The act of chanting -- repeating words or phrases over and over, usually to a melody -- has been a mode of worship and a feature of spiritual practice in many faiths around the world for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks chanted deities' names at festivals, rituals and parades. Buddhist sutras, childhood rhyming games, and football cheers are all chants of a sort. They're so universal and so popular because their power to soothe, bond, entrain and transport goes very deep. Professional singer and chant leader Francesca Genco, whom I interviewed this week, believes that the sounds and vibrations produced by chanting can heal the chanter's body and mind.
"Most chants are repetitive, and there's a purpose to that. The syllables themselves have power," says Genco, a longtime yoga teacher whose CD, Numinous River, features her lilting contralto performing chants in Sanskrit. "The names hold a power that evokes certain qualities in the body," she explains. "A field is created in the body and mind. It's an ancient technology, really." As the repetition and the sound resonate through brain, bones, organs and skin, "the resonance sets up a frequency and holds that frequency. When I chant, it definitely changes my brainwaves and puts me into a place where I feel more spacious energetically, spiritually, and physically. I experience this as an opening and a widening of myself."
While practicing Zen Buddhism, she came to appreciate the transformative effect of intoned sutras. And having studied yoga, she became familiar with Sanskrit, the ancient language in which all Hindu and many Buddhist scriptures were originally written. Yogis believe that Sanskrit's fifty different sounds vibrate in a unique way that purifies and energizes the chakras, those seven vortices that they believe are positioned vertically along the human body from groin to crown. While traditional Indian kirtan chanting is call-and-response, Genco prefers a group effort.
"I'm interested in giving people the opportunity to find their own expression through chanting. We co-create the sound. Yes, I'm leading. But I'm also responding. That's the beauty of it," she marvels. "They come up with things I could never think of."
In her circles, participants offer words, phrases, rhythms, and tunes from their own backgrounds and imaginations. After all, no culture holds an exclusive claim on chanting. Genco remembers her mother playing Gregorian-chant records every morning when she was growing up: "She would light all these candles and that's what I came downstairs to. I thought it was a little kooky but I loved it."
Sometimes she co-leads circles with a didgeridoo player and a clarinetist. Sometimes they spread what they call a "healing blanket" in front of the musicians, inviting participants to spread out on the blanket. "It's really nice," Genco says, "just to lie down and receive a sound."