Comment: You are American by birth, yet you were raised mostly in South Asia and now through Aradhna travel the world and sing and play traditionally South Asian instruments. How did your unusual cultural background influence your sense of calling?
Chris Hale: My life in Asia as a child was positive for the most part. I had a loving relationship with my parents who were medical doctors in a remote village hospital. They let my brother Tom and me have a say regarding where we wanted to go to school, whether it was at home with them, or in Kathmandu, or at boarding school in India, a three-day journey away.
Speaking Nepali fluently gave me a sense of identity with the people. The few Nepali folk songs I learned delighted chai shop audiences; they couldn’t believe a white kid could sing like them.
My musical experience in school was largely western. But in 11th grade, at Woodstock School in India, I added sitar to my already full schedule of private lessons in trumpet, voice, piano, guitar and composition.
From early in my life, I had to learn how to express my faith in Christ in a pluralistic context. All my friends were Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Buddhist. We discussed faith from time to time and occasionally tried to convince each other regarding our own, but usually returned quickly to things we held in common, like the love of music. But when I left high school, my desire to share my faith continued and was a strong part of the decision to return to India. In the interim between school and college I went to Amsterdam, and among other things, volunteered at a shelter for the homeless. During that year U2’s Joshua Tree album came out. I remember thinking that music like this was the best way to express one’s faith. The lyrics held a mixture of doubt and sincere belief that were essentially Christ-centered, but clothed in colours that made sense to a larger audience outside the walls of traditional Christianity.
After Amsterdam I went back to the U.S. for music college at Berklee. But I already had my sights set on returning to India to play sitar, sing in local languages, express my faith, and blend it all with the rock and western classical music I listened to throughout my childhood.
Comment: Your band, Aradhna, plays bhajans (worship songs in Hindi). What is your writing process like?
CH: Bhajans are the songs of Hindu devotional faith. The genre, however, has also been welcomed by Indian Christians over the centuries, and every Indian hymnal has a section of them. Their melodies are based on various Indian ragas, melody-types with specific rules that determine the notes to be used, and in what order, to create a particular type of mood. Once a year I visit my sitar guru, Partha Chatterjee, and we choose one or two ragas to focus on. Over the years I have learned to play about a dozen ragas, and when I sit down to compose, I invariably pick one.
Beginning with the drone sound I gradually let the notes unfold in a process called alap. Once the mood of the raga is felt I begin to sing Hindi words that come to mind and create a more specific melody and rhythm. I also use various writings that I find in India, mostly written by Yeshu bhaktas or devotees of Jesus, some of whom prefer to think of themselves as Hindus rather than Christians from a purely social standpoint. For some songs on our Marga Darshan album I took lyrics from the 15th century Indian saint, Kabir, whose poetry reminded me of the book of Proverbs and the Psalms.
Since my colleague Pete Hicks lives in Cincinnati, and I live in Toronto, I often introduce these snatches of melody and lyric to him on tour or on musical retreats that we plan together. Pete hears the melody and composes his guitar arrangement to it. We might work on an introduction and instrumental bridge at that point.
Our tabla players around the world are familiar enough with the genre to be able to accompany us on stage with little or no rehearsal. But on our recent album, Amrit Vani, Jim Feist spent many hours with Pete working out specific tabla bols for each song. Bol means “speech” and every sound that can be created on the tabla can be spoken with unique syllables. Fiona Hicks is studying North Indian classical violin and applies her knowledge of ragas to her improvisations in our concerts and on our latest recording. Travis McAfee works with Pete to form bass lines that revolve around his chords and he will often take ideas from the raga when forming his melodic lines. But essentially, once Pete has influenced the melody with his chords, the raga takes on a completely new dimension. The goal is to create a new mood in the process that is deeper than the one created by the melodies of the raga alone.
Comment: Your bandmate, Peter Hicks, has said elsewhere that “we believe that [God] goes to every culture and speaks or sings truth in a way that is not foreign but resonates with each personal history”. Can you give an example of a time when your bhajans have resonated with someone’s personal history? (At a concert, through an album, etc.)
CH: Aman is a Sikh woman who is also a follower of Christ. We first met her after an Aradhna house concert in 2000. Deep Jale had not yet been released and we were novices. At the time, Aman was engulfed in a deep spiritual darkness that seemed to be linked to a burning rash on her skin. Despite her loving parents’ attempts to bring her relief through repeated visits to a trusted family guru at a nearby Hindu temple—it is common for Sikhs to look for help in Hindu temples—her spiritual and physical condition only worsened.
