Yoga Nidra, Indian Ragas, and the Essence of Music: Q&A w/ Stevin McNamara

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“[Music] can inspire us to great things, to a higher awareness of who we are. A true musician can transport us to another level of consciousness. Every note must live and breathe with that energy” – Stevin McNamara

 

 

Welcome Stevin! Your new album is titled Savasana Yoga Music – Healing Guitar for Massage, Sleep and Yoga Nidra…  and it is a truly beautiful work.  I’ll ask you about Yoga Nidra separately, but for now can you talk a little about your inspiration to record this collection and also the way you have presented it? It seems clear that your intention was focused…

Thank you. This album is yet another step on my musical journey inspired mostly by the music of North India, which has been incorporated into a personal guitar style that I have developed over many years of immersion in that music. The intention of this album was to create pieces that are simple and easily accessed by anyone from any walk of life – to create a deep and focused music that induces a feeling of rest and peace – to allow the mind and emotions to centre and relax – which incidentally also works really well with the Savasana stage of a Yoga practice session.

It’s divided into four “flows” of five pieces each, and they are grouped into times of day according to the ragas they are based on. Most of the pieces are Alap style, which is without rhythm. There are some pieces that have subtle rhythmic elements but there are no drums – only interplay with Christo Pellani’s sound healing instruments.

The album is a collaborative work between you and master drummer and sound healer Christo Pelani – please tell us a bit about how the two of you worked together and what brought you both together in the first place.

I had played live with Christo on a couple of occasions and was impressed by his sensitive and intuitive approach – in particular to my guitar style. It is all very natural and easy to play with him. We communicate really well musically. This led to our first studio album, namely “Shakti Guitar.”

I was very inspired by his deep and universal command of rhythms and drums from many genres. He has a huge energy that worked extremely well with the guitar pieces I was creating for that project. He also introduced me to several other musicians who later became part of that album.

I started listening to many recordings he has made that centre on his deep knowledge and experience in the realm of sound healing. He has an impressive collection of instruments from that world, tibetan singing bowls, bells, gongs, chimes, sound tubes, crystal bowls – you name it. This collage of sound healing instruments has worked perfectly with the guitar pieces that we selected – creating an “other worldly” kind of space that I love.

Your pieces have a connection to Indian ragas – can you talk about that and also tell us about the origin of ragas and the process by which they are alive and played today.  If you set out to write a piece for dawn or evening are there specific elements that must be included and others that should be left out, rather than it being purely open to subjective inspiration?

Well, you could write a whole book about that! The Ragas as we know them today have been handed down from teacher to student over centuries. Thus it is a living music – a transmission from one person to another . You can’t learn this music any other way than from a master musician who has given his life to absorbing and then giving out that music to a disciple.

The origins of the ragas appear to have come from the Vedic era in India – at least 5000 years ago. There are texts that describe the music of that time that was used in worship and deep spiritual practices. There is reference that some ancient scales they used were from listening to the cries of certain animals that use specific intervals. For instance a peacock sings a perfect octave – an elephant sings a minor 7th when it is angry, etc. The yogis of those times were able to raise their consciousness in deep meditation and see the inner working of sound and music – how certain notes and scales could influence not only emotions, the chakras in the body and mental states, but even nature itself. For example, they could create fire by singing Rag Deepak or make it rain by singing Rag Malhar etc. This was also how they described God, the creator. “Nad Brahma”: ”Sound is God.” They believed that the whole creation was a manifestation of Sound. However, today the music of ragas has become more of an art-form that is used not only in devotional practice but also to entertain.

Still, there are strict rules on how ragas should be played and if done correctly the Raga will manifest in the performer – the audience will also experience that manifestation. You have to experience it to really understand. Today a performance of a raga will consist of the Alap, or introduction, a kind of mapping out of all the subtle characteristics of the raga. This is followed by a rhythmic section with a melodic theme and usually with tabla accompaniment, it explores countless rhythmic possibilities within a set time cycle known as tala – i.e 16 beats, 10 beats etc.

