I recently caught a CBC radio interview with twin sisters Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz of the French-Cuban musical duo Ibeyi. They have roots in France, having grown up in Paris, and in Cuba, homeland of their late father, well-known percussionist Anga Diaz.
In the interview, the sisters commented on how everyone sings in Cuba. Singing is not restricted only to performers or to professionals. Maybe it’s because kids don’t have other things to do, they said. No PlayStation and other material things. In contrast, in other countries and cultures, little kids might all sing, but soon separate into singers and non-singers.
An offshoot of singing is chanting, another vocal act that’s a specialty in modern Western cultures. Chanting came to mind since it’s done in two disciplines that I’ve explored as an adult: yoga and Zen Buddhism.
I didn’t grow up chanting, although I was tangentially aware of it, growing up in a Buddhist family in Hawaii. For example, chanting is integral to traditional Hawaiian culture, which had no written language until the 1820s, when Christian missionaries arrived. In modern Hawaii, chanting is done ceremonially (including in secular federal and state functions) by Hawaiian priests and artistically by musicians and hula dancers—while most of society are spectators.
In the Shin Buddhism that I was born into, the priests chanted, but the congregation generally didn’t. Our family also identified with Shinto, Japan’s native belief system that exists side by side with Buddhism: When I was little, a Shinto priest once came over to bless our house. My family gathered around and he began chanting in a reverberating monotone. The strangeness of the sound so amused my sister and me that we ended up holding our breaths, struggling to stifle our laughter—and finally racing to the farthest bedroom to avoid an LOL outburst. Poor Mom and Dad.
So, chanting was not second nature to me. In Iyengar yoga, the Invocation to Patanjali is often chanted at the beginning of class. Sometimes teachers chant together with students; other times, the teacher does “call and response,” chanting each line first. For an excellent primer on chanting the Invocation, click here for a few articles published by the Iyengar Yoga Centre of Victoria.
Chanting as a group has a different flavor depending on the teacher, on the students, on one day versus the next. The cadence might be faster or slower; the articulation, more staccato or legato; the pitch, higher or lower. Once, I attended a class taught by a male teacher doing “call and response.” I expected the pitch to match my preferred lower register (a high pitch veers too close to singing and harmonization). But the group comprised only women, all who must have been sopranos. I kept silent that day.
With a bunch of Westerners chanting Sanskrit words, pronunciation is inevitably questionable. Once, I attended a workshop in San Francisco taught by Bangalore-based HS Arun. During the call-and-response invocation, he repeated the line “Pranamami Patanjali” a second time. Then a third and a fourth… We repeated that line at least a dozen times before he proceed to the final “Hari hey Om.” Later he explained that “Pranamami” is not “PranaMOMMY.”
For me, chanting initially felt silly, rather like play acting or trying too hard to adopt a practice not innately mine, using words I barely understood. Now, more familiar, it is a link from one Iyengar yoga class to another around the world. Mostly I appreciate the basis for chanting given by Geeta Iyengar*:
We chant so that at the very beginning that feeling of sanctification comes from inside, with the feeling of surrendering oneself, because nothing can be learned in this world unless you have the humility to learn. So the moment you think of the Lord [Patanjali] at the beginning of doing a practice, you know that you are very small in front of that greatest soul. Once that is understood then the other problems which always arise while practicing, mainly concerned with the ego, will be affected. You know that you are “coming down” to learn something. And you can’t learn anything unless you come down; if you think you are on the top and you know everything, then you are not a learner at all. In that sense, the chanting helps.
*Interview conducted by Margot Kitchen at the 1992 Canadian Intensive in Pune, India.