Sacred music for sceptics

The collection of Alice Coltrane’s most devotional music in one landmark release opens up a mysterious period of her life, and some home truths contained within mine.

In 1967, at the age of 30, the harpist Alice Coltrane lost her husband, the jazz titan John Coltrane, and endured what in Sanskrit are known as tapas—physiological penance and suffering. In her case, the suffering amounted to severe weight loss, sleeplessness, and hallucinations. Cast adrift with no anchor and a young family to care for, by and by she came into the orbit of Swami Satchidananda Saraswati, and his branch of Hinduism. By 1972 she was ready to withdraw from secular life, and in 1975, her health restored and her spiritual name of Turiyasangitananda (translation, “the transcendental lord’s highest song of praise”) adopted, she founded the Vedantic Center in California, the ashram which was to be her base for the remainder of her life.

At much the same time, but removed an ocean and a continent, the most mystic member of the Fab Four was also making waves in the burgeoning Renaissance Hinduism. By 1972, the International Society for Krishna Consciousnessness (ISKCON) had outgrown its central London location, arguably because of the aftershocks created by its celebrated adherent, George Harrison. Fortunately Harrison, who’d got them into this pickle, was also in a position to be their saviour. That year, he purchased a mock Tudor mansion for ISKCON in idyllic Hertfordshire, which they quickly rebooted as Bhaktivedanta Manor. Hertfordshire wasn’t far out of London, and it was certainly within easy reach of the suburbs that were gradually swelling with second-generation Indian immigrants, whose religious practices had already been rendered more receptive to change from years spent in the cultural melting-pot of East Africa.

I grew up in just such a suburb, the product of just such a second-generation immigrant family. Hinduism laid its wandering finger on every major event in our childhood, by way of ensuring prosperity and morality. The major festivals were observed by celebratory participation at the temple, and any newly purchased car or house necessitated a corresponding trip to there, to join in the bhajans and honour the deities. And that temple was Bhaktivedanta Manor.

I barely appreciated it at the time, but yes, I was brought up in the gravitational field of a pretty hippy-dippy take on religion.

In time, I went to university, met real theists, and didn’t much care for what I saw. Renouncing religion with fervour, I recast myself as a robust atheist, praying at the altar of Hitchens and Dawkins. But at much the same time, on a trip to India, I was introduced to the music of Flying Lotus, a.k.a. Steven Ellison, a.k.a. the nephew of… Alice Coltrane. Following the rabbit-hole, I soon embraced albums of Coltrane’s such as A Monastic Trio (1967) and Transcendence (1977), and I could not fail to recognise the irony of the situation.

(For completists, it’s worth noting that Swami Satchidananda’s teachings were not in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition to which ISKCON belongs. Nonetheless, both have a philosophical basis in the Bhagavada Gita, and their bhajans are not dissimilar.)

All of which brings us to the monumental release of World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, by Luaka Bop.

Once the Vedantic Center was up and running in the Agoura Hills, Coltrane was able to become a more hands-off leader. She had already decided to focus on devotional music—hence my slight embarrassment at enjoying the albums previously mentioned.  But as Chairwoman Emeritus, if you will, she was visited by three transcendental notions. First, that she should begin singing. Second, that she should bring non-traditional instrumentation to the Center’s Sunday afternoon bhajan. Third, that recordings of this music should only be distributed privately to other devotees. The combination of these changes was by all accounts rather special. For Surya Botofasina, a resident at the ashram, Sundays were the days “when time was not able to be calculated by the measures that we use today”.

Happily, the music in question was able to be recorded by the means that we use today. And now, these tapes have been restored to near-pristine quality, and lovingly presented on vinyl in a lavish (but not bling) gatefold.

Just as the ashram was built on originally-indigenous Indian land (but was nonetheless embraced by those indigenous families), so do the styles on display in these recordings invite cries of heresy. Opulent glissando swoops on her Oberheim OB-8 synthesizer abound, and clearly prefigure those employed by James Blake on “Voyeur” (2013). “Sita” Michelle Coltrane, Coltrane’s daughter, said of her mother’s liberal use of this instrument, “It was like the Pied Piper… when it does the eeeeuuuuuooooooobooom [sound effect], it’s reminiscent of the Om or the breath”. Some links to the past are more direct—the clinking of finger cymbals and the rustle of tambourines, for example, which take me back to my childhood hours spent at Bhaktivedanta Manor. The Wurlitzer organ parts are a delicious hybrid of Detroit gospel and Eastern chord progressions traditionally played on a harmonium.  Ed Michel, a producer who worked with her at that time, explained, “She came out of the Detroit musical culture and you don’t lose your roots because you step into a different spiritual river.”

The final side of this compilation sounds closer to the Hindu-suffused astral jazz we previously knew her for. There’s more harp, for one thing. Before this, however, there is a turning-point, in the form of a glacial rendition of “Journey in Satchidananda”, which adopts an aesthetic more comparable to Gary Numan or Depeche Mode. In contrast to the warmth and abandon of “Om Rama” (which one devotee, Purusha Hickson, described as “divine and primal at the same time”) or the tenderness of “Om Shanti”, this track is chilly and churchly and reminds me of a hymn like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. It’s perhaps a vestigeal reminder that though Coltrane embraced spiritual life, she’d suffered extreme loss.

Alice Coltrane’s take on Hinduism is complex, multi-faceted, and defies easy interpretation. That’s probably why I give it the benefit of the doubt, my hardline views sacrificed at the altar of genuinely-felt transcendental music. Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, said of her approach, “She may have something in common with people like Sun Ra or George Clinton who in some ways used the imagery of sci-fi and outer space and extraterrestrial civilisation as a metaphor for a type of liberation within the context of the civil rights movement.” If there are to be other volumes in this series, they may have to be beamed in from another universe if they are to compete with the high bar set by this release.


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