An Introduction to Instruments Used in Kirtan

My husband plays the classical clarinet in a woodwind quintet, and I grew up playing the piano. Over the years we’ve often secretly rolled our eyes when a member of an audience asks, “Which one is the bassoon?” or, pointing at the clarinet, “Is that an oboe?” But when I started practicing Kundalini yoga and encountered sacred chant music and kirtan I was mystified by many of the instruments. Yoga music was a whole ‘nother ball game! What in the world were these Indian instruments? And what about the African instruments often used?

I’d never even heard of an udu before. And what was a taus? To be sure the sounds they make are downright gorgeous. But what in the heck was I listening to? I decided to put together a little primer for folks who love yoga music but (like me) may not be able to tell their ektara from their esraj. The list of these fascinating African and Indian instruments is far more extensive than what I’ve included here, but this will give us a start:

Bansuri

The bansuri is a flute made from a hollow shaft of bamboo. It has six or seven finger holes, and is the instrument often depicted in the hands of Krishna. You can hear it played both expertly and beautifully on the CDs of Manose.

EPIPHANY by Manose

Manose plays on "PASSWORD" by Deva Premal and Miten

Cajón

The cajón is a drum thought to originate among Peruvian slaves. It looks a lot like a drawer, box or crate (which is the meaning of the word in Spanish).  You can hear the cajón on David Newman/Durga Das‘ albums, played by his wife Mira.

Love, Peace, Chant by David Newman

Dholak

The Dholak is a barrel shaped hand-drum popular in northern India.  You can hear the dholak on the Live from Spirit Fest Cd on Harnam’s “No Stranger”.

Dilruba

A string instrument found in Northern India and used in religious and classical music. The word means “robber of the heart.” It’s related to but lighter than the taus and also similar to the esraj (see below).

Dotara

Also called a bass Ektara, a two stringed instrument.

Ektara

Ektara is a one-stringed instrument frequently used in traditional music from Bangladesh, India, Egypt, and Pakistan. Once a favorite among wandering bards and minstrels, it is plucked with one finger. I first came across this lovely instrument at a Bhagavan Das kirtan.

Golden Voice by Bhagavan Das

Esraj

The 200-year-old esraj is a string instrument played with a bow, found in the central and eastern regions of India. particularly Bengal.  Benjy Wertheimer of Shantala is especially known for his esraj playing.

Sri by Shantala

Harmonium

You’re sure to run into a harmonium if you listen to yoga music. This freestanding keyboard instrument, which originated in Europe, is similar to a reed organ (it may remind you of an accordion). Sound is created when air—produced by bellows operated by foot, hand, or knees–is blown through sets of free reeds.  Krishna Das and Gurunam Singh are just two of the artists who play the harmonium.

Live On Earth by Krishna Das

Crimson Sadhana by Gurunam Singh

Tabla

Here’s another one you’re bound to come across– a popular Indian drum similar to bongos. The tabla (from the Arabic word, “tabl” which means drum) is made up of a pair of hand drums of contrasting sizes and timbres. The left hand drum is called the “bayan” and the right hand drum is the “dayan.”  Ramesh Kannan has played tabla and toured extensively with Snatam Kaur, Simrit Kaur, and other Kundalini chant artists.

Urban Nature - Coming Home by Todd Boston and Ramesh Kannan

Tampura

A tampura, tanpura, or tamboura, this instrument is a long-necked lute with an etheric sound.  It often acts as a drone behind vocalists.  The strings are plucked one after another to create a harmonic resonance.  You can hear the tampura on Sharanam by Sudha.

Taus

The taus is a string instrument from the north and central India, and the Punjab. The taus was created by Guru Hargobind (the sixth Guru of the Sikhs). Its body is a peacock-shaped sound box (‘taus’ is a Persian word meaning peacock) and its neck has 20 heavy metal frets. On the neck is a long wooden rack with 28 to 30 strings. Played with a bow, the taus produces a deep, full sound. It’s similar to, but heavier than the dilruba.

Udu

Udu means “vessel” in the language of the Igbo of Nigeria, from whence the drum — virtually a water jug with an additional hole– comes. Usually made of clay, it was often played by women for ceremonial purposes. When the hand quickly hits against the hole a bass sound is produced; it can also be played by the body of the jug being hit by the fingers.

You can hear tabla, cajon, and udu on Kundalini Surjhee by GuruGanesha Singh

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Kathryn Livingston

Kathryn E. Livingston (Harjot Kaur) is the author of the memoir Yin, Yang, Yogini: A Woman's Quest for Balance, Strength and Inner Peace, a story of transformation through yoga. A Kundalini Yoga teacher, Kathryn has been writing professionally for many years. She lives in Bogota, NJ and teaches at AquarianYoga Center in Montclair.

4 Comments

  1. Sat Nam, Louise! So glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for your comment. I learned a lot writing it! (:

    Reply
  2. Thank you so much for that wonderful information! I will listen even more carefully to my wonderful music. You gave it another layer for me to enjoy. :0D

    Sat Nam

    Reply
  3. This is such a great post Kathryn! Even after all the years at Spirit Voyage, I still find myself at times listening to the tracks over and over to decipher which instruments I am hearing. I am going to bring up your list here and use it next time I am stumped.

    Reply

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