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Krishna Das by TheBhaktiBeat.comVideo interview at the bottom.

Yes, it’s true.  Krishna Das went to prison for Call and Response. The Call and Response Foundation, that is.

For the least few years, the nonprofit foundation has been arranging for kirtan wallahs to chant in prisons, psychiatric facilities, children’s hospitals, and other places where people might benefit from the healing power of mantra music.  This time, it was the Chant Master himself serving a little time in prison.

(You can support this important seva by contributing now to the Call and Response Foundation’s Prison Outreach Program.)

It was a gray, frigid Monday afternoon in northern Vermont, vexed by a drizzling rain that threatened to turn to snow. Krishna Das and his drummer, Arjun Bruggeman, arrived at the Chittenden County Regional Correctional Facility for Women early, after a double-header weekend of kirtan+ workshop that were partial benefits for Call and Response.

They were at the medium-security prison in South Burlington to fulfill the pie-in-the-sky request of an inmate named Lucinda.  Six months earlier, Lucinda had picked up a Krishna Das CD in the prison library.  Apparently, she couldn’t get enough of it, and she wondered aloud to her counselor, Philip Pezeshki, if Krishna Das would come chant with them.  Long story short, here he was.

Krishna Das Arjun Bruggeman prison VT Call and Response Foundation by TheBhaktiBeat.comThey brought nothing but a harmonium and a Naal drum.

Bruggeman’s usual tablas were left behind because  the little metal hammer that he uses to tune them was a security risk. The six of us — including C&RF director Jen Canfield and local wallahs Patrick (Yogi P) McAndrew and Jeanette Bacevius — dutifully stashed wallets and cell phones and jackets and scarves that could present a choking hazard into the lockers in the waiting room, then traded our driver’s licenses for visitor’s passes.  Krishna Das and Arjun opened up their instruments for a thorough search by a serious but pleasant enough security guard. I presented my Nikon to the guard, hoping for a miracle, but it was not to be,  so I reluctantly stuffed it into the locker with everything else.  At least he let me keep my little reporter’s notebook (after leafing through it thoroughly) and a pen to take notes. Then we all took off our shoes and filed through a metal detector, their instruments and my notebook set to the side.

We were led through a series of security doors to a windowless, concrete-block room off a main corridor.  There was a whiteboard with a hand-written list of stress-relief strategies on one wall, and on another wall, a single poster exhorting viewers to “end the silence” about sexual abuse.  A few rows of yoga mats, folded in thirds, were set up in a semi-circle, with a row of mismatched chairs at the back.

KD and Arjun set up their instruments underneath the “End the Silence” poster.  Then KD wrote out the words to five chants on an easel.  Shree Ram Jay Ram Jay Jay Ram.  Om Na-moh Bhag a vah tay Na ma ha. Om Na-mah Shee vy ah. Jay a Jagat Ambay. Om Ay-eem Shreem Sara swa ty yay Na ma ha. 

Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.comLucinda, the inmate responsible for all of us being there, came in and sat with KD for several minutes to interview him for the prison newsletter.  Soon enough, about a dozen or so inmates — most appearing to be under 30 — began filtering into the room.  They looked somewhat bewildered, even gruff, like they didn’t know what they were getting into.  Several prison staff members also came in, with serious faces.  Honestly it was hard to tell who the inmates were, until I realized they each had on a dark blue scrub shirt over their street clothes.  The chairs in the back filled up quickly, and the seats in the front, closest to where KD and Arjun were now seated cross-legged on yoga blocks, remained empty.

No, this was not going to be your average Krishna Das kirtan.

KD started by telling the group what kirtan was not.  “This is not a religious practice.  There is no blind faith required,” he said. “This is not a missionary trip.  I’m here because I was invited.”

Arjun Bruggeman at Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.com(In the waiting room, KD had told me that the last time he chanted in a prison, it was with a group of 100 or so men in a maximum-security facility in the South.  “Everything was going along great,” he recalled, “until I started singing the Maha Mantra.” As soon as the prisoners heard Hare Krishna, they started scowling and fidgeting, looking at one another and shaking their heads.  Every one of them got up and walked out.  Every. Single. One. He hadn’t been back to a prison since.)

