A Thousand Suns by GuruGanesha Singh

Debut album from the GuruGanesha Band with Paloma Devi Shines Brighter than A Thousand Suns.
Every once in a while an album comes along that elevates the world devotional music genre to new heights—propelling sacred mantras beyond the yoga studio and onto the international stage, where kirtan can proudly take its place alongside the finest pop, jazz or classical music. A Thousand Suns by the GuruGanesha Band with newcomer Paloma Devi is just such an album. Blessed with a profound sense of spiritual devotion and a high level of artistry, it is the very oceanlike nectar of infinite bliss rendered audible—an immensely satisfying and inspiring musical experience.

Helmed by mantra music patriarch, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter GuruGanesha, A Thousand Suns features the debut of the supremely gifted vocalist Paloma Devi, along with a dazzlingly accomplished ensemble of musicians including bowed-string wizard Hans Christian and keyboard/production polymath Thomas Barquee. What they’ve forged together is nothing short of breathtaking.

Coming from a long and successful run with singer Snatam Kaur and a much-beloved string of solo albums, GuruGanesha is no stranger to the mantra idiom. But A Thousand Suns may well be his finest hour, a crowning achievement. In recent years, he has expanded his instrumental palette to include electric as well as acoustic guitars, an artistic growth spurt that has placed a rich, sun-dappled array of evocative tones at his command. His touch on his chosen instruments is steeped in understated assurance and gentle expansiveness.

But for all its moments of solo guitar grandeur, A Thousand Suns is, above all, an ensemble effort. Instrumentally, GuruGanesha is well matched by the polychrome genius of Hans Christian, whose masterfully handled cello, saranghi, nyckelharpa, sitara and other stringed instruments alternate and intertwine with GuruGanesha’s guitar leads in gloriously crafted antiphony and harmony. Vocally as well, the album is solidly grounded in the give-and-take heartplay of call-and-response kirtan chanting, setting GuruGanesha’s baritone in yin yang contrapoise to the beguiling voice of Paloma Devi.

This young woman is clearly poised to become the next superstar of mantra music, ready to take her place alongside the genre’s other great divas. She is possessed of a voice that drips with the sweet perfume of devotion—a voice that speaks directly to the heart in a language so intimate and tender it’s as if your own soul is singing to you. Her crystalline purity of tone is embossed with glints of contemporary r&b, salsa and pop. This is a voice for the ages, but also a voice for right now—multicultural, compassionately engaged, a balm for our troubled times. It quivers like the softly beating breast of a heavenward ascendant dove. It shimmers like the finest, gossamer cloth-of-gold. It leaves the listener defenseless and enraptured.

The album’s six lavishly-produced tracks offer a generous range of musical styles, reflecting the artists’ diverse gifts and sensibilities. The title track, co-written by GuruGanesha and Paloma, is a meditative ballad with gospel/folk overtones—voices, guitar and cello calling to one another across vast oceans of devotion. “Sri Ram” unfolds with the courtly exoticism of a suite by Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov, transporting the listener via magic carpet to a starlit night amongst the Gopis. Up until now, GuruGanesha has mainly worked with texts from Sikh tradition, so it’s a delight to hear him lend his talents to one of the quintessential Hindu mantras.

The jaunty, retro-pop of “Thy Will Be Done,” gets down into GuruGanesha’s rock and roll roots. His reverb-drenched leads and Paloma’s wailing vocal descants sound like they could have come right off Haight Street, circa 1967, touching on the yoga movement’s psychedelic roots. Meanwhile, Paloma’s Cuban heart shines through radiantly on the Latin-inflected “Waho Waho Gobind Singh” with its supple rhythmic sway, heartfelt vocal in Español and Guajarati, Euro-cafe fiddle and Santana-esque six-string fire.

“Mayray Meet Gurudev” gracefully balances on artfully wrought lattices of filigreed guitar work, keening saranghi and sparkling piano. The composition’s compelling refrain packs the heady upward thrust of the titular thousand solar orbs. And the closing track, the raga-based “Mayra Piara” wafts us homeward with a hypnotic mantra set to a simple, almost folkloric melody and set amidst fugue-like instrumental adornments that draw us ever deeper into the essence of these sacred syllables.

The message of A Thousand Suns is perhaps best encapsulated in the title track’s simple, repeated refrain: “Open your heart.” Confronted with such musical majesty, how could we do otherwise? “Can you feel it?” asks the next line. How could we possibly not?

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