Richard and Shelley Gans

By Chants

Combine an Indian call-and-response musical form with Hebrew and put it in a nomadic hut from Mongolia, and what do you have?

Kirtan in The Yurt, of course.

The concept might sound fractured, but its appeal is partly in how well it comes together: dramatic lighting, a cozy seat on a blanketed floor, four musicians on flute, violin, harmonium and percussion and a small crowd chanting Shalom (“hello,” “goodbye,” “peace”) or Ha Va Yah (“the vibrational name of God from Kabbalah,” a handout notes) or Barchi Nafshee (“bless my soul”).

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The Kirtan in The Yurt series is the brainchild of Richard and Shelley Gans. A kirtan is emphatically not a performance, Richard says. Instead, it’s a collective meditation of sorts. “The group creates an energy with their vocalization, with their voices… The idea is that through the repetition and through the intention of the chant, you can lose yourself to a place where you can forget about your busy mind and your ego, about your voice and all those kinds of barriers to just expressing yourself.”

A lifelong musician, Richard experienced his first kirtan at a yoga retreat. The chants were in Sanskrit, but it was the music that “just took me with it,” he says. He began by covering the tracks of the most popular Western kirtan singer, Krishna Das, but eventually “imitation way to originality, and I started writing my own chants.” He was moved to replace the traditional Sanskrit with Hebrew, the sacred language of his own Jewish heritage.

The yurt came later, in what Shelley figures was a pretty mild version of the usual midlife crisis. For the first two years, Richard says, the yurt they built next to their home was simply his personal “man cave,” a private space where he was, in part, working through the grief of family losses. Later, the Ganses began inviting people in to offer workshops in yoga, sound healing, meditation, ecstatic dancing. Shelley, formerly director of the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, took on the publicity and marketing.

Unlike the nomadic yurts of the Central Asian steppes, the Ganses’ features a Douglas fir frame covered with “architectural grade fabrics” and an acrylic skylight at the top, as described by builder Pacific Yurts, but the concept is the same: a circular structure with a pointed roof, held together by a giant tension band. A small fireplace throws heat across the hardwood floor of The Yurt, as Shelley has branded it, and a kitchenette serves up tea. A stage is made of cleverly hung fabric and standing screens, with a light projector casting kaleidoscopic patterns above and behind the musicians in an otherwise dark space that’s about the size of a very large living room. Participants sit on one of the couches or the two dozen folding seat pads on the floor.

Richard begins the evening by inviting the 12 attendees to take a few deep breaths. Candles flicker in a boat-shaped wooden bowl at the musicians’ feet. Out in the woods, just off Amity Road in Woodbridge, all is quiet. Richard warms us up with a couple of traditional yogic “Ohms” which become “Shaloms,” accompanied by his harmonium—a keyboard instrument with a bellows, like a small organ—and the tranquil improvisational backup of flute and violin, played by Peter Hadley and Nissen Weisman. Vocalist Rachel Lovins, who also plays a little bit of percussion, leads us in sung responses to Richard’s vocal lines.

The point is not to sit and listen, Richard says. It’s to participate, to both inhabit the chant and “reside in the space outside .” The attendees are reserved at first, repeating Richard’s lines in soft voices, as if our intent is not to wake the two children who’ve come and are almost instantly lulled to sleep by the music. But as the evening unwinds, some voices do as well, swelling with confidence. Most of the chants begin with a relaxed tempo that picks up momentum as feet tap and bodies sway. “Ayn ode milvado,” we chant. “There is nothing else” is how this phrase is translated on the handout we picked up at the door. Putting it another way, “Everything is part of ourselves,” Richard says, adding that we are “all part of God.”

Between each long chant comes not applause but rather a long, silent pause. A moment to take notice.
Though the chant is in Hebrew, Kirtan in The Yurt is a more secular spiritual practice, inclusive of anyone who turns up. “I think some people are afraid, really afraid, of doing something that’s too spiritual and unknown,” Richard says. “But really this is very simple. The Hebrew is extremely accessible, simple. The tunes are very rhythmic, so kind of contagious.” He reports that participants of all ages and faiths have shown up to give kirtan a try. As many as 35—The Yurt’s capacity—were coming by the end of last summer, before a fall hiatus.

Lovins, who has sometimes served as a cantor at Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in Westville and sings with the New Haven rock and blues band The Inflatables, also works as chair of medicine at Middlesex Hospital in Middletown. As a physician, she sees the benefits of kirtan and other meditative practices firsthand and now starts medical meetings with a meditation. “There’s a lot of data about how mindfulness can be helpful… in feeling connected, burnout, so I’m trying to pull that into my work,” she says. When Richard, with whom she’d sung 20 years earlier, invited her to Kirtan in The Yurt, she agreed to come once. “I just loved it,” she says. She’s now sung for most of The Yurt’s kirtans.

For Richard, kirtan has become his life’s work. His first album, Shemantra, was released in 2011, and a second, as yet unnamed, is due out in February. He has led kirtans not only in The Yurt but also at numerous retreats and synagogues.

When this evening ends with a return to “Shalom” and the room is filled with the tannic scent of long-burning candles, he wishes everyone a peaceful mind, an open heart and the strength to follow their own path to joy—a journey he’s already taking.

Kirtan in The Yurt
550 Amity Rd, Woodbridge (map)
Upcoming kirtans: 12/20, 1/3, 1/10 and 1/17 at 7:30pm (suggested donation $10)
(203) 687-8658

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 depicts Richard and Shelley Gans.

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