Alice Coltrane was a mother, a wife, and a jazz musician whose passion evolved with her spirituality. After the pain of losing her husband, the immortal sax player John Coltrane, to cancer in 1967, she adopted the name Turiyasangitananda and became the leader — swamini — of the Sai Anantam Ashram, which she founded in Agoura Hills, California, in 1983. She performed musical ceremonies and chants every Sunday with her students, which eventually led to her writing a long list of melodies. In 2017, ten years after her passing, the record label of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, Luaka Bop, released a compilation of her songs, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda.
Today her mystical music continues to be celebrated and shown to the world by the Sai Anantam Singers with Alice Coltrane's daughter, Sita Michelle Coltrane. In a rare performance hosted by the Rhythm Foundation, the Ashram Experience will perform at the North Beach Bandshell this Friday, October 12, and Miami is invited to join the singers' chants.
The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane is a powerful representation of the life to which the musician devoted herself. The music has influences of her piano/harp jazz and gospel roots mixed with traditional sanskrit mantras or chants, which creates a cosmic elevation of consciousness. Alice Coltrane left behind a secular life and became a leader to a multiethnic community of students of all ages. Her daughter Michelle Coltrane recalls being initiated into the ashram around the age of 16. "I remember going in, having this ceremonial moment... and she told me what my spiritual name would be, and that was 'Sita,' so that's why I call myself Sita Michelle."
Sita Michelle Coltrane continues to follow the spiritual path her mother blazed. The presence of her mother is one that she will never let go, and she understands that many others were also changed by it.
"Silence would fall upon the room when she would walk in... there was something about her energy," Sita Michelle says.
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Many listeners automatically connect the name "Coltrane" to Miles Davis' protégé John Coltrane, but the release of the album has given a new dimension to the names "Alice Coltrane" and "Turiyasangitananda." "The jazz that she was playing was boutique," Sita explains. The music she created over the years was rare and originally released on cassette by Alice Coltrane herself. "People were bootlegging it," Sita says. Now her songs are easily accessible and have become a staple in spiritual jazz.
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Surya Botofasina was a student of Coltrane's during the ashram years and is the music director on tour with the Sai Anantam singers, a group that consists of the ashram's students. Surya has many memories of growing up and learning music under the influence of Alice Coltrane, who became a mother figure to him. "The foundation of the chanting, along with her organ and it being taken to such an incredibly high level, was a complete reflection of her devotion to God," he says. The album is completely different from today's Western music. Surya describes the bass players as feet on the organ/synth, and the drums as people clapping.
The Sai Anantam Singers are students representing the community, some of whom performed on the original recordings. They have other performances scheduled in New York and Philadelphia.
In 2017, the ashram closed its original location. However, its spirit lives on in the music of Swamini Alice Coltrane Turiysangitananda. Sita Michelle and Surya want others to experience the energy by joining in the chants. "I hope that they walk away feeling elevated," Sita says. "It's not a show; we welcome you to be a part of it."
Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda: The Ashram Experience. 8 p.m. Friday, October 12, at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; northbeachbandshell.com. Tickets cost $30 via rhythmfoundation.com.