Day 3 of Mahashivratri Gossip – Sounds of Isha: Beyond the Music
Not just music or a melody, their rhythm can be a doorway to the depths of sound or to the peak of ecstasy. Together they are one. A behind-the-scenes peek at Sounds of Isha – Isha’s homegrown band of musicians.
Maha Mahashivratri, 2017
This year, the entire ensemble of Rajasthan Roots will play with Sounds of Isha. They have arrived ten days before this mega-event to rehearse and to soak in the ashram atmosphere!
As in previous years, the boom of drums continues to be the soundtrack for this Mahashivratri. While typically, three or four drums are used, this year 25 big drums will be part of the ensemble! We will also witness the spectacle of 5000 volunteers playing damrus* together in sync with Sounds of Isha.
This year, Kailash Kher will be performing a special new piece, composed specifically for this night. In the meantime, check out Sounds of Isha performing the enchanting Naiharwa.
Breathing an ethereal dimension into simple rustic sounds from life around to give us a taste of the beyond… that’s the magic of Sounds of Isha.
Their sound is a fusion of music seamlessly bridging cultures. Their tunes are captivating, their music foot-tapping, but the true potential of their songs is in their capability to instill an element of the eternal silence that resides in the core of the human being.
*The damru is a small two-headed drum. It is Shiva’s most favored instrument, and said to represent cosmic sound.
For the Devotees, By the Devotees
An Isha Brahmachari shares: “I had an opportunity to be in Thiruvannamalai as part of Sounds of Isha for the Adiyogi concert. The audience was devotees… thousands who were participating in the Girivalam that night.
Parallel to Sounds of Isha’s dais, just across the road we placed Adiyogi’s face. People walking by would just stop in front of his face... and at one point a crowd ran across the road and gathered in front of it. The devotion in that place was so explicit. Throughout the night, many of the devotees were singing along with us to the songs from Devaram. It felt like every song we did that night, especially Thiru thondarthogai*, was an offering – not just to Adiyogi but also to his devotees.”
*Thiruthondar thogai is a composition by the Nayanar poet Sundarar that lists 63 sacred devotees of Shiva, and in which the poet declares himself to be a devotee of the devotees.
When Faced With the Unexpected
The concert in Thirunalveli was a testament to the volunteers’ commitment and dedication to making the event happen. Though volunteers had only three days to announce the concert, more than 2000 people attended even at such short notice.
In addition to the last minute arrangements, Sounds of Isha’s sound engineer, Vivek, was asked to play the khol (Indian drum)* because the band’s lead percussionist had to stay back in the ashram to meet a deadline. So the band had to practice more vigorously to train their newest drummer for his first ever performance on the day of the event itself!
“Somehow, despite everything, we got the sound right and we got the songs right. Some songs were a little faster than they were supposed to be. Apart from the concert-goers, our residents and some volunteers were also there and even their feedback was that it was one of the most energetic of our three concerts!” - Vivek Cheruku, Sound Engineer, SOI
*Khol is a two-sided terracotta drum from eastern India used in devotional music. One side is far smaller than the other.
Adiyogi Awareness Concerts: An Offering That Touched Thousands
In Thiruvannamalai, Sounds of Isha made an offering of songs to the Girivalam* devotees at the Arunachaleswarar Temple. We played a mix of Adiyogi songs, songs from the album Trigun, and traditional Shiva songs from Devaram#.
“The crowd basically comes only for the temple. The kind of people who come here are hardcore... I’d say they are Shiva fans. When we were performing our songs, I observed that it was marathon-like situation – it was a moving crowd, they were not static. Just from the numbers the volunteers told us, I think we would have touched around 50,000 people on that day. Each devotee would have heard at least two of our songs and then carried on their way.” – Bharadwaj, percussionist, SOI
Girivalam is the circumambulation of the hill where the Arunachaleswarar temple is located. The history of the temple dates back to thousands of years. In most holy places the deity is found atop the hill. But here the hill itself is the deity – Lord Annamalaiyar, also known as Arunchaleswarar, another name for Shiva. ‘Arunachalam’ means the holy hill that is red in color. The hill is 2668 ft. high. Performing Girivalam every full moon night is considered auspicious and devotees come in many tens of thousands.
#Devaram or Tevaram denotes the first seven volumes of the Tirumurai, the twelve-volume collection of Tamil Saiva devotional poetry. They are dedicated to three most prominent Nayanars, 7th-century poets Sambandar, Tirunavukkarasar and Sundarar. Devaram is traditionally sung in Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu.
Sounds of Isha on the streets of Paris
Zila Khan to the Rescue!
2006, Mahashivratri: One of the artists scheduled to perform that evening had to leave early. Sufi singer Zila Khan had also been invited to perform (for the first time). When the other artist left, suddenly there was an empty time slot to fill, and Sadhguru indicated for Sounds of Isha to come on stage. Because they had a limited set of songs, this unexpected turn of events left them bewildered. Still, they went onstage and started playing. Seeing them struggle, Zila Khan simply jumped onstage and started to sing some alaaps alongside the band. It was an invigorating jugalbandi, and soon, the crowd was on its feet!
