Forever

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Forever_Mahatma-Das

FOREVER CD cover image of Kusum Sarovar is courtesy Ananta Vrindavan das 

THE MAKING OF FOREVER

As a teenager, I spent endless hours with my guitar recording songs I wrote. But every song I wrote left me with a feeling of emptiness, a feeling that I needed to communicate something deeper than “Baby, I love you.”

It is said the two important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why you were born. By my 19th birthday, in May of 1969, the second important day still hadn’t yet arrived, and I was desperately waiting for it.

Then, in the fall of 1969, I seriously studied the Bhagavad-gita while in college as part of a ten-week philosophy course. This turned the lights on in my head. By the end of the course, I was ready to follow the Gita’s instruction of detachment.

I moved into an asrama, donated my guitars, and didn’t look back. Harmonium and Indian drums became my new instruments. My desire to play ordinary music, and spend endless hours recording, was buried under the bliss of kirtan.

Although I had externally given up my desire to produce music in exchange for the pleasure I found in kirtan, the seeds of that desire remained, and in 1986 those dormant seeds were watered when recording equipment, a synthesizers, singers, musicians, and an engineer all fell into my lap at once. Two weeks later, my first album, “Your Life Will Be Sublime,” an East-West fusion kirtan, was complete.

At this point in time, I was not aware that anyone had recorded East-West fusion kirtan yet, and it turned out to be well received, even by those not familiar with kirtan.

Music technology was rapidly advancing: synthesizers were becoming more sophisticated and the quality of recording gear was getting better and more affordable. This, along with the advent of computer-based music production, allowed one person to produce what sounded like a multi-instrumental production. This was a musicians dream. I couldn’t ignore it.

In 1989, Chris, moved into the asrama. He was a musician and an engineer, and, he was experienced with computers. With his help, I had the chance to get in on computer-assisted music production in its infancy. Chris and I spent the next two months setting up a studio, and recording my second and third albums, “Our Only Shelter,” and “The Brahma-Samhita.” The production quality was a marked improvement over the impromptu nature of the first album, albeit it was much more of a headache to get computer-based music production working. Actually, it was a total nightmare at this early stage of the game (we had to buy a different computer for each software program we wanted to use).

In 1992, Chris, now Krsna Caitanya, and I both ended up on the East Coast. Since he was my engineer (I didn’t have engineering skills then), and I couldn’t do another album without an engineer, we arranged to be together to record the album “Heart and Soul.” We only had two weeks to do it, and when we walked out of the studio with a less than perfect production, I told myself that I would never record another project unless I have my own studio.

Over the next five years I slowly gathered some decent recording gear and instruments. But shortly after I was off found to India and had sold all of my gear in order to fund the journey. Right before selling the gear and going to India, I produced a collection of children’s songs at the request of some friends. Now my wife and I were off on a pilgrimage – a spiritual retreat where we planned on practicing a life service, and kirtan, worship, and prayer. I pressed the pause button for a while on my recording career to focus on my spiritual practice.

While in India I was inspired by the many flawless melodies I had heard, and the musician that I am, I naturally began to think about doing another CD that would be as flawless and reflective as those inspirational melodies. I wanted this to be “perfect” CD, the one that Heart and Soul was meant to be. I made the decision to set up my own studio upon my return.

In 2001 the project officially took birth. What I thought I would finish within six months ended up taking thirteen years to complete. I needed the right musicians for each song, and it took time to find them, sometimes waiting years before finding them (sitar, tabla or bamboo flute) and everyone who sang on the CD I caught at a point in time that we were crossing paths. Plus I needed the right music for each song, and the right lyrics, and it took time for the inspiration to come. I remember one day on the beach in Baja California writing the lyrics to “Maybe.” After the entire day I got one line. But it was the perfect line! I wasn’t rushing this project.

Also, I needed to learn engineering as now I had my own studio and Krishna Caitanya lived far away from me. And I was trying for a standard I had not achieved before. To this everything took much longer than expected. Plus, during this 13 years, the project got put on hold numerous times due to my traveling and teaching, which began occupying more and more of my time. At some points, it appeared the CD would never be released.

It is a happy occasion to release Forever 13 years later, especially because I was not certain it was going to finally see the light of day. This CD has a lot of heart and soul poured into it. I hope you enjoy it.

Below is interesting behind the scenes detail about the making of Forever

This project was to fulfill my desire to create the “perfect recording.” Now I had my own studio, I could take the time needed to make things exactly the way I wanted.

