What the Heck is “Rock On Sat Nam,” Anyway?

The traditional path of spiritual commitment certainly demands (or at least, strongly suggests) that we cultivate peace within ourselves, through our connection to God/Source. And the iconic ideal of the meditating yogi who practices traditional kirtan chanting is central to what we know as “the Bhakti music scene,” and the majority of the music from wonderful artists such as Krishna Das, Snatam Kaur, Girish, Deva Primal & Miten, Tina Malia, Shantala, Sacred Earth, and so many other chant artists we know and love, reflects this peaceful contemplative setting and mood. Larisa and the tribe have plenty of gentle yoga music, too.

However, we in Shakti Tribe have come to understand in ourselves, our communities, and the world, that spiritual growth is not always a “peaceful” process, and there will be a great number of situations and energetic challenges that require us to navigate along the way of our individual and collective paths with raw emotion. Sometimes our spiritual path can present obstacles that bring us to our knees and challenge us, emotionally, physically and spiritually. In other words – life is hard! But staying the course is crucial, to the one who is committed to this work in their life. 

So – what does that have to do with Shakti Tribe? Everything!

It would be difficult to understand the genre-busting “Rock On Sat Nam” album without first knowing its origins. From the beginning days of Shakti Tribe, Larisa and the band had wanted to do service work by bringing our music and message to people in prisons. We were committed to sharing the principals of unconditional love, forgiveness, self-acceptance and self-actualization, and we knew without a doubt that we could make a difference in these people’s lives — that with a little love, these incarcerated souls could find hope in their own hearts, and a reason to seek out the highest for themselves and their families and communities.  Lo and behold, we got our wish, yay! and soon we were traipsing 5 or 6 musicians and a couple of carts of gear through the security protocols of a number of different jails and prisons in southern California.

Picture this scenario: as we faced an audience of men slouched back in their chairs, tattoos of teardrops in the corners of their eyes, their arms crossed defensively… and here we are, a little rock band with our fair white maiden out front, come to sing these gentlemen songs of love and devotion!… we faced a new problem, one we had not anticipated previously: there was a cultural gap. And so, as a group we figured the fastest way for us to close that gap was to create some music that was harder and edgier than anything we’d done before (and concurrently, harder and edgier than any other mantra musicians at the time were making!), for our band to be more relatable to this very special audience. In order to maximize this blessed opportunity and create the greatest change for the highest good, we had to meet the prisoners where they were.

So – the band took it to the woodshed. We locked ourselves in the rehearsal room and started jamming and carving out the musical motifs that would become “Rock On Sat Nam.” At the time, one of our fans had mentioned that we were, in his words, “the Led Zeppelin of kirtan.” Needless to say we were flattered, and inspired with that vision. The song “Kashmir,” with its majestic orchestral texture, was a fulcrum point of inspiration, a sonic bridge between our sacred world music and the deep visceral rock creativity of Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones. Benj and Kimo were creating wonderfully stark and dramatic riffs, Larisa was mining a rich vein of powerful “shake-you-up” lyrics, and Marti Walker contributed a beautiful passage featuring the Hanuman Chalisa mantra. And Richard Hardy plays a staggering riff on his bass clarinet, an unusual instrument in any setting, much less a rock band.

Prophetically, Larisa’s family pet cat Kashmir was ailing, and reaching the end of his days. On the final night of our “intensive creative” rehearsal/writing sessions for “Rock On Sat Nam,” little Kashmir kitty walked off into the night to have his death in private, never to be seen again.

Well, it turns out that our heaviest anthem, “Rock On Sat Nam,” did indeed create the kind of response we wanted from our incarcerated audiences — as a powerful show closer, it brings the prisoners to their feet, their fists pumping the air and chanting the Sanskrit mantra that speaks the emphatic and cathartic truth of our being — Sat Nam, our true spiritual nature. And it turns out that our un-imprisoned fans love it, too, as “Rock On Sat Nam!” is requested via shouts from the audience at every show we play. 

We know that, even as we work to cultivate within ourselves the highest vision of spiritual growth, that even the most devoted yogis and yoginis sometimes just want to ROCK OUT. Larisa and the Tribe are here to tell you – you can have both at the same time. ♡

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Benj Clarke

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