In desperation, Aman’s parents took her to India to get help from a powerful guru there. But he turned out to be a practitioner of the black arts, among other things, and she digressed further. Eventually, when she was an adult, Aman decided to leave home, much to her family’s dismay. Shortly after that she heard Aradhna for the first time. The bhajan melodies reminded her at once of visits to the temple that, unfortunately in her case, carried some negative associations. At our concerts, her skin would flare up and burn and her body would freeze until a group of us would gather around and pray for her for sometimes up to an hour. And yet as a spiritual seeker at that time, she was also deeply drawn to our music. She saw in it a connection to something beautiful in her culture while at the same time focusing on the Yeshu that her heart was slowly being drawn to.
I asked her if she’d be willing to write something herself.
“It feels so strange reading what you have written, almost like you are talking about a different person. Seems like a lifetime away. It’s unbelievable to think that something that was such a dark and painful time in my life (both mentally, emotionally and physically) seems now such a distant and vague memory. Sometimes I wonder what I have done with my life, but reading this has reminded me of how different I have actually become.
“It brings a real meaning to the word ‘born again’. My baptism was the beginning of my life. I know that I got baptised in 2002 but actually in terms of really living, seeing all that is around me, taking in all the wonderful things—family, friends, the air I breathe, being able to look in the mirror and seeing life in my eyes instead of a deadness … well, that is truly amazing. I have learnt how to laugh and love again.
“When Aradhna first visited, I was feeling unworthy and dirty and consumed by what I can only describe as heaviness all around me. The Aradhna songs were painful to listen to at the start. I remember crying my eyes out every time I heard the music. Many times I hardly heard the words, but somehow the music always got to me. Over time I felt more of a pull, and it got easier to listen to.
“The music allowed me to feel peace again, not that I understood what that peace was at the time, but it became something I craved. Sometimes the peace lasted for only a few minutes a week. Slowly, and through prayer, things got easier. The music didn’t pressure me to conform or to change. It just allowed me to be. I felt acceptance without judgment. I still think that I am taking only the first steps of a very long journey, but I know that finally I’m on the right track. I still don’t know the answers, but I sleep well knowing there is a plan for me, that the darkness has gone, that I am safe, loved, and a child of God. No one can take that away from me.”
Last year Aradhna had the opportunity to perform Yeshu bhajans in the main hall of a Sikh Gurudwara in Aman’s town. Her father came specifically at her request. We were honoured with yellow scarves, which were placed on us by the elder as a blessing, and many came up, while we were playing, and threw money at our feet, as is the custom. It was a touching conclusion to the first chapter in our relationship with Aman and her family. The hard work of healing family relationships has already begun, but as Aman has said, the journey is still long.
As for us, we want to do everything possible to help the God-given family ties be strengthened further through our music and friendship with Aman’s community. This is one of the ways Aman’s faith in Christ can be understood by them as an attractive and life giving force. We believe that through Christ we need to build bridges between cultures and faiths, not tear bridges down.
Comment: Your wife, Miranda Stone, is also a musician. What place does music have in your home life?
CH: I met Miranda in 2002 at Cornerstone Music Festival in Bushnell, Illinois. The members of Aradhna, including myself, attended her concert at Cornerstone, and we felt the power and spirit in her music. What struck me about her during that week was not just her fantastic songwriting, and her warmth with people, but also her interest in the details of Indian things. She was wearing a sari and cooking huge Indian meals and I felt like she had spent a lot of time in India, yet she had never visited the country. She had picked up her knowledge from living in Toronto near the area called, “Little India.”
It’s been five years since we were married and we now live in that same “Little India.” One of the things we agreed to do before we got married was to help each other musically. I learned the bass guitar and all the backup vocals to her songs, and she began learning the tabla during our first trip to Kolkata.
We are currently in the middle of a huge renovation to our house so Miranda is not touring. These days she’s building a lot of furniture. She rarely travels with Aradhna, but we have enjoyed forming our own devotional practice using the bhajans. We have a vision of people from different spiritual backgrounds and cultures coming together in our home for worship, community and, of course, food. This sort of thing is just beginning with a few friends locally.
Comment: What advice would you give to a Comment reader who is considering a career in music?
CH: You really have to love this a lot to do it full time. Money always feels like the biggest problem but it doesn’t have to be. Surviving full time doing original music will likely involve you in any number of the following things: working on original music, touring, teaching, writing grant proposals, and seeking patrons among family, friends, and spiritual communities who believe in what you do and want to enable you to focus on it. And, finally, probably picking up odd jobs along the way to make ends meet. If you are content not to be rich, to live within your means and stay out of debt as much as possible, and work very hard, this can work, and bring much joy.
Talent is developed. Practice is hugely important. However, music performed well without the stamp of God’s presence and breath is sterile. Developing the relationship and dialogue with God will directly affect ones ability to be the conduit of spiritual change in the world. To be filled with God’s power together with a humble heart and a practiced instrument could quite possibly set the stage on fire. I hope that would be something we could do.