Music to Love the World Awake

Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge.

Today I speak with Craig Kohland. Craig is a visionary sacred music composer, producer, and performer. He’s also the director of the Shaman’s Dream World Groove Ensemble. Craig has created with sounds true three albums, Kerala Dream, Dance: Dream: Dance, and African Dream, as well as a remix with Jai Uttal entitled, Dial M for Mantra.

In this episode of Insights at the Edge., Craig and I spoke about music as a spiritual experience, the ritualistic aspect of music, and the role of music as a positive voice in the world. We also discussed and listened to three musical selections from Shaman’s Dream.

Here’s my conversation with Craig Kohland.

Tami Simon: Craig, I’ve heard you say that music is your spiritual practice, and to begin, I’m wondering if you can explain what that’s like for you, how music is a spiritual practice in your life.

Craig Kohland: Just through the very experience of playing music and being influenced by it, either through listening or dancing. And especially for me, what has been at the core of how I’ve played music has been playing it improvisationally. Since ’96, I’ve been working with Micheline Berry, a yoga teacher in Los Angeles. On a monthly basis, we put on ritual dance concerts, and for two hours, with a group of just awesome musicians, we would play improvisationally for dance, and for a ritual process.

Through the process of doing that, having to not know what was going to happen or what we were going to play, the process of being present and allowing, really, spirit to move through us, and to be guided by a creative process, and to be present to what was happening in the room with every person, and being flexible and spontaneous enough to move with the energy that was happening, I’ve just grown so much spiritually from that experience. Because it’s really a metaphor for being present, being open to really listening deeply to myself, to my environment, to the people I am in a process with. I have watched so much of where, you know, maybe a fear will come, and I will find the need to try to control the direction, and [then seeing] the stumbling that would create, and just opening back up and allowing the process of the music to really flow through me. I’ve just experienced some of the highest moments, really, in my life though that process.

TS: Now when you say that you perform in a ritual context, what makes it a ritual, and what’s the ritual for? Is it to accomplish some end goal?

CK: Well, one thing, just even for me in the creation of Shaman’s Dream, I have seen a real lack of a sacred ritual process in people’s lives. And it’s really what I was moved to work to create, is an environment where people could be in a sacred space, and through the use of music and dance and movement, they could tap into a ritual process—not a dogmatic one, but one that’s spontaneous and loving and creative. And I just feel we need to celebrate our lives and to have a place where we can shed the restrictions and constraints our daily lives bring. That’s the power of a ritual process, and where that can be provided.

Music is such a powerful tool because, for me, the minute I even start to listen to music, but especially when I start to play the drums, I go into an altered state or a trance state where I’m just really being moved by that energy. I do feel that people are in need of that, to let go of their mind constraints, just like in meditation. It’s really a moving meditation. Just when people listen to music, all of a sudden their head starts to bob to the beat and the body starts to sway, that is an amazing effect. The power of music has an amazing effect on our somatic beings. I just am in love with that experience, and love using the music as a tool to help facilitate people coming back in touch with their body and their being and their creative expression.

TS: One of the things I’m curious about, Craig, is the distinction between a musical performance—that’s a performance, the drummer’s drumming, they’re being moved by a greater sense of spirit if they’re any good—and a ritual space that’s intentionally created, a musical event that’s taking place in a ritual format. What’s the difference? What are you doing as the artist and the person who’s really invoking this ritual space? What are you invoking? What are you doing? What sets up the ritual?

CK: Well, just as an example, our environment, obviously we would create the container, being a space where it’s in— A lot of times we’ve used yoga studios, and we really create, inside that container, a really inviting environment, you know, with candles, with altars. One of the key things we’ve found is that we created it to be a no-talking space, where it wasn’t about coming in the room and talking and having conversations, but really entering into a space where people understood that, “Wow! This is the process that I’m going into.”

The difference, from the musician’s standpoint, is we’re not performers at all. We’re in the process as much as somebody coming in the room. Right away, in my life, I realized I didn’t want to be a performer. I really don’t have any interest (and it actually makes me really uncomfortable!) to just have people sit and watch me play, because my experience, especially with learning the traditions and the African cultures, is that there are no spectators, there is no music without a dance, and there’s no dance without a music. Everyone is involved, and so in a sacred ritual process, the musicians and the dancers, everybody is one. No one is separate. No one is trying to perform or impress you with anything.