Kirtan, Krishna Das told those gathered in the cold cement room, was “a way to quiet the mind, to kind of short-circuit the stories we tell ourselves.”

“We mostly don’t get a vote about our thoughts,” he said.  “Chanting is a means of winding down the mind and training ourselves to let go of thoughts.”

He initiated the singing as he always does, with an opening prayer, which he described as “a prayer to that place within us that is looking for true love.”  After the prayer, he paused in the silence of the room, a silence that was routinely interrupted by a loud slam of the security doors in the hallway outside.  Looking out at the women prisoners in the back, he said quietly: “These mantras are sounds that have a magnetism to them.  By repeating these mantras, we bring the mind to a quiet place.  When the mind is quiet and the heart is at peace, your life can take a different course.”

Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram…

And so it went. Not unlike a typical Krishna Das workshop.  Talk a little. Chant a little. Talk a little more. Chant a little more.  Yet this one was verrrrry different.  We were reminded of that about halfway into the session.  KD had just finished saying something about how to “find some peace no matter what the outside world was throwing at us” when a beefy security guard pushed through the door loudly, with a list in his hand.  KD stopped talking and simply said: “Come on in.” The guard peered around the room, unsmiling, checking people off his list.  He called out a few names — not the Names that had been ringing in the room a few moments before, needless to say.  Then with a slam of the door, he was gone.

“We’re all still here,” KD joked self-consciously, with an awkward chuckle.  Then he picked up the thread, saying there were all kinds of practices — chanting among them — that one could use to “find a way to chill yourself out no matter what’s going on.”  It was an appropriate lesson for the moment, and you could feel it resonating with the folks seated in the room.

Arjun Bruggeman at Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.comA couple times during the session, Krishna Das asked if anyone had questions.  It wasn’t until the end that one woman spoke up, asking him if he had always known that this is what he would do.  He told a story he has told many times — of how devastated he was when his guru Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaji) told him to go back home to America; how he had asked Maharaji: “How can I serve you in America?” and Maharaji laughed at him with a look “like he had just bitten a sour pickle;” how he, Krishna Das, was walking across the ashram’s courtyard later on and was suddenly struck by the answer: “I’ll sing for you.”  That was 1973, KD said.  It took him 21 years, until 1994, to finally start singing.

Then he told the inmates a story I had never heard.  He said he didn’t think they were even going to let him into the jail for today’s session because he was a convicted felon.  Say what?   Yep, Krishna Das told us he had been charged with money laundering after a criminal investigation involving the IRS and the FBI.  He told the group that it was an “insane story” that they would never believe.  One woman replied, “Oh yes we will,” and they all laughed.  So he related how he thought he was going to end up in prison, but instead — due to a somewhat remarkable series of graces involving the judge, prosecutor and parole officer in the case — was sentenced to six months of house arrest.  He spoke of the period as a blessing, a relief, a much-needed opportunity for rest after a grueling tour schedule.

More importantly, he said, “Being convicted freed me from the secrets of my past. Now everybody knew.  I didn’t have to hide it anymore.”

Arjun Bruggeman at Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.comWhen there was only time for one more chant, Lucinda, the inmate responsible for KD being there, requested ‘Amazing Grace’ with the Maha Mantra. I held my breath, remembering KD’s story about all the men walking out when he started singing Hare Krishna.  “We cooooould,” KD replied hesitantly… “Let’s sing the third one,” he deflected, pointing to the whiteboard where the chants were written out phonetically.

Om Namah Shivayah. 

A long silence — blessedly uninterrupted by doors slamming — followed.  Then KD looked out at the women and said simply: “Take good care of yourselves, okay?”

