Songs of Many Gods
An Interview with Keith Cantú
I first met Dr. Keith Edward Cantú at Esalen, where he was teaching a class on Tantra with my friend and sometimes Alembic teacher Sravana Borkataky-Varma. Keith is an up-and-coming scholar of South Asian religion and Western esotericism, with a number of languages under his belt, and a new book out. Like a Tree Universally Spread explores the work of Sri Sabhapati Swami, an unduly obscure Tamil yogi from the nineteenth century whose works influenced modern yoga and occultism.
Keith is also a student of the ecstatic musical culture of the Bauls, the syncretic mystic minstrels of Bengal. Baul music is powerful and profound, at once yearning and celebratory. On Sunday February 4, at 1:30pm, Keith will be offering a workshop at Alembic on Lalon Fakir, a 19th-century Baul musician who left an incredible body of sacred song and esoteric lore. The day’s celebration of Lalon's music and ideas will rely on Bengali Baul folk musical instruments and cultural performance. All attendees are welcome to take part, whether through playing along on the instruments, singing, discussion, or sitting in quiet reflection. Keith is a beautiful and talented singer and will be offering a performance of Baul songs at 7pm, which can be attended separately from the workshop. Tickets here.
— Erik Davis
ED: Let’s start with what drew you to South Asia in the first place.
KC: South Asia really wasn't on my radar until I took a backpacking trip to India with a friend on a whim. She had come from a well-off family and was like, hey, you know, let's just go. That was my sophomore year of college. I started making connections with students in West Bengal through couch-surfing websites. Gradually that led to an interesting documentary project on human trafficking that I collaborated on with students in West Bengal and Pepperdine University.
When the time came to figure out what I was going to do after graduating, I applied for a Fulbright fellowship. I didn't think my application would be competitive for India, but I decided to give Bangladesh a shot. [Bangladesh abuts the Indian state of West Bengal; the regions were catastrophically divided during Partition in 1947]. Around that same time, I became interested in the psychedelic culture of the 1960s. A high school friend of mine made it her mission to get me some LSD. I got the Fulbright, and by the time I get to Bangladesh, I was halfway on this psychedelic religious spiritual journey, which was also informed by Aleister Crowley’s esoteric philosophy of Thelema, which I had been studying.
ED: When did you encounter the Bauls?
KC: A friend told me a little bit about the Bauls, and I had watched a Bengali film about Lalon, one of the most famous and celebrated Baul singers. I played around with the harmonium and bought some CDs and started listening to the music, but nothing really clicked until I attended this photography opening of an artist I knew named Zaid Islam. He was from a well-off family in Bangladesh but his own encounter with the Bauls had changed his life and led him to pursue the path of an artist.
During the exhibit, I noticed someone who was kind of just standing there in the shadows, not really mingling like everyone else or trying to do the artist networking thing. He was just sort of there. I struck up a conversation in my then rather limited Bengali, and I discovered that he was a musician. And he was like, hey, you play music too? Why don't you come to the park? I thought we were just going to go jam or something. Later I lug my harmonium over to this park in downtown Dhaka. And sure enough, he turns out to be a Baul artist. And what that means is that he sits at the park for long amounts of time, not doing much of anything, really. There's a sense of idling even, just sitting and observing, waiting to find the bhav—the right vibe, or atmosphere, or mood.
So we were sitting there for a while and all of a sudden he pulls out an ektara. And then he pulls out a duggi, which is the left hand of the tabla drum. And then he pulls out a clay chillum and proceeds to ritually create this cannabis mixture called Siddhi Sheva—the serving of Siddhi, basically. And then he starts to sing and play a song. That combination of smoking something and then listening to music and being with this man at the park was my entry point into these Baul communities.
ED: So what is a Baul community?
KC: I mean, in a way that's exactly what it is. I can give you a textbook answer, but experientially that is kind of what it is. You find an artist or a teacher or a society or a group and you get roped into this musical path in which the songs are sung, but they usually aren't taught systematically. You learn the song, you maybe write it down in a notebook, and then gradually you talk about the song after you memorize the lyrics. And you continue to learn songs from other people. Everyone has their own special songs that then you might add to your repertoire.
ED: How did immersing yourself in Baul music and culture allow you to bridge your scholarship with a more emotional and spiritual approach to the traditions you were studying?
