When hearing any kirtan – Hindu devotional song – of Krishna Das, the first thing that strikes about the singer is his deep baritone voice, which resembles that of Amitabh Bachchan. The next thing that strikes the listener is the accent; there is an unmistakable western twang to his pronunciation. While the voice is absolutely captivating, the reason why it is accented is because Das is a pure American. Born Jeffrey Kagel, the 69-year-old Das had his first brush with the syncretic Indian culture and civilization in 1960, when he travelled along India’s length and breadth with Ram Dass, an American devotee of the famous Neem Karoli Baba – the same spiritual saint who influenced and changed the life of Steve Jobs.
Then in August 1970, Krishna Das himself visited the ashram of the Baba.
There at the ashram he was transformed from the fully westernized Kagel to a fully Indianised Krishna Das during his stay.
He learned all he could about Indian culture and tradition, the finer aspects of the Hindu religion, and the true meaning of Bhakti Yoga. Like Neem Karoli Baba, Das, too, became a devotee of Hanuman.
Das during a kirtan singing with Neem Karoli Baba’s image in the foreground. KrishnaDas.com
Then, two-and-half years later, it was time for him to leave. He describes his departure from the ashram as a moment of great trepidation, for he didn’t know what he would do once he was back in the US. His concern was how to serve the Baba who opened his eyes to a beautiful and enriched world. He would later state that those concerns were laid to rest by Baba himself. He says that the idea that he can sing for the Baba in the US struck just before he was about to leave.
He says he asked Neem Karoli Baba, “Maharaj-ji! How can I serve you in America?” “’He looked at me with mock disgust and said, ‘What is this? If you ask how you should serve then it is no longer service. Do what you want’,” writes Das.
Das writes that after some time the Baba looked at him smilingly and asked, “So, how will you serve me in America?”
“The words came to me, ‘I will sing to you in America’,” writes Das.
A young Krishna Das reading books during his stay at the ashram. KrishnaDas.com
But it was not until 20 long years had passed till he actually became a name in singing Hindu devotional songs across United States. In 1996, Das released his first devotional album – One Track Heart. This came two years after he started leading the chant at Jivamukti Yoga Centre in New York. Then one after the other albums kept rolling out and Das’ popularity as a kept going northwards. Today, Das is the most popular American singer of Hindu devotional songs.
Most of his songs are dedicated to Lord Hanuman and he has sung many variations of the Hanuman Chalisa.
Accompanied with a mix of western and Indian musical instruments, Das has come to be known as the ‘rockstar of yoga’.
His 2012 album, Live Ananda, was nominated for the 2013 Grammy Award for Best New Age Album. He didn’t win but then he performed live at the Grammy Award ceremony winning the hearts of the audiences. Oh, and he always wears red-colour clothes, symbolic of the colour of Lord Hanuman.
As far as his voice (that baritone comparison with Big B) is concerned, listen to this Hanuman Chalisa rendition by Krishna Das.