I was living in Dallas at the time and there were a number of demo studios, studios that would put together basic tracks for original songs that people took to them. I found this to be the most time and cost efficient way to begin the project since I was still building up my studio when I started. I contacted a studio and went to see the owner to discuss the project. It turned out that the studio was in a church complex that housed the studios for the church music director, and the video production room for the church TV show. When I explained the nature of the project (mantras, songs based on Indian spiritual teachings, etc.) to the studio manager, who was also the youth choir director of the church, he felt really uneasy. He flatly refused saying he couldn’t do it in good conscience.

He had an excellent studio, and was a good engineer and arranger, so I really wanted him to do it. Attempting to reach out to him on common ground, I began to talk to him about myself and my life. As we talked on spiritual topics, he began to see that I wasn’t the person he initially thought me to be. In fact, he found the way I lived my life to be a lot more spiritual than his! Still, it was difficult for him to accept the idea of working on a spiritual CD that wasn’t Biblically based. When we parted, he said he really liked me and that he would think about it.

He called the next day telling me he was ready to work on my project (he also desperately needed the income)! It turned out that half of the time we worked together, we ended up having spiritual talks. I could see that it was eye opening for him to realize that there are people who don’t profess to be Christians, but who live very spiritual lives.

My project was a challenge for him. He had never done anything like it before. He did a great job laying basic tracks to three songs, “Govinda Jaya Jaya,” “We are Forever,” and “Maybe.” On “Radha Madhava,” which we also decided not to include on this CD (choosing rather to release it on a compilation CD called “Everything Mahatma”), he couldn’t figure out how to complete it the way I wanted, and thus in the middle of the production he gave up on it. Luckily, we were able to enlist the aid of the church music director, who had a studio across the hall, to help finish it. The music director was a real pro. He easily laid down the tracks needed to finish the song.

There were two other songs that were part of the budget, which he couldn’t finish because of time constraints. The reason was that his father became seriously ill after we started the project, so he was constantly away from the studio in order to be at the hospital. Then, on what was to be our last session to finish the project he got a call from the hospital that his father had died. He ran out of the session, and that ended up being the last time I worked with him (and, he had already gone far beyond the time he originally estimated).

One of the most important songs that he was meant to work on, but couldn’t finish, was an orchestrated version of a Bengali melody for the Hare Krishna mantra. I had worked out the chords and composed a scratch orchestral mix to give him an idea of what I was looking for (I wanted something that sounded like a score for a movie). I didn’t have the skills to pull it off the way I was hearing it in my head, so I decided to call my good friend Badahari Das, because I knew he could do it. I was in Dallas at the time, and he was in Florida, so we discussed the ideas for the song at length on the phone. Then I sent him the demo and left it up to him to use his own creativity.

The result was “Queen Kunti,” a richly orchestrated composition – something that I had dreamed of doing for years because I had never heard an orchestral kirtan (and something I am very happy with). Many thanks to Badahari, who worked many more hours on this song than he originally anticipated, and who completely put his life and soul into it.

Years earlier, a friend of mine from Santa Barbara, Sarvatma Das (we are sometimes known as the Atma brothers) made friendship with an extraordinary pianist named Antonio Artese, and he was willing to help us produce a CD. So we discussed the idea of doing a CD of devotional songs and chants backed by Antonio on piano. Sarvatma went to the recording studio at the University of Santa Barbara with Antonio and they recorded tracks on a grand piano for five devotional songs. We never did the CD, but I was able to use one of the tracks on my project for kids, and one track on Forever titled “Sri Guruvastakam.” I thought of adding other instrumentation to it, but every time I brought one of my musician friends into the studio they would say that he is such a good pianist that nothing more is needed. I think you’ll agree when you hear the song.

When living in India in the late 90’s, every morning when my wife would do puja, an ancient form of worship and I would sing mantras and prayers, accompanied by harmonium. After a few days, I spontaneously began chanting the mangala carana (auspicious invocation) to a raga that I hadn’t formally learned but had picked up by osmosis somewhere along the way (I think from George Harrison’s song in the late 60’s called “Within You Without You”). Anyway, the mangala carana fit in well with that raga and that became my default chant every morning that accompanied my wife’s puja.

I loved both the prayers and melody, and wanted to do something special and upbeat with it. So I began laying down tracks of tabla, keyboard, and guitar. Then it all finally came together when my friend, and renowned bassist, Purusartha, came over and put down the bass tracks.

The story of Raga Kirtan is interesting. Long before I started working on this project I was recording a project for a friend named Mukunda Datta who was singing classical South Indian kirtan and mantras. During that time, one evening we had a public kirtan and he sang a special melody that was so sweet and mystical that everyone present became mesmerized. I told him we definitely should record that kirtan. That week we did.