A raga can be one to two hours long – and the mind blowing thing is that a true artist in this genre is improvising about 90% of the time while still adhering to the strict performance rules. Thus a performance of a raga , unlike a western symphony or concerto, for example, will never be the same twice.

There is another element to this music that I would like to touch on because it’s so important, and that is the use of Shrutis. This is the “magic ingredient” – the “secret special sauce” that takes years to acquire. Shrutis are the microtones between the 12 notes that we are familiar with in our western music. Academically, there are 22 microtones in Indian music. An expert has a wonderful command on how to weave through these shrutis – dancing in between the main notes of the raga. It is well known that this has a very powerful effect on the mind and emotions – awakening hidden depths within the listener.

In answer to the second part of your question – the word “Raga” translates as “that which colors the mind.” Each raga has a certain scale and ways in which notes are approached, their frequency of use, importance, ascending and descending steps. Each Raga centres on a particular mood or emotion (“Rasa”) such as love, sadness, joy, longing, devotion, peace, etc. – and is also affected by the time of day at which a Raga is performed. A morning Raga will have a very different sound and feeling than an evening Raga. The notes of the scales that are “alive” or active in the morning – in harmony with nature – are very different than those active in the evening.

When I start to create a piece, I will first choose a Raga to base it on – and try to invoke that feeling in the piece, adhering as much as possible to the true spirit of that Raga – out of the utmost respect. I always remind my listeners that what I am playing is not classical Indian music – but a personal style that has grown from all my experience in that world.

The title of your album mentions Yoga Nidra – please tell us what this is and include any personal insights you may have about it as a practice.  What is the connection between Savasana and Yoga Nidra ?

In my understanding Yoga Nidra is a state of being where we “walk between the worlds” of consciousness. It is not sleep but rather a super awareness, when the body and mind are completely at rest. There is no movement of the body and no distracting thoughts – no mental dialogue going on. It is in that state that we are encouraged to focus on our “Heart’s Desire” – what do we really want to do and achieve in our life – what is our true purpose for being here?

Then we make that our intention – our focus for the day.

Savasana is usually the culmination phase of the day’s yoga practice – often described as the most difficult asana or posture to achieve. The complete relaxing and letting go of all tension in the body and mind – thus it is the precursor to Yoga Nidra – first Savasana – and then we can approach the Yoga Nidra state.

Please tell us who or what lit the spark for you with classical Indian music – where, when and how did this happen?

I first heard a recording of Ravi Shankar when I was still in South Africa. And Nikhil Banerjee, Vilayat Khan recordings.

That was the first awakening.

Then later, when I was at Berklee school of music in Boston I saw Ravi Shankar and Allah Rakha in concert – this was probably 1971. That was when the spark became a fire. I was lucky to find a true teacher – Ram Das Chakravarty of Benares, who was resident professor at the Indian music faculty of Wesleyan College in Connecticut. When I heard him play, I was amazed at how much deeper he could go than anything I had heard before – also his technique was stunning. Thus started a weekly pilgrimage from Boston to Wesleyan for my lessons and the beginning of eight to ten hours of practice a day on the Sitar. I was very lucky to have Ram as a catalyst on the musical journey.

Please finish this sentence for us:  Music is…

Music is … not just notes produced on an instrument or with the voice. It is something so much more. It can transcend all barriers of language, race, culture and fixed ideas. It can inspire us to great things, to a higher awareness of who we are. A true musician can transport us to another level of consciousness. Every note must live and breathe with that energy. Music is truly the language of Love.

You play nylon string guitar – can you please tell us about your guitar?  Are there any other stringed instruments you like to play  – and have you ever played a mohan veena?  Do you feel like all these instruments have different characters? How so?

My nylon string is an old Brazilian guitar – Giannini. I think I have had it for about 40 years now. It was an inexpensive instrument – not spectacular at the time – but it has become better and better over the years. Now it has a sound that can’t be matched on most high end instruments I can find, costing ten to twenty times as much. It’s a freak of nature! I’ve used it on every piece I’ve recorded. and I use it live as well. I have played Sitar for about 45 years now too. I can’t imagine that you could try to play this music on a guitar without having first gone through the discipline on an Indian instrument.