Afterward, many of the inmates lined up to thank him, to shake his hand or receive a hug.  Most were new to chanting.  One woman, Chelsea, said she found the session to be “really inspiring and cleansing.” She told us she felt energized, and definitely wanted to chant again.  Another, Sarah, confessed that at first she thought it was “a little weird,” but by the end, felt that “it really worked. I absolutely loved it.”  Adrienne said she felt relieved:  “The stress is gone. I’m more relaxed. I hope he comes back.” A group of them milled around, smiling, chatting, not wanting to leave.  Somehow, the cold concrete room was warmer, softer…

“Come back every week!” a young blond inmate named Suzi exhorted KD.

When all the staff and inmates were gone, our little group walked back down the hallway and through the double security doors .  We gathered our belongings, traded our visitor’s passes back for licenses, and bundled up to face the frigid Vermont evening.  Outside, a cold rain was still falling, and darkness had descended.  None of us seemed to notice.

Before we disbursed, Krishna Das agreed to a short video interview outside the prison door.  I dare you to not be moved by what happens midway through it…

“Everybody’s a prisoner, sweetheart. Prisoners of our own hearts.”

Support the Call and Response Foundation’s Prison Outreach Program here.

View the Photo Journals of Krishna Das’ prison visit  in Vermont 2014, and his kirtan and workshop, on The Bhakti Beat facebook page.

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grammy nominationGrammys season has officially begun, and more than ever before, the world of mantra music represents.  More than a dozen artists in the “non-genre” of kirtan/chant/yoga music are on the first-round ballot for consideration to be among the 57th Annual Grammy Award Nominees for Best New Age Album.

[Yes, "New Age" is what the non-genre of kirtan seems to get lumped into in the Grammys world.  Not World Music, which is a separate Grammy category.  But that's another story. That we've already written.  Read it here: Kirtan in a New Age: What's in a Grammys Category?]

The buzz started a week or so ago on social media, when Jai Uttal announced that his “Return to Shiva Station” was among those being considered for nomination in the Best New Age Album category.  Next, Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band put it out that their latest release, “Unity,” is also being considered.  Bit by bit, word came forth of other artists whose offerings are also on the list of qualified entrants that members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) will vote upon to decide who gets the coveted Grammy Nomination.

This got us thinking: who else is on that list? And what exactly does that mean?

So here’s the scoop that we got from one of our favorite voting NARAS members (who preferred to remain under the radar).  Among the total of 78 titles on the nominations ballot for Best New Age Album, we counted 18 from artists in the kirtan or mantra-music world (few can be accurately termed “kirtan albums” in the strict sense of call-and-response kirtan).  And the entrants are…(drumroll please):

AKASHA BLUE SKY, Bhakti House Band
UNITY, Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band
LIVE IN CONCERT, Mirabai Ceiba
AT THE TEMPLE DOOR, Ajeet Kaur
FROM WITHIN, Nirinjan Kaur feat. Mathew Schoening & Ram Dass
RIVER OF LIGHT, Ashana
LIGHT OF THE NAAM: MORNING CHANTS, Snatam Kaur
KIRTAN WALLAH, Krishna Das
SARASWATI DREAMS, Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda
MANTRAS FOR LIFE, Deva Premal + Miten with Manose
BHAKTI, Paul Avgerinos
SHAKTI GUITAR, Stevin McNamara
RISING, Alex Theory and Shiva Rea
RETURN TO SHIVA STATION: KAILASH CONNECTION, Jai Uttal 
SHIVOHAM, Manish Vyas
KASHI: SONGS FROM THE INDIA WITHIN US, Prem Joshua & Chintan 
HOLISTIC DEVOTION, Patrick Bernard
INCANTATIONS, Sheela Bringi

So, what does it actually mean to be on the “first-round ballot?”

Essentially, it means that you’ve passed the basic entrance exam of submitting an album in accordance with the Academy’s fairly rigid guidelines.   It means that you are “on the list” — your album is officially entered on the ballot that was sent on Oct. 16 to 12,000 or so members of NARAS. Considering there were at least 300 submissions that didn’t make that cut, we’d say Congratulations to anyone who made it that far.

