(Global Heart | Esther Haasnoot) An Interview with Shunia about the spirit of sacred chant and the release of their new album.
When you are in Shunia, you can most easily access your Soul without all the distractions. You are still and receptive—you in perfect harmony. – Kara Johnstad
Melodies and chants to uplift, transcend, and energize our Lives
Shunia is the zero point, a place where you can get to when you meditate. Repeating or sing the same phrase or word over and over again continuously has a beneficial effect on body, mind, and spirit. This practice is known as chanting, from the Latin “Cantare,” which means “to sing”. Chanting is a spiritual discipline believed to improve listening skills, heightened energy, and more sensitivity toward others. When you chant mantras your mind releases the positive energy that decreases the negative thoughts or stress. Chanting is practiced by many traditions, usually as a route to spiritual development.
Shunia – music duo Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson, co-composed with Tony Award-winning producer Jamshied Sharifi an impressive new album called Shunia where they blend the art forms of opera, mantra, chant, and world music, into a captivating new sound. The mantras on their album have been sung for thousands of years. The intention in each word has a vibrational energy to it, that brings feelings of joy, hope, and awareness at a crucial moment in time. A page on the Shunia website further explains the meaning of each mantra.
An Interview with Shunia about their new album: Shunia by Esther Haasnoot
Esther Haasnoot: Lisa and Suzanne, you became friends when you were studying at the University of Maryland, and you both have performed professionally at the Washington National Opera for twenty years. The universe can carefully orchestrate the seemingly impossible convergences of things, people, events, and conditions. Can you tell a little more about your musical journey? How did the band Shunia start?
Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson: Actually, we had both been interested in yoga and chanting for a long time. We chanted our first chant together while hanging out at an opera rehearsal for Carmen. Then one day we were at a spa in the sauna, so we started chanting OM, and it was so beautiful, partly because of the reverberation of the room and partly because how our voices sounded together. We both looked at each other and said, it’d be really cool to do a chant album together. So that’s how it started. We called Lisa’s friend Thomas Barquee, who had produced several chant albums. He was excited to produce our album. We chose some of our favorite chants and composed music to them. We liked the idea of being a band, instead of two individual artists because we wanted our voices to create one voice.
Esther Haasnoot: Your new self-titled album Shunia is full of transcendent music and melodic harmonies; it blends many cultures, Sanskrit chants, ancient poetry, Latin prayer, and outstanding orchestration into a sound that feels timeless and yet also new. Each song has a purpose and meaning, and the music is delightful to listen to. How do you keep this delicate balance between spirituality and music when you are creating and songwriting?
Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson: The chants themselves give rise to a certain inspiration and reverence. Chants are often sung in a kirtan style of call and response. It’s a sacred sound formula that has a specific focus and energy. These chants directed our music towards specific rhythms and patterns and melodies. Our process was to start with speaking the chant over and over and feeling the natural rhythm that it created. Then we composed the music around that. For example, our Har Hare Hari is very rhythmically driven, because it is about the creative force of God. We want the music to intensify the meaning of the mantra.
Album producer Jamshied Sharifi’s thoughts on this: I’m not sure I see much difference between spirituality and music. Yes, there is a part of music that is made up of notes and chords, instruments and microphones. But I tend to see that as the “clothing” of an endeavor that is primarily in the realm of the unseeable and unknown. In that sense all music is spiritual, and you can hear that in Palestrina and John Lee Hooker and Zakir Hussein.
Esther Haasnoot: The Corona pandemic changed our daily lives dramatically. You started writing the album right before the pandemic hit. Did this have much influence on the creating of your new album?
Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson: We actually started writing this album at the end of 2018 and had it completed by the end of 2019. We were planning our release around the time the pandemic hit. So, like everyone else, our plans had to be rethought. Suddenly so many people around the world were dying from the virus. We decided to release Akal because this chant is a prayer for the dying. It’s meant to guide the soul as it transitions out of the earthly realm. We hope it would offer some comfort.
Esther Haasnoot: In the Sikh tradition and the larger global Kundalini yogic community, the Gurbani mantra Akal is often chanted right after someone’s physical death. In June 2020, you released the song “Akal, ” which is well-received. Can you tell us about this chant’s purpose and meaning?
Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson: Akal means undying. This protective mantra can remove the very shadow of death. We wanted to put this mantra on the album because of its great transformative power and comfort. As we were writing it, we thought it’d be pretty to put a counter melody line over the top of the chant. At first, we thought we would sing the line on an “ah”, but then the idea for using the words “Riposa in Pace” came to us. They mean “rest in peace” in Italian. The words sang so beautifully on the notes that we actually began the song that way. It was meaningful to us that we used these two languages to sing the Akal prayer for the dead and the Italian phrase enhanced its meaning.
©2020 Satori Productions, LLC
Esther Haasnoot: “Breeze at Dawn” is based on a poem by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, which is fantastic. How did you get the idea of this song?