I haven’t played the mohan Veena – but I love the sound – and I do play some slide guitar. I have also dabbled with the Dilruba – a hybrid between sitar and sarangi – bowed instead of plucked. You can hear my attempts on the album “Prana Groove.”

My favourite musician in that world is Debashish Bhattacharya…look him up – you will be astounded!!

Although these instruments have somewhat different characteristics, the common thread is that they are stringed instruments. So according to the Yogic culture, they correspond to the sound of the heart chakra, the centre of love, compassion and joy. That must be what draws me to them…

You have also worked as an audio engineer at a high level – can you offer some basic advice for any musicians trying to perfect a mix?  

For musicians, get the music right first. Get a great arrangement that allows the song or piece of music to shine.

Create some magic there first, then add great inspired performances on instruments and vocals. Make it something you could listen to in twenty years and go “wow”! If you can do that, achieve all those elements in your production, the song will mix itself.

I’ve worked with some producers where, at the end of the day, you could pull up all the faders and there it was – done…almost. Don’t think that you can just keep adding effects and compression etc and that will do it for you. Always keep the big picture in view – don’t get hung up on the kick drum EQ or the reverb on the snare or the latest modelling amp plug-ins on the guitars…

That’s my advice. Of course I came up with 24 track analogue tape machines and tube pre amps – all that! It’s amazing how things have changed – but please go easy on the autotune!

What microphones and monitors do you use when you record, and are there any you would recommend? 

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of working in some really high end studios, so I got spoiled stevin-mcnamara-2with Manley tube mics, neumann U 49’s, SSL and Neve consoles… let alone those acoustic spaces designed for ultimate sound! These days I use a matched pair of AKG 414’s on the guitar. but I also have used a single shure sm57 on some pieces – really worked – listen to the track “Anam” on my album “Shanti Guitar.” My favourite monitors are still Genelecs – the smallest ones….and we used to always have a pair of Yamaha NS-10’s – for the reality check.

Where is the most inspiring place you have ever played or performed?

I just played at the Ahimsa Yoga and Music festival at Hunter Mountain – New York. Christo played with me. The audience was so responsive – pushed us to something higher – it felt really good.

Christo, Marla Leigh Goldstein and I played at the GATE 3 convention at the Saban theatre in Hollywood. A couple of thousand people all gathered with a common purpose. We only had a very short set, but it felt very inspiring to be among so many people trying to raise the consciousness of the planet. GATE (the Global Alliance for Transformation through Entertainment) is an organization headed by John Raatz, Jim Carey and Eckhart Tolle. So it was a gathering of many people who are top of their field aspiring to this ideal. It was an honour to perform for them.

What is it about music that can captivate and inspire us?  

Music transcends barriers. It is immediately accessible . We don’t have to learn a foreign language. Good music grabs us at the first note. We get in touch with feelings, without filters. We feel good or sad or angry – it has that power. Music has been used for everything. Worship, devotion, romance, celebration, – war even. People can’t seem to live without it. You can’t really explain it but it’s such a deep part of the human experience.


Experience the beauty and calm joy that is ‘Savasana Yoga Music – Healing Guitar for Massage, Sleep and Yoga Nidra’ on YogiTunes: 

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About Stevin:

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Stevin has been playing and recording music for over 40 years. He is in the unique position of being an accomplished Composer/Musician and a Recording Engineer. This gives him total freedom in any music/recording environment.
Born in South Africa, Stevin started learning piano and guitar at the age of seven. At the age of twenty one, Stevin moved to the United States, where he had more formal training at Berklee College of Music in Boston Mass. He has been involved in music ever since.
Exposure to a broad spectrum of music has contributed to the unique musical style he has developed over the years. Stevin has worked with well- known producers such as Robert John “Mutt” Lange and a huge spectrum of recording artists from Paul Winter to Tina Turner- from Bryan Adams to Zakir Hussein.


 

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