as I learned to sing a number of beautiful traditional Irish songs in the sean-nos style. These are highly ornamented, deeply spiritual, acapella songs in free time. Soon after I went to Ireland and sang in pubs around the country, tuning into the spirit of my ancestors.
I was first exposed to the power of chanting by a Sufi teacher in college who taught the Sufi form of chanting called "dhikr," chanting divine names as a practice of remembering who we really are. I was deeply moved by this practice and was immediately hungry to discover more forms of sacred chant. This led me to graduate studies at The Naropa Institute's west coast campus in Oakland where I did an intensive apprenticeship with south India musician and author Russill Paul. Initially, I led kirtans every morning each week in the school's meditation space accompanying myself with a drum. I didn't start playing harmonium until a few years after that, resurrecting and building on some skills cultivated in childhood piano lessons. I love the harmonium, especially as a singing companion.
Daniel Tucker: If you could share one piece of advice with somebody who is just beginning to learn harmonium, what would it be?
Sean Johnson: Along with more formal study, I strongly encourage beginning harmonium students to approach the instrument as a vehicle for self-discovery and connection with the creative muse, improvising immediately, even if you're a beginner to any form of keyboard. Be open to the adventure of exploring spontaneous combinations of notes and chords that touch your soul. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, be patient with any initial awkwardness, trust your intuition and your voice. Feel into the combinations you discover, dare to sing along, and search with your heart for a creative song that will emerge from the ocean of music that lives inside you.
Daniel Tucker: Thanks so much for sharing your music and love of kirtan with us!
Sean Johnson: Thank you Daniel. And thanks for being such a wonderful source for kirtan community and education. The work you're doing with KirtanCentral.com is amazing and inspiring.