What’s next? The nominations voting is the next step in the Grammys process.  NARAS members have until Nov. 5 to vote for their favorite artists/albums/tracks (in the New Age category there is only one award, for Best Album).  Members can vote in up to 20 categories.  In some Grammy categories, special committees help sort through and determine who gets the nomination.  In the New Age category, there are no committees, so it’s the membership vote that counts here.  The top four or five will get the coveted Grammy Nomination, and will forever after be known as “Grammy-nominated so-and-so.”

Kirtan Grammy Win Would Be a First

Kirtan artists have gotten the nomination only twice before:  Krishna Das in 2012 for “Live Ananda” and Jai Uttal in 2002 for “Mondo Rama.” Neither won the Award; both broke new ground.  Uttal was the first Grammy nomination ever in this category and Krishna Das was the first to play at the Grammy Awards (at least, on the internet broadcast).  It was a pretty exciting night.  Well at least for a kirtan junkie…

As for this year’s first-round entrants, well, what can we say?  Just look at the diversity within that list.  Jai Uttal is back in the Grammy pool with “Return to Shiva Station” (read our review here) and KD is back with “Kirtan Wallah.”  New to the Grammy ballot are  Sean Johnson and his cohorts, Alvin Young and Gwendolyn Colman, aka the Wild Lotus Band, for their epic and long-awaited “Unity.”   All Grammy-worthy, IMHO.  The other chant-world luminaries on the list are Deva Premal, Miten and Manose’s “Mantras for Life,” a collection of practical-oriented mantras done in repetitions of 108, and Snatam Kaur’s “Light of the Naam,”a sequence of traditional Sikh greet-the-day chants.

Of course, that’s just the beginning of this list of Grammy hopefuls.  We fell in love with Steve McNamara’s Shakti Guitar when we heard him play it live at Ahimsa Fest last year (and we missed him there this year), and are continuing the love affair with the album, a  soundscape of acoustic comfort music that’s easy to snuggle up inside.  Patrick Bernard, a sonic chameleon of sorts and, with 20+ albums, practically an icon in the world of New Age music-therapy,  melted our hearts when we first heard him at the Montreal Chant Fest — unplugged and pared down to a harmonium and a response singer with kartals, singing to Radha and Krishna with such deep soulfulness it brought us to tears (yeah, I know, Chant Fests will do that…).  “Holistic Devotion” takes that core and arranges it up, with an apparent choir of angels singing backup.

At the other end of the spectrum are the best little bhakti band in Texas that you may not have heard of yet, the Dallas-based Bhakti House Band, whose “Akasha Blue Sky” oozes with joyful devotional.  Remember the name.

The Kundalini crowd is well represented on this list, no doubt due to the crack management at Spirit Voyage records.  There’s Snatam of course.  Then there’s Nirinjan Kaur, who has been whispered to be the “next Snatam” and who collaborated with respected producer/musician RamDass Khalsa and cellist Matthew Schoening for “From Within.” Ajeet Kaur is another Sikh-tradition songstress on the rise who seems to wow everyone who experiences her live kirtans.   Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda have a partnership that transcends ordinary notions of “music” into something wholly pure and transcendental, whether they’re chanting kundalini mantras or rockin’ the kirtronica.  The same could be said for Mirabai Ceiba’s Markus and Angelika, whom we’ve experienced live enough times to be pretty confident that their “Live in Concert” disc is a little slice of heaven.    Ashana is new to us and we like every recording we’ve heard so far.

And there’s more…well, we’ve got some homework to do.  Our favorite kind of homework.

So there you have it, your Mantra Music Guide to the Grammys.  Now, who among these entrants would you most like to see win the Grammy for Best New Age Album…who gets your vote?  Who would you like to see on that list who isn’t?