We’re there together to really allow, from my perspective, to allow the healing energy of spirit and the powerful transformational energy of sound to really get us in touch with ourselves. Hopefully that facilitates a real creative expression. That’s why I really move toward improvisational music, because the spontaneity and the not-knowing just requires you to be fully present. That’s the place when it’s real and it’s authentic, and people need to experience, from my perspective, a really authentic, unrehearsed situation. That’s why I never was really that drawn to creating songs that I just played over and over the same way. I’m just a different artist that way.

TS: Now how does this approach—the approach of music coming through in a ritual format and the improvisational approach to music—relate to the creation of songs and CDs and the actual products you’ve created with Sounds True?

CK: All of the music, pretty much, just like in a live setting, all of the stuff that we’ve written is done in the same way. We really just sat down and started a process, just in the moment, and really allowed ourselves to see what came from that session. When we did our first album with you guys, Kerala Dream, it was based—and this is another thing that’s really important: a lot of my music has nature in it, pretty much everything I do, because I feel that’s really the basis of where all music is coming from. The rhythm, the melodies, the sound is all within nature.

So with Kerala Dream, we went to India with Shiva Rea on a journey to record her first DVD with Sounds True. I went, and we immersed ourselves in the culture, and I just recorded everywhere I went, whether it was nature or a village setting, or especially when we had a chance to record some master artists there. We just took all that data back home and just watched what it evoked in ourselves. And pretty much every one of those songs came from just playing in the spot; we didn’t go over again and change things or take things out. We pretty much took those first takes of whatever we played and used that.

TS: We’re going to hear a song now called “Durga Shakti.” Can you introduce that for us, Craig? Just tell us a little bit about the creation of this particular song.

CK: Yeah. Again, an amazing artist and singer, Lakshmi, came into the studio, and I just asked that everything that they did either come from a blessing, or a chant or a mantra that was really blessing the world. She came in and sang the mantra, as it would be more recited as a text out of a book, and sang it. When I brought it back home, I really just took each little phrase and then created a lot of space in between, and just added each next phrase in slowly and spaced out through the music. I just feel—that’s why I love the music of India. They are 100 percent clear that it’s based in spirituality, and the power of the sound in the Sanskrit has immense effects on our beings.

TS: Let’s listen. Here’s “Durga Shakti” from the CD, Kerala Dream. [Musical interlude.] Craig, were you the percussionist on that?

CK: No, actually I’m glad you asked. The tabla player is Girish. He’s a fairly well-known artist himself. I just feel so blessed to be working with such amazing artists, and obviously the whole Kerala Dream album is a project with my music partner, Rara Avis, and he arranged that song. It’s actually really nice to hear it in full again. It’s been a while.

TS: Now you and Rara form a band called Shaman’s Dream, right?

CK: Yeah. Shaman’s Dream ultimately was the project I started, and some of the first recordings— I’ve always collaborated with other artists. Ultimately I started with myself, but my first three albums were with Chuck Jonkey: Breathing, Bindu, and Prana. And then this project, specifically, was with Rara, and really we’ve pretty much done everything else from that point together. I’ve incorporated other producers: Jason Hann with African Dream, and Amani Friend with Rara and Jason and myself did dance : dream : dance together.

TS: And you live in L.A., right?

CK: I did, up until two and a half years ago, and then I moved to the Big Island of Hawaii.

TS: OK, because you know, I was thinking: how does somebody live in Los Angeles and contact this kind of space in their being to create from? I’m sure it’s possible, but it just seems like such a noisy environment. I’m curious what your sense of that is. You’ve lived on the Big Island; that tells us something.

CK: That’s always been— A part of how we’ve kind of designed our lives is we’ve, along with Micheline Berry again, is doing retreats into nature. That’s crucial for me. I really saw, actually, two and a half years ago, I just came to a pretty critical point in my life where I was definitely losing touch, and went through a difficult moment for myself. After fifteen years of L.A., I realized I really needed to immerse myself in nature again and slow the pace of my life down, because I was really, really starting to lose touch with what was important to me.

And so moving to the Big Island here has literally saved my life. It’s been so amazing to just drop myself back into nature and slow my life down again, and immerse myself in being in the ocean and breathing really clean air and drinking clean water. You know, so much of what I was trying to figure out in my head completely fell away the minute I just got in the ocean. It’s really helped. I just feel it is crucial for us to just step back into nature and really receive that insight that it gives.

TS: If you don’t mind, if I can ask a little more, it’s always interesting, and I think important actually, for other people to hear how people make it through “dark night” passages, if you will, in their life, especially artistic and sensitive people. I’m curious if you could share a little bit about what happened, and the emergence process.

