Devotional and improvisational folk music of India

By Kelley Guiney

Seattle's own eastern-influenced duo "Bhakti"-vocalist Mahria Potter and tabla player Gordon Assadi-is an exciting example of the dynamic and dramatic role that music can play in the unfolding course of one's life and livelihood. Blending their eastern influences and western musical training, Mahria sings bhajans (devotional songs that have their ancient roots in India) in Sanskrit and Bengali with English, interspersed as Gordon plays the tabla (northern Indian drums). Both Mahria and Gordon are accomplished musicians, and their native language, so to speak, is western music. The two collaborate on the melodies and rhythmic arrangements, which both reflect their western roots and pay homage to their separate passions. The combination of words and music is meant to awaken the bhakti, translated as the heart's devotion, in all who listen.

Gordon, who is also a guitarist and violinist, has been a devotee and self-described tabla "addict" since he first heard a recording of tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. He immediately began studying the tabla, first with Tor Dietrichson and then with Vishal Nagar, both very well known and highly respected tabla masters. Both Gordon and Mahria were raised in musical families who then (with an ironic but common attitude) discouraged their desires to follow music as a profession. Mahria's rebellion against this discouragement took her to India, and she ended up traveling throughout the country participating in a life of seva, service. A twist of fate led her to give up her belongings to the beggars and then carry nothing but one set of clothing and to go wherever there was a need. This led her through various faiths and places of worship: Buddhist, Christian, Hindu temples and yoga ashrams, all the while searching for a way of life that was sincere and pure, with music at its core. She found this throughout India, but most inspiring was the northern Indian city of Vrindavan (near New Delhi) where, as she describes it, "the entire culture is immersed in devotional music 24/7." She spent six months with the Vaishnavites, devotees of the Hindu deity Vishnu, where she truly felt at home and where she learned many of the bhajans that she now performs with Bhakti.

Mahria and Gordon met almost by accident two years ago when she advertised for other vocalists. Gordon still claims that the ad was not just for singers, but also musicians. The two still disagree on this historical detail, but no matter. Their first meeting turned into a jam session that lasted for hours. Mahria describes that session as truly traveling together with their music an unexpectedly powerful collaboration of their passions and skills. This immediate chemistry was mesmerizing for both of them and within two weeks they had recorded a demo. They immediately sent off an application to perform at Seattle's University Street Fair (two months away) and were accepted; later that month they were featured at Port Angeles' Juan de Fuca festival of the arts. Soon they had a standing gig at Wallingford's Kuan Yin Teahouse, where they can still be found on certain Saturday evenings. The duo recently released their first CD, entitled Vraja.

There is definitely something mesmerizing about the combination of Sanskrit chant set to music and backed up by the tabla rhythms. Mahria and Gordon believe there is power in mantra and power in rhythm, power to inspire. There are many factors that make this music compelling, not the least of which is the almost palpable chemistry between Mahria and Gordon, which originally created the impetus for Bhakti and which is evident both in person and on the recording. In their live performances, expect stories from India, improvisation with the audience, or violin/voice duets. And there is always room for the unexpected. Another quality that stands out, both on the recording and in their live performance is the tremendous sense of purity and sincerity expressed through Mahria's voice and presence. As a performer she embodies those qualities for which she once searched throughout India. And finally, there is an exciting sense of cultures coming together, as well as the combined skill of two artists who have centered their lives around their music.

For more information on Bhakti contact gassadi@hotmail.com, mahpotter@hotmail.com. Upcoming performances are as follows:

Kuan Yin Teahouse, Feb. 22 and Mar. 22 at 8:30 pm
Normandy Park Yoga Center, Feb. 8 at 8:00 pm
Sakya Monastery, May 31 at 7:30 pm