Mid-60’s…. I was exploring so many new sounds, everything from Cecil Taylor’s wildly abstract piano compositions to Olivier Messiaen’s breathtaking bird-song-imbued hymns to the divine baby Jesus. All mixed up with the outer space guitar of Jimi Hendrix and the continually mind expanding songs of The Beatles. But what took hold of me most, of course, was Indian classical music. So I searched for as many albums as I could, listening, trying to understand, jamming along with my open-tuned electric guitar, pounding on my wah-wah pedal as the sitar or sarod seemed to go crazy. Of course, aided and abetted by a wide variety of heaven sent substances. Little did I know at that time what a dark road I would come to travel in the thrall of these same wondrous substances. But I’ve only just begun this story and I’m already digressing. (Addiction! A blog for another day!)
Anyway, one day I was excavating the shelves at Folklore Records and came across a disc entitled “Street Singers Of India”, on the Nonesuch label. Street singers in India? Hmmm…. I thought Indian music was all about the palaces, the ancient ragas, the music of the spheres. Well, of course I had to check it out. So I brought this record home and put it on the turntable and had my mind and heart completely blown inside out. This was a rustic folk music, but with deep, complex melodies and churning, steaming rhythms. But, more than that, it was the sound of hearts being ripped open, of souls screaming for God.
Reading the liner notes I learned that these singers were part of a sect of wandering mystical musician/minstrels called “The Bauls of Bengal”. There were many translations offered for the word ‘Baul’, but my favorites were ‘affected by the wind’; ‘Intoxicated with the longing for God’; ‘Drunk in the Divine presence’. Then and there I vowed to someday meet these ‘ divine madmen’.
Well, several years passed (I’m attempting to make a VERY long story quite short) and one of my great inspirations, Bob Dylan, released his amazing back-to-basics album, “John Wesley Harding”. And there on the cover were two very strange looking men. Actually they looked just like the singers on my “Street Singers of India” album. Actually, they WERE the SAME singers as the ones on that album! The next year saw the release of “The Bauls At Big Pink”. My mysterious Bengalis were in Woodstock recording at the same house where Dylan and The Band recorded the basement tapes. This was getting a bit crazy. The Bauls of Bengal were in the United States hanging out with Dylan.
More time passed and as I became more and more absorbed in my studies with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, this obsession with the Bauls shifted to the back burner. Then I embarked on my first trip to India and met my Guru, Baba Neem Karoli, had my whole being turned inside-out and became immersed in the amazing world of Indian Temple chanting, or Kirtan.
But when it came time for my second trip to India, after Maharajji had left his body, my friend Ganga Dhar and I made a commitment to find the Bauls and learn from them. Ganga Dhar is one of my oldest friends. We met at Reed College in 1969, and dropped out together a bit later when we found the Music and Religion departments not fulfilling our mystical teenage requirements. I failed all of my classes and GD squeaked through by handing in his High School term paper. So it was off to Bengal for us, with no knowledge of Bengali, very little money and no connections whatsoever in the Baul subculture.
Somewhere along the way we became disconnected and I found myself walking alone around the dusty lanes of the little town of Shantiniketan, wondering how to find these illusive minstrels. I remember it was quite a warm day, heavy, dry, quiet. I sat down to rest at a small chai shop and as I was sipping the sweet milky tea I heard the sound of a drum, and a string drone, and shakers, and bells and very beautiful albeit quite out of tune singing. Expecting to see a band of five or six musicians, I looked up and saw a simple old man wearing a multi-colored patchwork robe and dirty orange turban dancing down the street. The drum was attached to his belt, the bells and shakers were on his ankles and he was holding the one string ektara high above his head as he sang his wild ecstatic songs. Wow! This old guy was the real thing! A mystic Bengali Baul. So, like the spiritual detective I was, I stealthily followed him down the path and he pretended not to see me. Somewhere along the way I met up again with Ganga Dhar, who joined our little parade. Pretty soon we arrived at a large tent in the middle of nowhere, festooned with lights dangling precariously above a stage filled with about twenty five villagers singing and dancing. Granny was playing kartals. Mommy was nursing her little ones. Kids were laughing and chanting the refrain of the songs. And to my total beyond-the-beyond surprise, standing in the middle of the stage with his hands thrown up in the air singing at the top of his voice, was the man from the cover of “John Wesley Harding”, whose name was Lakshman Das Baul!!!!!!!!!! (That one is worth a lot of exclamation points, don’t you think?).
I sat down and listened, my heart pounding, my legs trembling. The music was SOOOO beautiful, so earthy and rustic and at the same time so heavenly and filled with such longing. Tears were streaming down my face. I felt home again.
After the performance I went up to this singer and introduced myself. He seemed so genuinely happy to meet me, exclaiming over and over “Do you have LSD?” I think it may have been all the English that he knew. Sadly, I had none, but we quickly became friends and my journey to the center of the Baul world had begun…….
Stay tuned for part two of the story.