"I'm a musician and I play the flute. I've been traveling in Mongolia for the past couple of months, learning some folk music towards establishing my style. But when I hear Sounds of Isha, it makes me want to keep exploring different styles. The band has so many different aspects of music that they manage to blend fluidly, it's just so inspiring." -Jenn Yujing Shi, Vancouver, Canada
A Magical Pournami
"During the Anaadhi program at the US ashram, we were lucky to celebrate Buddha Pournami in a pretty magical way... I still remember dancing outdoors to the crazy drums, the haunting notes of the violin, all under a full moon! Sounds of Isha made it a night to remember..." - Josh Berwald, Atlanta, USA
Invoking the Ancient One
"At a recent Sadhguru darshan, there was this song about Adiyogi that Sounds of Isha played at the close... it was so unique, like nothing I'd heard before, but it also seemed like something devotees would've played hundreds of years ago, maybe in front of an ancient temple. That's the image I had in my mind as they played it. It's an image I won't soon forget." - Pragyan Sharma, Mumbai
"Ever since I heard their music, I have been mesmerized by it. I have been to the yoga center and I thought, this is the right time to involve them with my show.” – Tarun Tahiliani, fashion designer, Facebook comment.
“It is music that touches the inner core, and everyone in the world should get a chance to hear it; it needn’t be exclusively for Isha meditators.” – Sumi Maddireddy, Facebook comment.
“Sounds of Isha Music is probably the simplest path and recipe, it is very accessible to my inner landscape. It deepened my gratitude, joy and connection with people, the universe and everything. I feel very blessed and I am really impressed with the serenity and devotion of the living examples of all the teachers and musicians and their inner radiant joy.”
– Heather, Mauritius, Inner Engineering participant, shared on FB
Have a peep into Sounds of Isha's recording studio - Perfecting the Rhythm
A meditator, Utkarsh, shares his experience of penning a song for Sounds of Isha:
This was in 2007. I was watching the animated movie Ratatouille at a theatre when I got a call from the ashram. It was Shekhar anna (if you follow Sounds of Isha, then you know he’s the magical flutist of the band).
So Shekhar anna goes, "Utkarsh, we want you to write a song on your favorite subject... the Guru!"
I was excited! “Great,” I said. “When do you need it by?” I assumed I would get a day or two at least. "Actually... we are about to start practice in a short while. Why don't you write something and mail it. Then we'll compose and Maa Janani will sing."
Oh. My. God. In five minutes I was headed home. I had no idea what I was going write... and it was going to be a song on Sadhguru!
As I waited in traffic, one line came and went… "Ho chuka hai jiska anth. Aur hua nahi jo shuru."* My heart started racing. That's how I thought of the Mahadev. And that's how I thought of Sadhguru. Now I needed a beginning! I was trying to think of descriptions besides the beautiful but overused ‘Gurur Brahma...’
Then it came... there was this Doha of Kabir... Guru Govind dou khade... Kaake laagu paay...** Oh yes! I thought. But what was the second line?? Luckily my sister-in-law was able to provide the answer on the phone and I had an opening, but no lyrics yet!
When I finally made it home, I ran to my laptop and started typing. Twenty minutes later I read out a song to Shekhar anna over the phone. He listened and asked me, “You wrote this? Now?”
To this day I don't have a clear memory of writing that song... I only remember that I hit the keys on my laptop. And I had the fortune of being the first one to read it.
Such is his way, I guess. He takes care of everything. It had nothing to do with me.
*That which has ended, and that which hasn’t begun
**My guru or god himself, who do I bow down to first? I choose my guru for he has shown me the way to God.”
Their enthralling music can transport you to the threshold of meditativeness. Though they remain tranquil and poised, their beats can get thousands of people on their feet, dancing ecstatically for an entire night. Tune in for a unique day-long live blog and get to know some of the most exuberant players of this year’s iconic Maha Mahashivratri.
Offering to Gautama Buddha
For Buddha Poornima in 2013, Sounds of Isha composed this special song. It describes Buddha’s life – as a prince, his renunciation, his struggles, and finally, his attainment under the Bodhi tree.
The Song of Coach S3
And sometimes, songs just fall into place…
"This rhythm is like the rhythm of a moving train. The track came together during a long train journey, when one of us was trying out a Native American flute. We called it S3 because that's what our compartment was called, and I remember how a whole crowd gathered to listen to this jam – it went on for a really long time."
Have a peep into Sounds of Isha's recording studio - First Draft
A truly blessed moment with Sounds of Isha
During my trek to Kailash last year, we were sitting in front of Sadhguru at Kailash. The SOI percussionist and vocalist were performing in the freezing cold for more than an hour with no break... I remember thinking, 'How are they just ON like this?' Later I realized that they were not tired at all, and were riding Sadhguru's grace... It was a truly blessed moment with Sounds of Isha."
