Chestnut Hill Local (Philadelphia, PA)

December 15, 2011


Hiller's band offers spiritual option for New Year's Eve 

Author: Lou Mancinelli

Section: News

Page: 23

First, the members of the "kirtan" band chant a mantra.

Then the audience responds as drums and organs sound. The cycle continues. The spirit summoned, heard. So will be the proceeding of events offered in a spiritual, musical alternative to hard-partying this New Years Eve.

Mandala, Chestnut Hill resident Scott Robinson's devotional fusion multi-faith chant call-and response band, will perform from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve at the Church of St. Martin in the Fields at 8000 St. Martin's Lane.

Mandala combines Indian, Celtic, Gregorian and Turkish devotional music and offers the blend to listeners in a kirtan style.

Kirtan is the call-and-response music performed in Indian devotional music. It involves chanting mantras or hymns to the accompaniment of, in the case of Mandala, tablas (traditional Indian drums), a clarinet, harmonium (traditional Indian organ) and karatals, or small hand-sized cymbals.

It's the kind of music you might hear at a yoga studio. While kirtan music is devotional to Hindu, Mandala expands their collection to include biblical texts and English phrases.

"There is something liberating about praying in a language other than the one in which you think," Robinson said. "Traditional kirtan texts are Sanskrit mantras, and chanting the Sanskrit words gives one the opportunity to once again relinquish the thinking mind and join in whole-heartedly with the devotions."

It was Robinson's children who indirectly introduced the art form to their father. Before performing and writing kirtan, Robinson taught music composition, 20thcentury music history and more at Eastern University in Delaware County from 1999 until 2008.

Before that, he earned his Ph.D in composition from the University of Minnesota in 1998. For years, the Syracuse, New York, raised musician performed folk music at Renaissance Fairs. He earned his bachelor's degree in English from Le Moyne College in 1986 and his master's in music training from Binghamton University in 1990, both in New York state.

When Mandala, formed in 2004, shifted its style from Islamic sufimusic (which involves chanting but not a call-response system) to kirtan, Robinson, 47, who formerly wrote for the now-defunct Faith Life section of the Inquirer, had already formally studied Greek, Turkish and Indian music for a number of years. But in 2005, with a toddler and an infant at home, he wanted to strengthen his back. He also wanted to be able to sit in a more comfortable manner on the floor when he played the tablas and "wanted to be able to clean-up after his dog without grinding his knees."

So it was through the physical practice of yoga that Robinson, already a man with a spiritual leaning, and a professional member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, was introduced to the philosophical elements of yogic discipline.

Kirtan is part of the Bhakti yoga system, or the yoga of devotion, a meditative enterprise, he explained. The original purpose of Hatha yoga, or physical yoga, was to prepare the body for meditation, or Bhakti yoga. So by practicing yoga, Robinson strengthened his core, which helped him to haul his kids around. It also made it more comfortable to play his tablas. And almost as a spillover benefit, he found a new musical niche, though it came a few years later in 2009, when he purchased his first Krishna Das album.

"Bhakti" is Mandala's third album, released last year through Philadelphia-based label Lux Musica.

The songs are written by Robinson. In addition to his work with Mandala, Robinson also performs with his renaissance Greek/Balkan/Turkish/Irish folk music group, Gypsyophilia. He moved to Chestnut Hill in 1999 with his wife, Allison Ballantine.

They have two daughters, ages seven and eight. He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

For Robinson, there are many spiritual endeavors in addition to kirtan and Mandala. At present, he has one year remaining in his spiritual direction studies at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.

For 30 years, the Shalem Institute, based in Washington D.C. with satellite centers across the country, has provided students with in depth support for contemplative living and leadership.

When he earns his certificate, Robinson plans to lead spiritual retreats. That's something he did at St. Margaret's House in Germantown, before he started to teach at Eastern. His dream is to lead kirtan weekend retreats that incorporate meditation and singing.

"The challenge is to thread a path through two worlds in a way that is attractive to both and off putting to neither," he said about designing a retreat that is spiritual and religious, yet remains free of specific affiliation and thus reflective of his interests and chants across a multi-faith spectrum.

Spiritual direction and contemplative retreat leadership are two elements of Robinson's currently evolving mission, Open to the Divine (OTD). "As a trained multi-faith spiritual director," he writes on his OTD website, "I've introduced many spiritual seekers to the universal disciplines of contemplative prayer in yoga studios, churches, colleges and retreat centers. By leading contemplative prayer groups and retreats, I help seekers from all paths learn to be present to the movement of the Spirit in their lives."

That is also what Mandala is about. "A mandala is a sacred image," Robinson said. "[It is] usually round or sometimes square.

They were originally a Buddhist practice. The most famous may be the 'sand mandalas' made by Tibetan Buddhist monks. But the term has become universalized. So that, for instance, a rosette window in a church may also be referred to as a mandala. We chose the name because we have taken musical styles that began within one faith tradition and broadened their applicability into a multi-faith context."

To learn more or to hear Mandala, visit

For more information about Open to the Divine, visit To read some of Robinson's writings,


Mandala, Chestnut Hill resident Scott Robinson's devotional fusion multi-faith chant call-and-response band, will perform from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve at the Church of St. Martin in the Fields at 8000 St. Martin's Lane. Mandala is made up of Aino Söderhielm, clarinet; Scott Robinson and Andi Hunt, guitar.

Copyright © 2011 Chestnut Hill Local, All rights reserved.

Mandala is an international ethnic fusion music group with loads of eclectic talent. The CD, Bhakti, offers kirtan, Sufi-style zikr, Turkish and Indian beats and Georgian chant – a whole new kind of devotional music; it is not your typical kirtan. These accomplished musicians and singers have created a compilation of music with beautiful inspirational messages that all devotional backgrounds can enjoy.

Editors Note: Bhakti is a CD you’ll want to listen to when practicing Yoga as well as driving in your car. All the music on this CD is stunning and tightly performed.

‎"...a soaring beautiful collection of kirtan chants... The combination of Gregorian-style chanting with harmonium is quite breathtaking...All the music on this album is stunning, tightly performed and beautiful." Read the full review at Elephant Journal:

“I (and those around me) especially enjoyed was INCREDIBLY beautiful and is still in my mind and on my heart.”
 --The Rev. Susan Teegan-Case
The Arts and Spirituality Center, Philadelphia

“I caught your performance on Sunday and loved it. It was a lovely blending of Old and New Testaments, and quite exhilarating. Primal, actually, pure and honest. “
 --Kile Smith
, composer

'Just wanted to let you know how very, very, incredibly wonderful your music was! It went straight into my soul, opened me up, and connected me to the endless sea of all other souls. There is really no better way to describe it.' --Fan email

“Dr. Scott Robinson presented a combined lecture and concert of amazing music. Scott spoke on "St. Francis and Islamic Mysticism," and Mandala performed music that was intellectually fascinating and meditative at the same time. Quite a feat! Everyone was thrilled.”
 --George Schwab, Progressive Christian Study Group, St. Paul's Church, Elkins Park, PA.

"Your music touched me very deeply: I found, more than once, tears on my cheeks, I had gooseflesh creep on my back, I could barely stay in my seat for wanting to dance, and at the same time, I found myself feeling something similar to the feeling I get when I meditate. What an amazing thing you do." --Fan email

“It was a real blessing having you here.”
 --The Rev. Hank Galganowicz
, Holy Innocents/St. Paul's Church, Philadelphia