Lisa Reagan: Spiritual teachers can come in many forms. For me, Rumi is definitely one of my spiritual teachers. I believe Coleman Bark’s translations of Rumi’s poetry, best captures the mystery of Rumi’s words. When I was first learning kundalini yoga my teacher gave me one of his books of poetry. She said, “Read this, and don’t go back to sleep!” As I read the book, I understood what she was saying. If we want to live in the magic and mystery of this world, we need to live in the present moment. I believe that’s what Rumi meant when he said, “the door is round and open, don’t go back to sleep.” We thought it would be appropriate and beautiful to put this poem on the album.
©2020 Satori Productions, LLC
Esther Haasnoot: The song “Sa Re Sa Sa” is a joyous celebration. Hassan Hakmoun gives a unique touch to this song with his sintir and beautiful voice. The “Sa Re Sa Sa” is a famous mantra in the Kundalini Yoga community and is considered a starting point in one’s yogic journey; why is that?
Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson: Sa is the Infinite, the Totality, God. It is the element of ether. It is the origin, the beginning, and it contains all other effects. It is subtle and beyond. Har is the creativity of the Earth. It is the dense element, the power of manifestation, the tangible, the personal. These sounds are woven together and then projected through the sound of Ung or complete Totality. This is the base mantra of all mantras. Because it opens all the chakras. It takes the earthly energies to the divine and brings the divine down into the earthly plane.
©2020 Satori Productions, LLC
Esther Haasnoot: “Alleluia” brings together the Latin words of the 23rd psalm blended with strings, drums, the flute, and choral arrangements in a very Gregorian chant style. Alleluia is a Hebrew phrase that means “praise God. Devotion is all about the spiritual practice of offering our every thought, feeling, and action to our God/Goddess or to however you conceptualize your higher power. Sound or vibration is the most potent force in the universe. A song that holds a wish or intention, born out of the depths of true devotion to the Divine and continuously chanted, audibly or mentally, until the response is consciously received from God in the form of boundless joy, is a wish or intention manifest into being. How are you experiencing this?
Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson: The mantras that we are chanting on this album have been chanted for thousands of years. The intention in each word has a vibrational energy to it, and the language (Sanskrit) is an ancient holy language that carries the seed sounds of humans. We wanted to create music that would lift you up, give you strength, hope, and comfort. Music has the power to do that. This is our prayer and desire for this album.
©2020 Satori Productions, LLC
Esther Haasnoot: Your music invites listening on two levels. “On one level, listeners are entertained by astonishing compositions, virtuosic playing, and impressive vocal sounds. On another level, one can focus on the wisdom of each mantra and lyric as it is expressed with deep conviction and striking clarity. What is the vision behind your music?
Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson: When we set out to make this album, our focus was to make it musically stunning. As musicians whose lives have been enriched by chanting, we wanted to create a beautiful garden of sound where the chants could come alive. We thought about the unique energy of each of these mantras and created music that would be in harmony with each one. Our hope is that people will sing and dance along with this album because it profoundly moves them.
Esther Haasnoot: Chanting mantras is an ancient practice. Each song is meaningful, and each mantra contains unique energy. The music you created is in harmony with it. What do you think can be the role and the benefits of chants, mantras, and prayers, especially for this time?
Lisa Reagan: I think it’s really challenging right now because of the virus. People are feeling like all of their foundations have been uprooted. These chants bring you back to the spirit that dwells within your humanity. Our spirit is our direct line to the divine intelligence of this planet. If we can remember who we really are… we can live from that place of knowing… and that is my prayer for everyone.
Suzanne Jackson: Mantras have been chanted for thousands of years, and for good reason. They’ve been the topic of many scientific studies that have shown the psychological, emotional, and physical benefits of chanting. As Shunia, our desire was to put these mantras into beautiful music so that they could be chanted and enjoyed on many levels. Everything on our planet is ultimately vibration. When you chant, or sing, you vibrate your body which in turn changes how you feel both physically and mentally.
Esther Haasnoot: Thank you so much for your time and all the best in your future aspirations. It is a delight speaking with you.
Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson: Thank you… it was such a joy to be with you.
Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson became friends while attending graduate school at University of Maryland. Both performed with the Washington National Opera for 20 years while launching successful solo careers. The duo decided to meld their love for the power of chanting with their Western vocal prowess. This led them to form Shunia (pronounced SHOON-ya), choosing the Sanskrit word meaning “stillness and receptivity” as the name of their duo. For more information or to connect with Shunia: website Shunia, Spotify, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter. SHUNIA is available globally on most platforms today. Physical CDs are available at https://shuniasound.com/ and Amazon.
About Jamshied Sharifi:
Jamshied Sharifi is a New York-based composer, producer, and keyboardist. He has composed the scores for feature films including Harriet The Spy, Down To Earth, Clockstoppers, and Rollerball, as well as contributing music to numerous television shows and independent films. He has produced and/or performed with Paula Cole, Ray Charles, Dream Theater, Laurie Anderson, Hassan Hakmoun, Yungchen Lhamo, Mirabai Ceiba, and many others. Furthermore, he produced Snatam Kaur’s album, Beloved, which was nominated for the 2019 Best New Age Album Grammy, and Sharifi did some orchestrations for Sting’s Broadway musical, The Last Ship. His orchestrations for The Band’s Visit won the 2018 Tony Award.
Source: Global Heart
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