CK: Absolutely. You know, outside of— It’s interesting. I had two different worlds. Obviously I had the music side of what I did. I also worked as a producer in producing commercials, music videos, and extremely, extremely high-stress scenarios. I was trying to do it all, you know? I’d run from shooting a commercial to go do a gig, and do these performances, and living a certain lifestyle and keeping all of that going, and making money, and spending a lot of money, and all of the things that go with it.

I just started really neglecting caring for myself, just taking the time to nourish myself in the ways that I needed to. That really started dropping into me drinking and taking drugs to try to de-stress the amount of how compacted I was getting, trying to keep it all together. You know? It just got to a critical mass. Thank God for the love of friends and people that step up and show up for us at these times. That was crucial, and I feel the effort that I put into creating community over those twelve years with Micheline really came to my aid and my salvation at a time when I really was losing touch with myself.

It got to a point where I even ended up in rehab, and that was a really tough moment, but crucial. Because you know we all want to think that we have it together, and when that illusion falls away and we’re left vulnerable and just bare to our soul, it seems like, “Oh my God! My life has fallen apart!” And thank God it did, because it gave me a chance to restart. You know, when you hit bottom, there you are! It just showed me what I needed to do. That’s really when I was clear.

Even coming out of rehab, I felt, “OK, I’m coming back into my life there,” and all the things were waiting for me, to say, “OK, Craig! Let’s go! Let’s get back into it!” And in a couple weeks, I thought, “OK, here I go!” but my soul was like, “I can’t do this. I’ve got to do something and shift this energy.”

I decided—I just came on a trip to the Big Island just to give myself some time, and Pele and the energy of this amazing sacred place just really took me in and showed me that this is where I needed to be to heal. That was a big decision for myself and my friends, because I had built a life [in L.A.]. I was walking away from an entire life that I’d built, and my friendships—not that I lost my friendships, it’s just that I didn’t have that support on a daily basis that I’d had. I was really coming here on my own. It was dealing with a lot of loneliness, but it also really helped me get back and be comfortable in my own skin again, and in touch with some self-love that I’d really lost.

Now, being here, it really re-clarified what was important in my life and what I really wanted to focus on. During that time, in this time, I’ve really gotten clear about the next stage for me. I feel I’m coming from a much more rooted place of my core than I was before. I feel from here what I have to offer is the strength of walking through something very difficult and coming out the other side, and it’s something I can help others with.

TS: Thank you for that genuineness. I’m curious, now that you’ve mentioned that you have this sense of clarity about what kind of energy you want to lead with in this next phase of your life, if you can tell us what that is?

CK: It’s definitely, as before, rooted in the power of music, and music as a vehicle to really be a voice in the world, and a positive one. I was just watching a documentary on apartheid, and one of the main artists during that time, he says that “Music is my weapon.” It’s not a weapon of violence, but a weapon that has the power to influence the emotion and the hearts of people to take positive action in their life. That’s it for me. I really want to inspire people, through music and dance and artistic expression, to really stand up for themselves, stand up for the things that inspire people to make healthy choices.

Just on a very practical level, a vehicle that we’re launching this fall is an online music digital download store called YogiTunes. It’s just a platform, yes, to sell music, but it’s music that has a positive message, and an artist—it really supports artists and people, yoga teachers, people in the world who are really dedicating their lives to helping others. We’ll be working with nonprofit organizations like Off the Mat and Into the World, Seane Corn’s organization, using the power of music to bring awareness to their work and just using it as a tool to help others.

TS: Craig, one of the things I love about the way you talk about music is that you immediately weave it together with music, dance, and the body, ritual, all together into one package. I want us to hear a song now from the record, African Dream. It seems like this unification of music, dance, ritual is part of what I, at least, associate with the music of Africa.

CK: Oh, my God, yeah! That’s the key. There is no separation, in the true music of Africa. It’s involved in every process, from birth until death and everything in between. It just is at the core of everything.

This is an amazing song. Abdou Mbaye, a singer from Senegal, he, Jason, and I were producing this album, and we had just an hour window, really, at one in the morning, of him traveling through L.A. He went to Jason’s house, and we had this track. We just put him in the isolation booth first thing, and he just started listening to this track, and immediately his little brother, who had just died recently, came to him. He started to sing creatively, just in the moment, all of the things of love he wanted to speak to his brother. That’s in the essence of this song, just the depth of love. Again, these are just affirmations when this is the first track we work on, and it was like, “Oh, my God! This is blessed, this project!”

