I was given a rare opportunity to participate in a Kirtan recording session with musical virtuoso Jeanne Newhall, who was making her first album of ancient Hindu chants entitled Blossom of Transformation. I originally meant to experience the process and interview Jeanne, but our discussion took me to unexpected places as we explored the parallels between traditional Western religious perspectives and Eastern forms of sacred worship such as yoga and Kirtan.
A vocalist and pianist with sixteen jazz, pop and classical albums under her belt, Jeanne Newhall was introduced to the piano at six years old, and made her professional debut before she was sixteen. Classically trained, she’d already mastered six Mozart concertos, by the time she graduated high school and was balancing her love of the masters with her love of that quintessential American art form, R&B.
So how did a farm girl who grew up in the shadow of the Sierra Estrella Mountains west of Phoenix and who sang in a Methodist choir, end up cutting a Kirtan album? It turns out that Jeanne Newhall’s musical journey is similar to any spiritual journey where we move from the known to the unknown. Jeanne started as all musicians do, studying her instrument piano with Nadia Reisenberg in NYC, then with Abbey Simon at Indiana University. She immersed herself in wildly creative forms like Jazz, cultivated her voice and became a pro musician. Sixteen albums later, Jeanne Newhall has recorded in multiple genres; pop, R&B, Jazz, classical piano and now Kirtan.
At the same time Jeanne was building a body of work, her interest in Self Realization techniques, Eastern Philosophy and Aryuveda led her to study different forms of yoga such as Ashtanga, Bhakti and eventually Kirtan. The heart-centered, exuberant chant and response form of Kirtan, fit Jeanne’s self-described nature perfectly. “I’m a rebel, an activist for justice and fairness and a person who cries without thinking. I am a heartbeat— a drum. I can still laugh until my stomach hurts.”
Kirtan was a natural evolution in her yoga and her spiritual practice, a natural way to express her inner journey. To many seekers, silence is the ultimate goal, to sit with the breath in the deepening space. But as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, Music is the universal language of mankind. Music was always Jeanne’s life, from the moment she reached her six-year-old fingers up high enough to tap the keys, so why not worship through music?
When Jeanne began singing Kirtan, she struggled with the symbolism of the Hindu gods. Singing Shantee, Rama and Ram were such foreign concepts. At first she was lost, but the more she understood the philosophy of Kirtan, the more she realized it isn’t about one right way or superior vs inferior, instead, it was One Light— Yoga and Kirtan are an aspect, a symbol of the sacred, a evolutionary vibration and a way of acceptance, devotion and faith.
Jeanne had to reconcile her upbringing, church and choir and stories of Jesus Christ, who spoke of love with chanting Ram, Ram, Hari Ram.
How could these two worlds unite?
It took another teacher, to open Jeanne’s heart in a way that transcended time and space and allowed her to find a bridge between the two worlds.
When Jeanne’s mother was days, then hours from passing, her voice was very faint. “Maaa ma ma ma ma” she said in a soft, dreamy sing-speak as her head rolled slowly from left to right on the pillow. Jeanne felt her mother was talking to someone who was someplace imperceptible, perhaps her own mother, but she could only guess. Her mother passed later, in peace.
Around a year later, the guru Amma was passing through Los Angeles. Amma is known as “the hugging guru,” who inspires long lines of seekers to touch her energy. Jeanne went with her husband along with three thousand others seeking to receive a message of hope from the healer. She waited through the night, talking to others who had come, anticipating what she might experience. Being raised Christian, she felt a little silly, a little shy. What was she doing at this type of event? Something was pulling her. She knew there was a reason for being drawn to Amma. It was just a feeling— a compelling one deep in her gut.
As the night moved along, group after group went to the stage for their hug from Amma. When Jeanne’s group was finally called to the stage, it was two in the morning. Jeanne was anxious, but reserved as she approached the stage. When it was her turn, she slowly stepped forward and bent low to receive her hug from Amma. As she received her hug Amma spoke a private phrase in Jeanne’s ear, “Maaa ma ma ma ma”.
Stunned, Jeanne’s heart melted, filling her with love and her eyes with tears. Jeanne could not believe what she had heard. Here was the reason she made the journey.
After that experience, Jeanne’s two paths merged. She understood the old Indian saying; There are many rivers that flow into one ocean. There was only One Light; music, faith, Christianity, Kirtan, chanting, love, peace, inner quiet, purity, all were one.
As Jeanne began the Kirtan session, I heard it all in her voice. Jeanne’s chants were a combination of traditional Hindu chants but her interpretations were unique, she borrowed elements of Jazz and wove classical elements into the structure. Jeanne’s light and sensitive touch allowed me to withdraw from my body and the external environment and leap to a higher plateau. I forgot about the recording as the resonance of sound reverberated through the room. I thought of what Jeanne said, “Music pulls on you. You’re an instrument of the sound, it works through me, making the music and harmony glorify the higher power—the mechanics glorify it.” Jeanne’s musical journey had started with creative expression, but turned into a vehicle for expressing the sacred.