 

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I, VRINDA: Finding Irony in the Passing of B.K.S. Iyengar, as the Popular Press Credit Him with a ‘Yoga Craze’ that Ignores Its Roots

August 20, 2014
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B.K.S. Iyengar, the great yogic master who pioneered a system of yoga and is credited for helping bring yoga to the world, died Wednesday morning, August 20, in Pune, India. Editor’s Note: “I, Vrinda” is a new, occasional first-person series on TheBhaktiBeat.com in which I, Vrinda (aka Brenda Patoine) say what I’m thinking, whether you […]

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CROWDFUND THIS! (NOW!!) Final Week For Bhajan Belt Favorites & Shyamdas Compatriots SRI Kirtan’s IndieGogo Campaign for CD No. 3

July 14, 2014
Sruti Ram & Ishwari of SRI Kirtan are working on their third CD -- and need your help to make it happen.
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Project: Full-length Studio-Recorded CD Fundraising Goal: $13,000 Deadline: July 19, 2014 @ 11:59 p.m. PT Contribute  Here NOW!   Ed. Note: This is part of our ongoing series on Crowdfunding Kirtan, in which fans and friends contribute money for new recording projects in exchange for “perks” ranging from free downloads to private concerts.  The trend […]

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Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe Show How Juicy You Can Get at Shakti Fest (Photos, Set Review)

June 6, 2014
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There is nothing traditional about Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe.  And that’s just fine with us. Larisa and the Tribe deliver unapologetic Mantra Rock.  Quite unlike anything we’ve seen anywhere else. The first time we experienced their edgy urban-laced brand of bhakti, our jaw dropped, and they just keep get juicier each time we see […]

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‘Too Much Talking’ from a Kirtan Wallah? Hmm. Bhakti Quotes Worth Repeating-Shakti Fest 2014

May 25, 2014
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At one point during the weekend-long love feast that was Shakti Fest 2014, I ran into Vijay Krsna and his beloved, Sarasvati Devi, the couple who lead the Kirtaniyas.  It was the day after their late-night set,  and I was gushing to them about how deeply touched I was by their kirtan and teachings (I […]

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Top 12 Bhavalicious Moments at Shakti Fest, Bhakti Fest’s Spring Fling in the Desert (Photos)

May 22, 2014
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No, this is NOT a blog professing to proclaim the “best wallah” or the “best music” or the best anything at Shakti Fest, the Bhakti Fest franchise’s spring fling in honor of the Divine Feminine.  Choosing a best kirtan artist would be like proclaiming azure blue or burnt orange to be the “best” color in […]

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‘We Need A Bus!’ Kirtaniyas Kick Off Shakti Fest Kirtan & Take Bhakti to a ‘Whole Other Level’

May 16, 2014
The Kirtaniyas at Shakti Fest 2014, by TheBhaktiBeat.com
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Shakti Fest 2014 — the first of the three bhakti yoga “love fests” by the Bhakti Fest franchise — kicked off with a little pre-show Thursday night with the Kirtaniyas, the progressive Krishna Kid bhakti band that is pushing the kirtan movement into new ground. The leader of the pack, Vijay Krsna, paused midway through […]

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CROWDFUND THIS! ‘Sound Colorist’ Jim Beckwith’s Debut Chant CD Fuses Kirtan With Original Lyrics (Interview, Photos)

April 16, 2014
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Project: Full-length Studio-Recorded CD Fundraising Goal: $12,000 Deadline: April 30, 2014 @ 11:59 p.m. PT Contribute  Here NOW!   Ed. Note: This is part of our ongoing series on Crowdfunding Kirtan, in which fans and friends contribute money for new recording projects in exchange for “perks” ranging from free downloads to private concerts.  The trend […]

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News Alert: Scientists Identify Rare Brain Disorder Linked to Kirtan Chanting

April 1, 2014
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Scientists have definitively identified, for the first time ever, a rare but rapidly increasing brain disorder affecting the frontal lobes, amygdala and hippocampus of people who regularly chant kirtan. Publishing in the Journal of Neuroscience and Non-Duality, lead author Baba Bhavakirtananda, a former saddhu who spent 20 years chanting the Maha Mantra nonstop in a […]

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