KC: It's a great question. I had the benefit of growing up around church music. I was trained in piano and then I played for the church band. So religion and music have had a natural affinity for me since I was a child. Nowadays music allows me to navigate and bridge the intellectual and scholarly approach with a more practitioner approach. It is a yoga, essentially, at least for me, a sometimes overlooked branch of devotional yoga.
ED: So who was Lalon?
KC: People don't know much about his early life since he kind of kept his identity secret. He didn't want to reveal whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim due to the partisan divides at the time. The dominant theory is that he was born into a Hindu family and developed smallpox or some kind of pox. Then he gets sent away on a barge until he is discovered. There's some debate over whether his guru, Siraj Shai, found him or whether it was an Islamic family who took him in and raised him. In any case, he has this new life and a guru, who trains him. After Shiraj Shai leaves the scene, or dies, Lalon started to attract all sorts of people who basically had nowhere else to go in Bangladeshi society. They came from various religious traditions and so came together under the banner of Manush Bhakti, which means devotion to the human being.
Lalon’s songs are designed to appeal to anyone, Hindu or Muslim, Christian or Buddhist. They're also full of esoteric symbolism about the body, and sometimes include a strong sexual component. So on the one hand Lalon was a poet, creating this new multicultural framework for people to identify with. But on the other hand, it's clear he was very experiential in his approach. Some songs even have very practical instructions.
ED: How does this esoteric symbolism relate to the larger current of Tantra?
KC: I've written a chapter on this in Ethnography of Tantra, a volume that just came out. One of the main connecting points is this notion of sadhana in Sanskrit, or in Bengali, shadhana. And that means practice, a word that's used in tantric literature all over for any kind of devotional rituals relating to deities. Lalon is bringing together tantric streams of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as Islamic esotericism into his convergence.
ED: Can you talk a little bit more about Lalon’s non-sectarianism and resistance to nationalism? This is such an important theme given the rise of nationalism everywhere, particularly in India.
KC: One of Lalon’s most popular songs goes something like this: Everyone's asking Lalon, what is a jat? What is a birth religion, a birth group? And Lalon says, I haven't seen the face of it with these eyes of mine. And then he goes on to say, like, if I get circumcised, will that make me a Muslim? If so, how do women follow that rule? I know Hindu Brahmin priests by their sacred thread. But how do I tell the Brahmin woman apart? Right? Because she doesn't have any kind of mark. Some people wear the tasbih, the Islamic rosary beads, and some wear the Hindu mala, you know those Rudraksha beads that are ubiquitous in Southern California. But he asks, how do you tell them apart at the time of coming and going—either when you are born into this world, or at the time of leaving it when you die. So he’s questioning those divisions. He’s very cynical about any kind of literal understanding of religious identity.
ED: So what makes a Baul? Is it something that people decide to get into it individually?
KC: The word “Baul” can just mean the wind, or like a crazy person, someone who just goes here and there, like the holy fool in the Tarot. But there are other titles used as well. To my knowledge, Lalon doesn't use the word Baul. He always says Lalon Fakir. Fakir, which generally means a Muslim or sometimes a Hindu ascetic, comes from the Persian word for poor. But Lalon redefined that label to mean someone who is actually rich in spirit, enjoying life, and being very playful.
One of the main ways to enter this tradition is to find a teacher, which connects to the tantric path, like finding a guru or a guru mother. So there is kind of an initiatory component. But there's also people who are amateurs, or performative Bauls, people who are not a part of that initiatory structure but are still actively performing the songs. And those people are also encouraged. It’s like there's this umbrella of songs that makes space for all these people and their different approaches. In the end, I guess you’re a Baul if people think you are a Baul.
ED: What will folks be doing in the workshop?
KC: In addition to exploring the tradition, I am going to include a big experiential component, and invite people into the sounds and rhythms. I'll be demonstrating the instruments and their significance, and will show how, when these instruments are combined, the song sort of just arises out of the bhav, how it can go from very simple to very complex, and then back again just to the ektara. The ektara is a funny instrument. It almost seems like nothing, just a gourd with a string and a bamboo frame. But it can hold so much power.
Transmutations is a biweekly publication from the Berkeley Alembic, a post-denominational spiritual center that offers classes, workshops, retreats, and warm cups of tea.