I liked that kirtan so much that I decided I wanted to put it on my CD (he never released his CD). So we took the basic tracks Mukunda recorded (harmonium, tabla, tambourine, and kartals), and added bass, keyboard, guitar, and vocals, and then redid the drum track with mrdanga. So this very sweet and traditional raga took on a modern, and even sweeter flavor.

Whenever I needed guitar or bass, my friend Dhirodatta would gladly come over and lay down tracks. He did this on the above-mentioned Kirtan, ” Forever,” “Radha Madhava,” “Govinda Jaya Jaya” and “I Am” (my former engineer Krsna Caitanya played bass on “I Am”). Plus, I would often borrow his “golden ears” to check my mixes.

I love to chant the name Govinda. I find it so sweet. Thus, the song “Govinda Jaya Jaya” is one of my favorites. I wanted to represent musically and vocally the sweetness I feel when I say the name Govinda, and so I spent much time working on this song to create a musical backdrop to represent those feelings, and to arrange the song in a way that it would inspire others to chant it with me.

The kirtan at the end of the song is a very special and soothing melody. I came up with this melody in 1985, and it was supposed to be on a project I was working on at the time with a friend, an especially talented composer. Unfortunately, he couldn’t finish the project, but this melody remained in my heart and I still hoped to someday record it. Seventeen years later this melody was finally recorded, and now I am so happy to see it reside on “Forever.”

The song ” Forever” embodies the essence of the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita. I wanted to express these teachings in a way that would be accessible to a wide audience, and one that would resonate with them. It is sweet and relaxing, and I am happy I was able to present the message in simple, easily digestible poetry.

The way the idea for the song “Maybe” came to me is interesting. It started out as a melody without words. The melody sounded similar to something Sting would do, and at the time, I had heard a song by Sting in which one of the lyrics was “a thousand years, a thousand more.” That triggered me to write a song that began with the words, “If I had a thousand years.” The words to this song were carefully chosen, and were written over a period of about a month. It is a song that has a special place in my heart.

“I Am” is a song of English verses from the Gita that describe how to see Krsna (God) in nature. For many years, I loved to sing English translations of the Gita, and thus always considered doing a professional production entirely of Gita verses in English poetry. Although I never fulfilled that project, I am happy that I have at least completed one track of Gita verses.

I set out with the intention of doing a bit of a rock opera type thing that ended up sounding something like the Beatles (what can I say, I grew up in the 60’s). After spending so much time on this song, I still wasn’t satisfied. It needed a better rhythm track. So I gave the song to Badahari Das along with some sense of what I wanted. Once again, he did his magic. The result is a modern pop song with ancient lyrics – a crossing of two time zones, 5000 years apart. I love this song, and I think you will too.

The producing of “Radhe Shyam Shyam” was a divinely inspired accident. I asked Krsnaa, an amazing vocalist, if she would sing on “Queen Kunti,” as it needed a female vocalist. When she finished work on this track, I asked her to sing on some of the other songs since I loved her voice. So we went through all of the tracks, trying to decide which songs she should sing. However, after listening to all of the songs, she suggested I not include two of them on the CD. I was not especially excited about the prospect of those two songs either, and so I agreed with her opinion. Now though, this left space on the CD for another song or two, but I had no other recorded material that I thought was good enough to use as filler.

At that time (this is now ten years after starting the project), I had composed a melody for the chant “Radhe Shyam” that I was absolutely in love with. After I worked out the song, I jokingly told my wife, “I just wrote a Grammy award winning song” because the song was so catchy and uplifting. But since I was finishing my CD, which I had been trying to complete for years, I wasn’t in the mood to record any new songs. Now that we had space for another song on the CD, I played the song for Krsnaa on the piano, along with some ideas for lyrics I had been toying with. She loved the song so much she said that we should definitely record it. We then, on the spot, worked on the lyrics, which she refined later that evening. The next day we laid down a demo of the song to get a feel for it. We loved it.

We had pretty specific ideas on the song, and we conveyed those to Badahari Das. He perfectly translated those ideas into an arrangement that did magic to the song. This “afterthought song” may very well prove to be the most popular song on the CD.

As it turns out, this project has been my longest running project to date, having to start and stop numerous times throughout the years. During the thirteen years that I worked on this CD, I sometimes doubted that I would ever bring all of the tracks to a standard I would be satisfied to release.

I hope you enjoy it.

Yours Forever,

Mahatma Das