A lot of OB8 here
Jenn PellyMay 10 2017
Ashrams, physically speaking, are not easy to reach. Traditionally set at some remove, they are expanses of nature and silence and deliberate living that involve meditation, yoga, and communal meals. They instill a pleasant buzz. To visit the Sai Anantam Ashram, which Alice Coltrane founded and directed from 1983 until her death a decade ago, required a winding and mountainous Southern California drive; one could easily miss the gate. When you approached the entrance, as Franya J. Berkman wrote in her 2010 book Monument Eternal, the music of Coltrane and her devotees floated up from speakers set beside the dirt driveway.
Coltrane’s rare ashram tapes have long been mythical. In the mid-1970s—after a rich musical life steeped in Detroit churches and bebop piano, as an accompanist to her husband John and over a decade composing her own visionary cosmic jazz—Coltrane began to retreat from public and secular life. The pain of John’s sudden death from liver cancer in 1967 set this path. “I.H.S.,” from her album Huntington Ashram Monastery, stood for “I have suffered.” Coltrane—harpist, mother of four, Black girl Virgo, a woman who conferred with Stravinsky in her meditations—had shared a life with heaven incarnate. When heaven went away, she created heaven on Earth.
In 1969, Coltrane’s life was irrevocably changed when she heard the guru Swami Satchidananda speak at a New York church. Not long after, she moved her family from suburban Long Island to San Francisco and then finally Agoura Hills, Calif. There, she founded the ashram, wrote diffuse spiritual texts, appeared on public access television, and made four collections of exquisitely singular devotional music. Coltrane producer Ed Michel, in a 2002 feature for Wire magazine, recalled how she flummoxed her major label: “When Alice wanted to record the things which were essentially chanting by her students, the Warner Brothers project supervisor would say, ‘What’s this about? Why are you doing this to me?’ I’d reply, ‘I’m not doing this to you. We’re dealing with an artist who has a will of tungsten.’”
Moses Sumney | Pitchfork Music Festival Paris 2017 | Full Set
Coltrane self-released the songs on cassette, producing only a few hundred copies of each for ashram members: 1982’s Turiya Sings, 1987’s Divine Songs, 1990’s Infinite Chants, and 1995’s Glorious Chants. Turiya Sings—the finest among them, with appealingly distant strings, as if Coltrane were mystically levitating above her lo-fi arrangements—marked the first time she sang on tape (because, she said, God had asked her to). Made with the humble intentions of nourishing her community, Coltrane’s ashram music was naturally lost in time.
With the Luaka Bop label’s Ecstatic Music compilation, selections from the tapes are widely available at last. These sublime ensemble recordings reflect not just the result but the process of deep enlightenment. Coltrane, performing with ashram members, illuminates Hindu devotionals with meditative Indian instrumentation, a sparkling Oberheim OB-8 synthesizer, droning Wurlitzer lines, and full-bodied singing evoking the Detroit church choirs of her youth. This was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century bringing a completely unusual confluence of experience (classical training, Baptist church playing, jazz, improv) to prayer songs worshipping Krishna and Rama. With their widened musical scope, they feel more like prayers for humanity.
As Berkman wrote in Monument Eternal, “[Coltrane’s songs] are at once African American and South Asian. Their histories can be traced to religious revivals spanning India’s medieval period, as well as to cultural formations that coalesced in the New World among the descendants of African slaves.” Coltrane’s spiritual fusion music reflects the borderlessness that is manifest in her open religious philosophy of Universal Consciousness. It all made for sacred music that was as exacting as it was exalted. The songs are shaped with astonishing melodic nuance, precise rhythms, and irresistible harmonies, creating a new genre for her new consciousness. You might call it “ananda gospel.”
Hers is a voice that you want to believe could heal the entire world one person at a time. Its considerable power gets at the great consequence of this music. Coltrane sings over a dense cloud of sitar and drones on “Rama Rama” and over the majesty of her dazzling harp on “Er Ra.” Listening to “Om Shanti” is nothing less than an act of self-care. Once a deep cut from Divine Songs, it’s the anchor of this comp. Coltrane’s low, lucid voice—a mix of serenity and strength that is life-giving to behold—bursts as if pouring through clouds. According to the Vedas, “om” is the sound the universe made when it was created, and it continues on humming in our ever-expanding world today. Coltrane takes this primordial “om” and makes its reverberations feel visceral. This is music that will make you feel the air clarifying in your lungs, that will sweeten your breath.
Not unlike a meditation practice, the idea with chanting is to still the mind. You repeat lines of Sanskrit together to embody rhythms and create vibrations. Several tracks—“Om Rama,” “Rama Guru,” “Hari Narayan”—place Ecstatic Music into this collectivist context, performed by a large group, clapping and shaking bells, working into a forceful trance. Like any music deploying repetition to euphoric effect—hardcore, techno, minimalism, doom metal—chanting is transcendent and endless. The recordings here elucidate the magnetic pull of these utopian ashram environments; they are the opposite of the void. Even the nearly 11-minute “Journey in Satchidananda,” which bears little resemblance to Coltrane’s similarly-titled astral jazz masterpiece, contains a peculiar release despite its funereal atmosphere and operatic drama.
There is a man named Krishna Das who was once a member of the Blue Öyster Cult. Since the ’90s, he has been considered the greatest star of spiritual music like this in the West; in 2012, he was nominated for the Best New Age Album Grammy for Live Ananda, similarly recorded with seekers at an upstate New York ashram. That collection, while gripping and lovely, underscores what is so enrapturing about Coltrane’s. The Das album is a devout performance. Coltrane, however, is not reenacting the sacred. She is searching within and pushing a personal sacred out of herself, twisting it into new shapes with audacity, conviction, and grace. Refracting the music through the complexities of her past, Coltrane’s sacred songs contain the story of a woman who suffered and survived, who led avant-garde ensembles and towering epiphanies, whose curiosity never left her.
I wonder about the people on these recordings with Coltrane. What led them to the ashram? What were they seeking? How long had they been looking? In the course of a human life, the search is never-ending. But here, in one hour, is the sound of a woman’s realized higher purpose. Ecstatic Music is her corporeal joy, and clarifies what the rest of her catalog suggests: Alice Coltrane is religion. Once you’ve felt it, the ashram is in you.