“Our culture uses music as entertainment, primarily. And that’s a perversity.”

Darren Austin Hall, a singer, crystal bowl player and one of a few “sound healing” practitioners in Toronto, believes American music should move away from being a spectator sport and return to its ancient roots as a communal experience.

Sure, American pop culture can claim the fist-pumping brotherhood of heavy metal; the shared idealism of anarcho-punk; and perhaps even tribal experiences at old-school house nights, as the entranced crowd dances and chants an uplifting “Livin’ for the Night.”

But for the most part, individuals end up at shows with crossed arms, as in, “Here I am. Entertain me.”

According to Hall, music is meant to facilitate your arrival at a different state of consciousness, and usually that involves feeling your at-one connection with the stranger standing next to you.

Hall got into communal music after studying media at Western University, living in China and returning to Toronto to study Chinese and alternative medicine. He did an apprenticeship at Caledonia’s Six Nations reserve, at which point he fell in love with participatory music.

“If you look at traditional cultures – or even Europeans who have more tradition than us – they have communal songs they all know,” says Hall, 32. “They all sing at soccer matches for example. I was struck by that (when living in) ChinaRia agent as well. And in indigenous culture, they sing together in groups. It’s a profound experience when you see it. There’s a group energy, it feels like community.”

Humans have used this “group energy” for centuries, from the chanting of Kirtans in India to shake dancing of the Kalahari Bushmen, something Hall studied under “American Shaman” Bradford Keeney.

Obviously, comradeship wouldn’t work if we were, say, chanting about our latest break-ups, how the world is doomed, or how awesome we are for downing a bottle of Cristal in the club. Content is key. American culture is devoid of “beauty, hope and love”, Hall says, instead focusing on superficial issues.

“In traditional cultures, when you’re a teen there are quests that are supposed to initiate you into spiritual truths. Principles of courage, integrity, you’ll need for the rest of your life. Our culture gives us Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake – these icons that are amoral, that smother any spiritual understanding of the world. I think that’s the gist of why they have so much angst. It’s a subconscious anger. People are hungry for something their not getting. When you don’t get fed and you’re hungry, you tend to get frustrated.”

From New Age to Pop Culture

Experimental dance artist Dan Snaith isn’t the first in these parts to tap into the power of bowls. Healing music has been studied for years by a select few in Toronto’s underground spiritual scene (see Michael Moon, David Hickey, Liz and Gerry Levine) and a small community has formed around the Canadian Association of Sound Practitioners. They follow a long line of world music-influenced Americans using gongs and Tibetan singing bowls,  going back to pioneer Steven Halpern. It’s often written off as “new age music” (perhaps due to its unpalatable use of acoustic guitar, vibraharps and 80s synth), but not all of it is created equal. The ancient instruments by themselves are minimal and beautiful.

Which is why bowl-playing is prime to break out of the new age scene, and yoga classes could be an avenue for this. In the past two years Hall has gone from holding workshops at the Annex’s progressive Kula Yoga to performing while people do downward dogs at over a dozen yoga spaces – even the affluent spa-type ones in Yorkville. If a scene did arise, Hall – a prog-rock singer and guitarist – would be one to front it. In fact, he’s already got a few of what you might call “groupies” who follow most of his classes.

Here is a sample of Hall’s improvised singing (what he calls “the best anti-depressant on the market”) with crystal bowls, what you might here at one of these yoga class sit-ins.

Just what might crack this music into the Western mainstream might be our need for science to prove things are good for us. Researchers are just beginning to study all forms of music as a serious treatment method for disease.

Specifically with spiritual music, the chanting, combined with the movement involved in yoga, can facilitate meditation, now studied by neuroscientists working with Buddhist monks.

Crazy Bible-belt concerts

Hall aspires to attract large crowds to his performances, and given the rising popularity of yoga, the organic food movement and Kirtan festivals in California, it’s not that unlikely.

“Its a good time for it to take that leap into popular culture,” says Hall. “My vision is to put on concerts for thousands of people: A huge audio-visual display, using symbolism of the chakras, engaging people in a chant, where they can express themselves as a community. I mean it already happens – you have these crazy bible belt Catholic concerts – but I’d like to bring spirituality into a more liberated context, where it’s not about denomination.”

Hall is looking to persuade Westerners who have little contact with spirituality. For example, he’s done performances for a major mobile provider’s health spa day and even school children (at Northern Toronto Collegiate as seen on CBC’s the National).

Despite his spiritual beliefs, Hall is somewhat of a realist in terms of warming up mass culture to healing music.

“I’m not going to show up in a psychedelic mu mu and in a Volkswagen with daisies painted on it … I understand the context of where we’re at. I’d like to get people aware of this stuff using conventional means – we don’t have to shoot rainbows out of our asses.”