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Empathy as Art Form

Simrit Kaur and her beautiful, heartfelt stage show.

Courtesy Simrit Kaur.
Source: Courtesy Simrit Kaur.

In a former synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan Saturday night, lights in rich jewel tones washed over the altar.

In walked a woman who looked like a goddess in keeping with her Greek ancestry: Simrit, the genre-defying singer/songwriter, in an elaborate headdress made of horse hair.

It all felt heavenly, like some dreamy caravansaray filled with the sounds of a very tight band, including Salif Bamakora on the kora (the 21-string lute-bridge-harp passed down through family lineages in West Africa), Shannon Hayden on electric cello, and Simrit on the harmonium. The setting was the Angel Orensanz Foundation event space.

I found myself thinking back to the phone conversation I had with Simrit last week about how the lighting design comes out of her own visual experiences in response to the music, a kind of tone to color synesthesia. She tells me her stage crew has a whole color chart of her desired hues to coordinate to the gorgeous melodies.

“Melody and vision were always a thing for me," Simrit told me by phone from a hotel room in the midst of her current world tour. "When I close my eyes and I’m singing I can go into another world." And so I watched as the gold and the indigo and silver crept over the ornate edifice and filled the space at her show, knowing we were all in Simrit's mind for the evening. This link will give you an idea of a performance in a similar setting.

Simrit is not only a singer/songwriter. She is a producer and owns her own label. Her songs have topped the Billboard and iTunes charts in the world music category. Belinda Carlisle, who calls Simrit "punk rock in a way," is a fan and collaborator.

Courtesy Simrit Kaur.
Source: Courtesy Simrit Kaur.

But it's more than that. It's the empathic message of the music -- some of it in the form of mantras -- that is evidence of another kind of synesthesia: mirror-touch, which is a marker of profound empathy present in just 1.6 percent of people. Indeed, Simrit is a teacher of Kundalini and Naad yoga and a Reiki master. Take, for example, the song "The Keeper," in which Simrit asks her listeners to "submit to the storm, walk into the water, lay open the heart..."

“It’s a sensitivity; I'm very empathic," she confirms. "It’s really easy for me to feel people’s feelings. And in a concert, I can gather energy from that. People tell me they feel I understand them. Someone can walk in the door, and I can immediately feel what they are feeling. I'll have days when I'm extroverted and then other days when people will think something's wrong (because she withdraws deep inside herself).

“It can be psychologically debilitating if I allow it to be. Yoga really helps me with that.”

Simrit believes this kind of sensitivity is good for the music and I agree. There is an intimacy at her shows I've seldom felt in a concert setting.

The prodigy who studied piano, dance, and drums while growing up, also seems to have the synesthetic gift of a profound creative flow. “The main thing is sound. I will have it constantly, all day. Last night I was in bed, and I heard sounds as though someone was right next to me. Sometimes it’s parts of a song, like the cello part."

She told me she hears so many rhythms and melodies that she has three iPhones filled with voice memos of these inspirations. "It’s ridiculous. I will probably never get to all of them in my lifetime.”

Yet she says, "it feels soothing to me to get that melodic and rhythmic pulse running through me."

She says it is like an inner metronome, a pulse running through her much of the day and night. “There’s this feeling I get and it’s doing something to me on the physical level..."It’s very palpable to me. It’s like an energetic pulse coming through.”

She never called it synesthesia before we talked; it was normal to her and many of us, including me, don't know we are synesthetes until well into adulthood. But when I sent the question to her publicist she was intrigued, looked it up, and identified with the experiences.

Simrit is very knowledgeable about neuroscience. She sings in English and in the ancient language of Gurmukhi, which comes from the Sanskrit language. She told Sovo Magazine that "this language of Gurmukhi comes from the Northwestern corner of India in Punjab, and it literally creates new thought patterns in the mind and creates new neural pathways in the brain. This language is meant to liberate consciousness in the sense that it opens a person to themselves and the reality of their potential, which is being a real human being…compassionate and understanding of oneself and others."