- Pam, Youngstown, Ohio, USA
Response to allegations against Isha Foundation
A few days ago, some vested interest groups filed petitions making baseless allegations about the 112-ft Adiyogi statue. This is a response to these frivolous claims. Read article.
Sound-storming with an Enlightened Master
“Mostly, the songs we write are inspired by Sadhguru. But sometimes he gives very specific input on how it should be. For example, let me tell you what happened in the Mahabharat program:
Sadhguru wanted a theme song that could be repeated for the entire program. So he sat along with us and he asked us to come up with words...he was giving us ideas. He’d tell us in English and ask us to find the Sanskrit equivalent. The same happened with the tune, that’s how the ‘Bharatam Mahabharatam’ chant was composed.”
- Bharadwaj, Percussionist
The First ‘Anomalous’ Musical Members
The skeptical IITian
"I was enjoying my work, not consciously in search of anything particular, mocking at all of religion and spirituality, reading a book or two just to see if this mass-following of religion and/or spirituality made any sense at all.
That was the time when my sister attended the Isha Yoga program after going through a low point in her life. All the life that we had been trying to bring back into her for over a year came back just in 3 days! That was something I couldn’t refute, even though her explanations of the program didn’t make much sense.
So, I decided to check it out and, as Rumi says, ‘I thought this was a wave and stepped into it. But it turned out to be an ocean and it swept me away.’ - Sekhar, IIT Madras, SOI Flutist, Singer, Song Writer
Have a peep into Sounds of Isha's recording studio - New Ideas
My Best Memory of Sounds of Isha
In 2014, I was volunteering for the Inner Way program with Sadhguru. At the close, I was really sad that it was over... suddenly SOI blasted the hall with Alai Alai, and the next I knew I was dancing my heart out. Tears of joy and ecstasy just poured down. Unforgettable moment. - Aishwariya Saigal, New Delhi
Have a peep into Sounds of Isha's recording studio - Creating the song
The First ‘Anomalous’ Musical Members
Swami Kevala shares, “Since I was 16 or 17, I was always really interested in yoga. And after I finished my MA in mathematics at Nottingham University, I was working for an IT consultancy.
“Then I took a sabbatical, and not knowing what I was going to do, I landed up in South India. Within a day or two I met someone at random who had done the Isha class. I decided to do it. It was a 13-day course then and even when I look back at it now, it was the most transformational thing that has ever happened to me.
“I ended up spending a whole six months at the ashram! I didn’t move an inch! I decided then that I enjoyed being at Isha more than being back home. So, I went back to England, resigned, and returned to India.”
The First ‘Anomalous’ Musical Members
The lover of martial arts
Born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, Swami Ullasa had a passion for martial arts. “I started reading up on Kalaripayattu. And I discovered the story about when Bodhidharma went to China and started teaching the monks Kalari, what later became Kung Fu,” Swami Ullasa shares. “So I told my parents I was going to India to learn Kalari, and they were overjoyed! On my way to Kerala, I stopped by Coimbatore and started looking for yoga programs. I had four objectives: to learn Tamil, to learn the flute, to learn Kalari, and to learn yoga...”
From ‘Drums of Isha’ to ‘Sounds of Isha’
For a couple of years after the Drums of Isha was formed, they played informally for festival celebrations and ashram programs, with guidance from Sadhguru. Sometimes Sadhguru himself would instruct them, teaching them about the science of sound and its impact on the system.
“Initially, he used to hit his head and laugh because we used to mess up all the time,” says Swami Ullasa. “Then, after two years, he started giving us the thumbs up.”
2004: The Drums of Isha became Sounds of Isha.
The Early Noises Become ‘Drums of Isha’
2001: There was so much to do at the ashram that music practice was usually something squeezed in between washing dishes and watering trees. There was always one more thing to do – something more urgent.
“All of us were informally making music somewhere or the other—either singing, or banging on pots and pans, or something like that. One day Sadhguru called us all together and said, ‘Look, I’d like you all to make some pleasant noises.’” -Swami Ullasa
So the group began to meet a bit more frequently for rehearsals. Drums became a dominant feature of their sound and the ‘Noises of Isha’ morphed into ‘Drums of Isha.’
The Early Noises
Since the late nineties, some Isha volunteers would occasionally come together to play before Sadhguru at ashram celebrations. Their simple music was pure offering – just an expression of their devotion to the Master. Sometimes when Sadhguru invited them to take the stage, he would teasingly ask what noises they were planning to make!
Have a peep into Sounds of Isha's recording studio - Jamming with Rajasthan Roots
In 30 minutes, tune in for more!
Sounds of Isha: The sum of its parts
“When the whole band is together, we’re a group of about twelve to fifteen - we have people who play rudraveena, sitar, guitar, clarinet, flute, violin, and drums. Our vocalists can sing in Hindi, Urdu, Tamil and Arabic. Some of our drums are homemade, some are from Lebanon, and some of them are retired parts from the kitchen!”
- Vocalist, SOI