In the summer of 2005 in Oconomowoc, WI, Craig Taubman taught our songleading class this
chant. It sounded mysterious. The chant came paired with some interesting hand motions. Craig suggested it would be a good activity for group building. He taught me to sing:
Lay-na, lay-na mao tay
Ha-ya-no, ha-ya-no, ha-ya-no
Later, Craig told me he learned Kao Tay in Algonquin Park, Canada. He told me it’s a Native
American chant and he had no idea what it meant. He just liked to sing it.
And so it was for me...
I used the hand motions and the song as a device to non-verbally direct a group’s attention. I got some weird looks. I got some sarcastic comments. Nevertheless, I stuck with it. And despite the hesitation from campers and staff it worked. It was strange how well it worked. In fact, I noticed that this chant was creating a focus for the group that I had rarely felt in other moments of my songleading life.
Near the end of that summer I visited The Young Judaea Sprout Lake Camp in Verbank, NY just outside of Poughkeepsie. As I remember it, a group of fifty, 10-year-olds came running from
what I can only guess was the pool (they were dripping wet). They were screaming and laughing. The vibe was good, but I was still worried. On this inside, I thought, “Oh no, this is gonna suck for me.” There will be no way to teach them anything!” Then I heard another voice in my head say, “Try the Kao Tay thing. What do you have to lose?!” This time I tried the chant with just the hand motions. No singing at all. I repeated. I made direct eye contact with one kid at a time. I gently added the words and the tune. And one by one these kiddos starting doing the hand motions too. The group focused, leaned in and sang out. We were ready.
We enjoyed a terrific session of singing and learning. And as it became time to end we couldn’t leave. A late afternoon summer thunderstorm was rolling in on top of us. We weren’t going anywhere. So we just kept singing. I was pulling out every “back pocket” song I could out of every pocket I could find. At one moment, I stalled. I stared. I went completely blank. I could not think of a song to sing. Out of the awkwardness of my hesitation came the voice of one of the campers who said, “Do Kao Tay again!” Now, with the wind and the rain and the lightning and the thunder we were singing Kao Tay. It was fantastic. It felt like some sort of primal celebration of nature. And we all had no idea what it meant. No idea. But we sang.
After about 15 minutes the thunderstorm subsided and it was safe to go. As the kids were leaving the pavilion an Israeli counselor named Donna walked up to me and said, “You know, you sang that song for so long, I couldn't help but hear Hebrew.” She handed me a little pink post-it note which read,
L'an, l'an ma-hu-ti
Cha-yei-nu, cha-yei-nu, cha-yei-nu.
I remember saying, “Donna, that’s cool. It sounds a whole lot like Kao Tay, but my Hebrew is
really bad and I don’t know what that means either!” She translated the Hebrew for me as:
To where, to where, to myself, my essence
Our lives, our lives, our lives.
I said, I think I understand English, but I don’t get it. What does that mean?! I noticed one of the
kids was listening in our conversation. I turned to her and I asked her. “What can that possibly
mean?” She said, “Let me think about that and I'll get back to you.”
The next day she walked up to me with a 4 or 5 of her friends. They said, Tracy, Tracy, tell Dan
what you think the song means.
Help me find
Who I am deep inside
Help me see, help me see, help me see.
We all erupted in applause. That night at my concert Donna and Tracy taught the entire camp
their versions. My ears rang with the deafening volume of Young Judaea Sprout Lake Camp
singing the Kao Tay/Kach Oti/Help Me Find chant. It was an incredible moment for everyone.
Late that night I was pulled aside by the director of the camp, Helene Drobenare. She said, “I
don’t why you chose to bring Tracy up onstage with you to sing. I don’t know if you know how
important this night was for Tracy. The fact that Tracy got up there in front of the entire camp
and sang with you WHAT she sang with you... it’s hard to believe. You see, Tracy is my cousin.
And this year she suffered an unthinkable loss. This year Tracy’s father died. She has spoken to
no one of her feelings about losing her dad. You did something very important for Tracy and we all want to thank you.
I was humbled and speechless. I had no idea about Tracy’s story. I was just trying to get a group under control. I was just trying to understand something that didn’t make sense. I was just asking, “What do you think?” I was just singing. Just singing.
A year went by and I was back in Oconomowoc, WI where I first learned this song from Craig
Taubman. I told this story late one night to everyone assembled at the songleading conference.
As I was packing up my guitar and woman walked up to me, tapped me on the shoulder and
handed me a little piece of paper. She told me she was a folk dancer in Florida and that this
song, Kao Tay, was indeed, a Native American song. She told me the paper contained the direct translation from the Native American into English. The paper read:
Let me be one
With the infinite sun
Forever, forever, forever.
When I learned this song I had a plan. I had a goal. Then I started singing it. I thought I knew
what the song was meant to do. I realize that I had no idea. Now, when I sing Kao Tay, I try to
sing all the adaptations that rolled out that magical and holy summer of 2005. I just sing them
and listen to what happens. It’s uplifting for me to be in the presence of something that takes on a life of it’s own. It gives me hope. Hope that we don’t have to know it it all. It reminds me that
when we sing it gives us time to feel. It blesses us with time to reflect on our mysterious world,
our fortunate lives and the remarkable people that we love.
Forever and forever and forever. Just sing