The Hanumen (self-titled). Available from hanumen.com and from mantralogy.com
CD Review by Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa)*
“To be forewarned is to be four-armed: the Hanumen will rock your world!” –the residents of Vaikuntha
When I first heard the Hanumen at the famous Menla Mountain Resort in Phoenicia, New York, I was taken by the fact that they sat in a circle, and concentrically around them sat the audience. Attendees were almost indistinguishable from the band, which, in my estimation, was intentional — the band wanted to create an atmosphere of one big family, of a sort of oneness in purpose that underlies the spiritual theme of their music.
The circular formation also reminded me of Dancing Sarah’s Circle, a biblical story drawn from the narrative of Sarah’s interaction with God. This circle represents a divine dance of love — even if, in the case of the Menla concert, it manifested from a seated position (though not seated for long!). Dancing Sarah’s Circle reminds us that our lives are interconnected, not only with God and other living beings, including people and animals, but with all of creation. For Vaishnavas, this brings to mind the ultimate dance of love, the Rasa-lila, where Krishna shows His affection for all living beings through the prototype of His most intimate devotees, the cowherd maidens of Braj (the gopis). The inverted words “rasa” and “sara” will not be lost on comparativists.
The Hanumen are also about this interconnectedness, as is clear from the band itself. Benjy Wertheimer, John de Kadt, Puru Sadkin, Jahnavi Harrison, and Gaura Vani—amongst their many guest musicians, including noteworthy Steve Gorn—bring numerous disciplines and vantage points to bear. Their diversiform religious practices, the range of age and gender, and their varied training as musicians represent the spirit of cooperation, of moving beyond superficial differences and sectarian boundaries. In the mood of the Hanumen, or rather as a precursor to them, Hanuman himself graces many Asian countries outside of India, including Burma, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and China (and now in various parts of the western world as well)—showing that he too is interdenominational and favors diversity.
Who is the original Hanuman? He is the monkey-god devotee of Lord Rama, the exemplar of unmotivated and uninterrupted devotion. He shows by word and deed how bhakti (devotion) is a form of yoga, all-encompassing and a matter of strict discipline, even while being spontaneous and full of passion. Interestingly, the ancient Madhva tradition of Vaishnavism explains that Hanuman is the archetype of the perfect devotee, setting an example for human beings and beckoning us to make our love perfect. This is the closest, say the Madhvas, that limited living beings (jivas) can come to being truly divine. The Hanumen seek to take us in this direction.
Which brings us to the music itself.
The band breaks new ground. Steeped in the traditions of mantra meditation (particularly kirtan) and world music, they venture off into funk, country, spoken word, jamband, zydeco, reggae, jazz, blues, and rock. And that’s just in the first song!
The Hanumen take listeners on a stimulating rollercoaster ride, engaging mellow, folk-inflected melodies as much as high-energy and soulful outbursts of rhythmic glee. The musicianship is virtuosic, but that doesn’t detract from the sheer feeling and simple sensibilities of the songs. This is a rare feat — most virtuoso bands lose the point of the tunes and fall into self-indulgent artistic meandering. To be sure, there are intensely musical moments on this record. But what consistently brings these particular musicians back to the central theme of each song before too long, I am sure, is their devotion to the spiritual pursuit, their unwavering focus on the Divine.
De Kadt, excelling on his various percussion instruments and spoken-word Sufi poetry; Wertheimer, soaring away on his haunting esraj, adeptly pounding his tablas, and belting out his heartfelt vocals; Gorn, bringing listeners to transcendent realms with his clarinet or bansuri flute; Harrison, with her unmistakable voice and consummate violin artistry; Puru, who underscores everything with his funky bass lines (bringing Jaco to Braj)—and Gaura Vani, who ties it all together with his loving bhava, creative song-writing, singing, guitar, harmonium, musical demeanor, and endearing audience rapport—are dedicated to a common purpose. They tap into the energy of the Divine by harnessing His/Her intrinsic sound vibration.
Will anyone find fault with this almost perfect CD? Of course they will. Since it charts new ground, traditionalists might find it too experimental, too far afield for their inflexible tastes (though the Hare Krishna Maha-mantra and other well known kirtan tunes are amply represented throughout the disc). Conversely, New Age enthusiasts and youthful pop music fans might find the music too steeped in age-old mantras and orthodox traditions of India (though one would be hard-pressed to find a more hip or soulful version of “Wade in the Water”). Still, at the end of the day, if listeners give it half a chance, even the naysayer will find much to appreciate in the Hanumen.
There are some moments on this CD that initially seemed a bit schmaltzy to me—the tune, “I Love You” comes to mind. “Mother, I want you to know that I love you. There may have been things I have done to make you doubt. But don’t you doubt. Mother, I want you to know that I love you. I do.” The same is sung to father, children, darling, and finally to Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Rama, and Krishna. I listened carefully, and, to tell the truth, my reservations quickly melted away. My heart softened. I cried. So I want to add a final line, both to that song and to this review: “Hanumen, I want you to know that I love you. There may have been things I have done to make you doubt. But don’t you doubt. Hanumen, I want you to know that I love you. I do”
*Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is the senior editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead. He is also the author of 31 books, including Christ and Krishna: Where the Jordan Meets the Ganges (New York: FOLK Books, 2011); Food for the Soul: Vegetarianism and Yoga Traditions (Westport, CT.: Praeger Publishing, 2011); The Jedi in the Lotus: Star Wars and Hindu Traditions (England: Arktos, 2010); and The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (New York: FOLK Books, 2008).