For as long as Bolo! has been a band, we have used the following short description on all of our various media platforms, from our first website in 2005, to our MySpace page, to our current Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram bios:
Bolo! offers ecstatic live kirtan that is easily accessible, and honors the authentic roots of traditional Indian devotional singing.
For me, this is not just a short bio of our band, but is more like a personal mission statement.
The first part of that mission statement says we offer “ecstatic live kirtan that is easily accessible.” To me, “easily accessible” has a couple of different meanings. Firstly, it can mean that the song is not too complicated, it is easy to follow along, and the words are simple enough that someone who has never heard the song can start chanting along straight away. A great example of that is the song Nārāyaṇa from our first album. The words are simple, the rhythm is simple, and it is repetitive without becoming boring. When we chant live, I want someone who has never heard kirtan before to be able to follow along and ideally learn and feel something.
But not all of our songs are simple and easy to learn. Some of our songs are very complex, with lots of Sanskrit verses that are impossible to follow along with if you don’t already know them — songs like the Liṅgāṣṭakaṃ (8 verses), the Gurustotraṃ (13 verses), or the Mahiṣāsuramardini Stotraṃ (21 verses). How do you make these complex songs easily accessible to a Western audience? You basically treat it like a pop song. Make sure the music is catchy, give it a good hook, and have a simple chorus that everyone can join in on. (The three examples I just gave don’t have choruses per se, rather the last line of every verse is the same.) In this way, an otherwise overly-wordy and intimidating Sanskrit text can be made fun and engaging, and awaken a desire in the listener to learn more about the story the song is telling, or the deity being celebrated. In fact, one of our most popular and requested songs when we play live is the Durgā Cālisā, which has forty verses! (Durgā Cālisā will be on our upcoming album Śakti.)
Honoring the Roots
The second part of the mission statement says that our music “honors the authentic roots of traditional Indian devotional singing.” For me, this is not really about the style of the music or the instrumentation (which is also important), but is much more about the meaning of what we’re chanting. I try to make sure that what I’m chanting is, to the best of my knowledge, accurate and correct Sanskrit (or Hindi, or Awadhi, or Bengali, or whichever language, but usually Sanskrit), and that I have at least a surface level understanding of what the words mean so that I can sing them with the proper intention and focus. I find that if I know the meaning of what I’m singing and I’m fairly sure the words and grammar are correct, I can sing with a clear intention and with authority, and that helps bring everyone into the energy created by the chant. And the more people in that energy, the stronger it becomes. It feeds back on itself until it truly becomes ecstatic, and that is when kirtan really works its magic.
ॐ श्री गुरवे नमः
oṃ śrī gurave namaḥ