How to Lead Kirtan
Leading kirtan is more than a performance, more than an art, leading kirtan is a sadhana. There are many beliefs, attitudes, and opinions on everything, so I will just speak from my own perceptions and experiences, as well as from the perspective of the great ones with whom I have discussed leading kirtan.
There are many forms of sadhana, but kirtan comes from the school of Bhakti Yoga. In order to truly express the fullest possibilities in the kirtan experience, the leader must be a person to whom all that matters is love (in other words, a bhakta). The leader must be doing regular sadhana. The leader must have had an initiation with a guru. The leader must be able to keep excellent time and sing on pitch. The leader must have a lovely, pleasing voice, and she must be a master of a musical instrument.
The first requirement for a kirtan wallah is that consistent sadhana needs to be in place. Sadhana includes meditation, Hatha Yoga (the yoga of poses or asanas), Japa (reciting Godıs names), Puja (ceremonial offerings), reading holy books and the words of holy persons. Kirtan comes from Bhakti Yoga. To lead kirtan one must be on the path of Bhakti yoga and have a personal relationship with a realized Guru. This is kind of a hard line point of view, but remember Gandhi and the sugar (a woman comes to Gandhi with her son, "please tell my son to not eat sugar" she says. Gandhi says "Come back in 3 days". 3 days later, she returns, and Gandhi says to the boy "Don't eat sugar". The woman says "Gandhi-ji, why did I have to come back in 3 days, why didnıt you tell him 3 days ago?" And Gandhi says, "3 days ago I had not yet myself stopped eating sugar"!).
This, of course, recognizes the very special role the kirtan leader performs for society. It is a great sacrifice in kirtan to keep track of the rag and tal (melody and rhythm), to keep the words straight, to balance the energy of the room, so many thoughts must a kirtan wallah keep in his head. While, to be in the chorus is great bliss, you can fly, nothing holds you back. Within the narrow practice of kirtan, your surrender to the names frees you to rise above.
The second criterion is to be an excellent musician and singer. Nothing inhibits the experience of kirtan more than a leader who sings poorly or a musician who plays out of time or wrong notes. As Wah! Told me, you must be a great musician to lead kirtan. Kirtan does not require lots of instruments and great solos. I once asked Bhagavan Das, when I was in his band, whether I should play melodies or chords on the guitar, and he said "I don't care what you play, but keep it simple because I don't want anyone listening to you". In other words, the musicians must be so good that they can support the group and raise the energy without bringing attention to themselves.
The third criterion is experience. Ma Chetan Jyoti (the worldıs greatest kirtan wallah until she left her body, just after her last appearance at Kripalu in 2007) told me that she sat in the chorus for 20 years before she ever attempted to lead a kirtan. What she meant was that a kirtan leader must be completely conversant in Sanskrit, must have learned many many kirtans and bhajans, and must have learned from a master by sitting in the chorus and watching and singing.
As mentioned, being a kirtan leader is not a career opportunity. It is a form of seva. One sacrifices the bliss to provide this environment for others. There is no room for selfishness, or for career orientation, or for monetary gain. My kirtan guru, CJMa, once said "Rather than charge money for kirtan, go work at McDonalds in the daytime." She was also a hard liner, but this principle has been emphasized to me by many gurus and kirtan wallahs.