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  • Jonathan Widran

SHUNIA, Shunia

In June 2020, the calming and soul-stirring music of the sonically fascinating vocal duo Shunia entered my consciousness by way of the audio and video presentation of “Akal,” which I described as a “graceful, lilting and free-flowing, flute, voice and harp focused track.” While I was personally enraptured by the ethereal, atmospheric music that Lisa Reagan and Suzanne Jackson created in collaboration with their multi-faceted Tony Award winning producer Jamshied Sharifi, I seemed to pen more words about the meaning of the song title.

Connecting the purpose of the music to strange and challenging then-new realm of COVID-19 we were living and dying in, and all the social upheaval going on at the time, I wrote, “There is a beautiful tradition in the 3HO and Sikh Dharma communities that is done when someone dies. Whether it is a beloved friend or relative, or even someone we never knew, this tradition assists the departing soul on its journey home, as well as giving comfort to those left behind. At the time of death, “Akaal” is chanted three times. The term means “undying” and refers to the soul being released.”

For those who may have missed Shunia’s 2017 breakthrough album Ascend, I brought them up to speed with the duo’s mission. Named for the state of being meaning stillness (of power, not passivity) and receptivity (quiet, present, alert), Lisa and Suzanne powerfully merge the art forms of chant, opera and polycultural rhythms into a fresh sonic fusion whose ultimate purpose is to bring healing and connection. This practice has the ability to shift energy and create new levels of consciousness.

Later in the piece, I included the insightful poignant artist statement from Lisa and Suzanne about gifting us with the “Akal” video. In part, they said, “The world feels a little strange right now. Disconnected. Distance. In a moment when we’re all struggling. . . Shunia gives the world a gift: ‘Akal.’ It is a calling to grieve for those we have lost, to mourn them, to lift them up and to help them on their journey to eternity. . .In a time when we have all lost so much, we hope “Akal’ brings you solace.”

Seven months on, even with glimmers of progress and optimism on the horizon, we’re in the middle of a dark winter in this pandemic, and Shunia’s “Akal” is still an essential emotional-spiritual listen providing a beacon of love, light and hope. Yet now, with the release of the duo’s self-titled sophomore album, the track is in the incredible company of seven other alternately ethereal and propulsive chant-based pieces that collectively create an engaging, hypnotic journey that music journalist Robin James pegs perfectly as “a powerful sound that brings clarity and joy to the spirit.”

The beginning of any year, but this one in particular, is the perfect time to rise above our angst, anxiety and pain and into different mindset fueled by gratitude for what still is and what can still be. The collection can surely be experienced purely for escape, simple relaxation and pleasure. But these eight tracks are designed to rewire us and thus, if we let them can serve a higher purpose in our lives. Since the duo chose to roll out a few more lead singles throughout the fall, it makes sense to engage the experience as they intended, following “Akal” with “Sa Re Sa Sa,” whose swirl of tribal rhythms and dreamy atmospheres underly the intense masculine-feminine energy exchange between the lilting harmonic chants of Shunia and the visceral, soaring chants of guest vocalist Hassan Hakmoun, known as the “Godfather of Gnawa Music.”

A traditional poem of mystical romance by the still influential 13th Century Persian poet Rumi, “Breeze at Dawn” is a gentle, sparse, exotic invitation (starting with the male chant “Welcome to the light”) that drifts calmly on the wings of Shunia’s soft spoken English translation chants and accompanying flute. The most recent single, released at holiday time, is “Alleluia” which textures the duo’s sacred, angelic chant with a Hakmoun’ gentle echoing chants, exotic harmonic instrumentation and a slow-burning seductive groove.

The second half of Shunia the album is equally engaging and impactful, starting with the raw and buoyant, vocally and instrumentally percussive jam “Hare Han Wahe Guru” (with Hakmoun expounding emotionally on the duo’s infectious riff) and continuing through the calming and spacious “Ang Sang Wahe Guru,” which features Lisa and Suzanne in contemplative individual call and response mode until the glorious joining of their voices – all over the soft spoken acoustic guitar of Marc Copely. The album wraps with the full on slow building, then explosive fusion of groove, tribal drumming, flute, spacey atmosphere and haunting vocals of “Ong Namo” and the lilting, lyrical and slow-swaying “Sa Ta Na Ma,” which features the healing vibes of free-flowing strings and ambience and vocal whispers beyond the core chanting.

While the chants and the musical vibe and its healing effects are definitely the focal point of Shunia, those elements are driven by the fascinating underlying story of how the duo came to work with Jamshied Sharifi. Sharifi is a multi-faceted musical force who has composed scores for feature and independent films (“Harriet the Spy,” “Down to Earth,” “Clockstoppers,” “Rollerball”) and TV shows. In addition to producing and/or performing with Paula Cole, Ray Charles, Dream Theater, Laurie Anderson and numerous world music greats, he created orchestrations for Sting’s Broadway musical “The Last Ship” and won his Tony for his work on “The Band’s Visit.” His work as a producer in the chant music realm – which earned him a 2019 Best New Age Album Grammy nomination for Beloved by Snatam Kaur, a singer-songwriter who performs new age Indian devotional music.

Not long after completing work on Shunia’s debut Ascend, Lisa found herself mesmerized by a new album by one of her favorite chant duos Mirabei Ceiba. “I listened and meditated to it over and over again. As a musician, I was so impressed with the beauty of the music. The arrangements and structure were unusual and compelling. Every time I meditated with these chants, I always felt a sense of joy, well being and appreciation. There was something in my gut that told me I needed to find the album’s producer and work with him.”

After some time searching, Lisa found someone who knew someone that had played on an album he produced with Kaur, and she made the introduction to Jamshied. Jamshied’s decision to work with Shunia was based on Lisa and Suzanne’s enthusiasm to experiment and desire to reach beyond the music they knew well. “They were also clear from the beginning how much trust they were willing to put in me,” he says, “which is a good indication that the process would be both enjoyable and adventurous.”

Lisa says, “The music so perfectly sets the mood for each mantra. The musicians Jamshied brought in to play on the album gave a whole other level of intrigue, beauty and magic. The unique ancient instruments they so skillfully played took us on a journey with every note, like they were telling a story with their instruments. Suzanne and I were able to lay our voices down on this rich sonic canvas.”

Jamshied adds that their greatest initial challenge was finding their language for collaborative composition. “We wrote the music together in the studio, starting from the mantras they had chosen, and in the case of ‘Alleluia,’ a single world,” he says. “Composition is intensely personal and emotionally exposed, and as we did not know each other, we had to find common ground to go forward. What pleases me most about the record is that we were able to do that while creating songs that satisfy all three of us. It was also a great pleasure to involve my long-time friends and collaborators Benjamin Wittman (percussion) and Marc Copely (guitars). I feel lucky that these guys answer the phone when I call, and they went above and beyond in lovingly creating the rhythm tracks of this recording.

“The primary thrust of mantra recordings,” Jamshied adds, “is the mantra itself – and the enveloping and at times transformative feeling that comes from chanting it along with the recording. That process of chanting and deep listening can be a respite from a world and a life that seems oversubscribed, overly material, and always on. There's an oceanic feeling when chanting that can allow us to put aside the madness of our days.

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