TS: Let’s listen to “Rakandao” from African Dream. [Musical interlude.] What fun listening! Craig, there’s something I notice in the way that you speak, and also in the music of Shaman’s Dream: that there’s a certain amount of space, a certain amount of emptiness, even just in having this conversation with you, interesting pauses. I’m curious, for you, the relationship between listening—and listening in those spaces—and the creation of music, the creation of sound, how those two relate for you?

CK: It’s like meditation, you know? It’s really through the listening in the space that any of the insights or of the power of the music and the sound is going to come through from being empty, because if we’re just full and filling every space, then there’s really, for me, there’s no space for the spirit, and there’s no space for the mind and heart of a person to hear themselves. In just having that openness, [it] allows for the energy to be moved and touched that lives within that space.

TS: So as you’re preparing to participate in a music dance ritual with other people, or even just as you’re listening to tracks you’ve recorded, and bringing forth from them more layers of sound, what are your recommendations for people to get the most out of those experiences, to get the most out of listening? From your own experience, what can you recommend to other people, how they can find those spaces and listen more?

CK: I think that, just like anything, we allow. When we want to receive something, we create the space for it. We create the environment for it and allow ourselves to have kind of the bed to lie in, to really receive from, however anyone does that for themselves, whether it’s honoring a time in our day or in our life where we just set everything aside and just dedicate that time to receiving.

Even for me, all the time I need to just ask myself, “Am I really listening? Am I really receiving what’s happening, or am I multitasking and filling myself?” Sometimes stuff that’s created, or [I’ve] been a part of creating, you know, I’ll listen years later and realize, “Wow! I’ve never heard it this way!” because I’m just in a different place or I’m more open to receiving it. All of it’s a metaphor for life really, and music and receiving music is. There’s so much to learn from it.

TS: And it’s in that spirit that I’d love for you to introduce the last song that we’re going to listen to together. This is from your record, dance : dream : dance, and it’s called “Love the World Awake.” Can you tell us a little bit about this?

CK: Yeah. Actually, I was at some type of party at Shiva Rea’s house, and our entire community was there. It was really fun, and we were all just enjoying ourselves, and it just kind of broke into a spontaneous dance. It just kind of ended, and then I literally felt this kind of taking over, so to speak, and this energy, this being, came through in that moment. It was all about, “We’re here to love the world awake,” and everything that we do—through our words, our touch, how we move in the world—that’s the mission.

It’s really kind of my theme song of what I want to do as I live in this world. In everything I do, I want to love the world awake, awake to themselves and how beautiful they are. Again, this song was done in the moment. I had worked with Dominic Dean Breaux to do the flutes, and then Rara took it and did his masterful work to it. That’s this song.

TS: Well, what a fabulous theme song: “Love the World Awake.” Let’s hear the music. [Musical interlude.] Well, Craig, I definitely feel that talking to you today and hearing together these three songs from these Shaman’s Dream records has loved me a little bit more awake, so thank you!

CK: Thank you for the opportunity. I’m so grateful to be a part of Sounds True. I’ve loved—and it’s been a dream to be a part of that family, so thank you.

TS: You are a part. I’m going to ask you one final question before we say good-bye. Our program, this podcast series, is called “Insights at the Edge.” I’m curious, in your creative work right now, in your creative life, what the edge is for you?

CK: Hmmm. It’s really being true to myself every day, just really honoring what feeds me. Now I feel we’re always in that constant challenge to keep making the choices that support our true expression. And so, you know, from the minute I get up to the time I get to bed at night, I have my challenges each day, but I feel just it’s so important for us to give our gifts. My constant edge is just really breathing in the gifts that I have to give, and not limiting myself in everything that I do, stepping out and being as powerful in the world as I can be.

TS: Craig Kohland of Shaman’s Dream, thank you so much!

CK: Thank you!

TS: Thank you so much for bringing your heart forward, and your gifts, here through Sounds True. Craig and Shaman’s Dream are responsible for the creation of four records here at Sounds True: Kerala Dream, from which we heard the song, “Durga Shakti,” African Dream, from which we heard “Rakandao,” and then finally, here, from the CD dance : dream : dance, “Love the World Awake.” And Shaman’s Dream has also collaborated with Jai Uttal on a CD called Dial M for Mantra, that is also available through Sounds True. Thanks again, Craig, great-hearted Craig!

CK: Thank you!

TS: Many voices, one journey.

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