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Jim Beckwith at Bhakti Fest Midwest by TheBhaktiBeat.comProject: 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 has grown as record labels have cut back and artists have to fund projects themselves.

 The Artist

Is it us, or is Jim Beckwith showing up everywhere these days?  He is one of those guys who seems to always be on stage at festivals like Bhakti Fest, surrounded by a pile of instruments from shakers to sitar and diligently backing up the lead wallah in whatever way is needed.  A “sound colorist,” Beckwith calls himself — someone who can pick up whatever instrument is necessary to add just the right shade of acoustic toning to support the flow of the music at that moment.  Sounds right to us.

That said, Beckwith is a vocalist first and foremost.  In an interview with The Bhakti Beat from his car, dodging tumbleweeds enroute from his home in Ojai, Calif. to play at a retreat with Saul David Raye in Denver, he said, without hesitation:  “I am a singer,” when asked which, among the many he proffers, is his instrument of choice.  Singing, he said, “is the passion at my core. I only started playing any instrument to support the singing.”

The passion shows.  Beckwith has a vocal range that would make an opera singer do a double-take.  (In fact, Placido Domingo, Jr., the opera singer and son of the famed tenor and conductor, apparently did just that, telling Beckwith he had a voice like “a refined Sting.”)  He can soar to lilting heights or ground you like a bass line.  He is completely self-taught; his formal vocal training consists of a single voice class in college.  “I always had some fear around taking formal vocal lessons,” he told The Bhakti Beat. “I guess I was afraid someone would try to tell me how to sing.”

Musical instruction, on the other hand, started early: he has pictures of himself as a 4-year-old holding a guitar.  Piano lessons came first, then guitar, then trumpet, which he played in his high school band.  In his early teens, he says, “I started discovering the voice inside of me.”   As the front-man for a pop/rock band in college, he stretched his vocal chords covering hit songs of the era from high-pitched leads like Sting, Steve Perry and Kenny Loggins for three-hour stretches at a time, while his classmates boogied down.

Orchestrating a Mood with Music

Jim Beckwith Bhakti Fest Midwest, by TheBhaktiBeat.comAfter college, Beckwith moved to Florida and started learning the nascent art of multi-track recording, first with tape, then on a Mac.  He earned a living producing soundtracks for corporate events — finding challenge in creating just the right musical mix and lyrics to fit some convention theme or salespersons rally “without it sounding cheesy,” he said with a laugh.  “It gave me a lot of practice in orchestrating various sounds and instruments to create a mood that was right for the moment.”

The work also set him on a quest to collect all sorts of different instruments “to see what kinds of sounds I could get out of them.”  Among them are African drums, Native American flutes, and a sitar that a friend left at his home 20 years that still travels with him today.  (Though he is quick to pronounce: “I am not a sitar player!”)

All of those instruments — sitar included — have came in handy as he has moved into more fulfilling musical roles.  Around 2005, a chance encounter delivering a sound system to Jai Uttal ended up with a weekend-long gig playing percussion for the bhakti master, whose regular tablist, Daniel Paul, was otherwise engaged. “I was instantly in love,” Beckwith says. “I wanted to follow him everywhere — but he had Daniel Paul!” Instead, Beckwith stayed in Florida and started picking up gigs with the iconic Bhagavan Das, who gave Beckwith his spiritual name of Hanuman Das.

Over the last 10 years or so, Beckwith has earned a reputation  for supporting the flow of energy in yoga classes, choosing from his toolkit of music-making devices to create the right mood and enhance the dance of asana.  He was doing “live-music yoga” before everybody was doing live-music yoga; at the time he was pioneering the practice in the Eastern U.S., yoga-with-a-band was virtually unheard of outside of the trend-setting L.A. yoga scene.  He’s carved out quite a little niche for himself in the genre (can you call it a genre?), traveling to yoga conferences nationwide, and has become a regular fixture at close friend and yogi superstar Saul David Raye’s retreats and workshops.

Jim Beckwith at Bhakti Fest by TheBhaktiBeat.com

The Project: First Chant CD ‘Hybrid’

Recently, Beckwith has stepped into the center of the kirtan stage to take the lead call himself.  His debut set at Bhakti Fest — a milestone that has become somewhat of a marker of a kirtan wallah’s coming-of-age — was  last fall on the Joshua Tree festival’s Hanuman stage.  In the heat of the blazing afternoon sun in the high desert, he and nine or so close musician friends stepped up and created a buzz among the crowd of hard-core yogi-chanters who turned out for the set.  Saul David Raye introduced Beckwith warmly and stepped in to accompany his friend on the harmonium for the final song.

This will be Beckwith’s seventh CD and the first one focused on chant.  But don’t expect it to be traditional call-and-response kirtan.  Rather, it will be what he calls a “hybrid,” a reflection of his evolving style, which mixes English lyrics culled from his songwriting roots with traditional mantras — hopefully in way that makes sense, he said with a chuckle.

The CD, and his emerging role of songwriter-meets-wallah, is all part of the evolution of Jim Beckwith. “When I first started getting into kirtan, I wasn’t sure what my path would be,” he said.  “I felt a little uncomfortable about how to be myself in it.  Could I do my lyrical content in the context of kirtan?”

He said watching people such as David Newman and Girish combine their singer/songwriting sensibilities with the mantras gave him confidence to pursue the direction his intuition was pointing him in.  “For so many years, I was just kind of dabbling in music without really knowing where I was going with it,” he told The Bhakti Beat. “Now I feel like I’m really stepping into my path.  That is such a relief.  It’s been a process of surrender and getting clear on what my ‘thing’ is.”

Jim Beckwith, Bhakti Fest, by TheBhaktiBeat.comThe yet-to-be-named hybrid album is already in progress.  Beckwith has selected the songs and has begun to lay down instrumentals on each track.  Backing him up will be familiar names in the kirtan world, including Jennifer Sparks on vocals and, on one song at least, harp; David Watts on bass; Matthew Hufschmidt on drums, and others to be determined — most likely including Brenda McMorrow and Benjy Wertheimer, Beckwith said.  A summer 2014 release is anticipated.

Help make that happen by donating to this campaign now!

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Previous articles in this series:
Brenda McMorrow
Sean Johnson & The Wild Lotus Band
David Newman aka Durga Das
Sheela Bringi
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MD Van Wedeen, Mass Gen.Harvard.connectome imageScientists 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 cave near Braj, India, before accepting a research position at the University of Vrindavan, even coined a term for the condition: bhav brain.  Symptoms of bhav brain include markedly decreased attachment to one’s self-identity, blurring of the demarcation between “self” and others, disillusionment with materialistic gain, and reduced anxiety about what the future may bring.  In extreme cases, Bhavakirtananda said, bhav brain can produce symptoms that can mimic intoxication or drug use, including inexplicable elation, stumbling or aimless wandering, or general “spaciness.”

These symptoms, he said, explain why people who have been chanting for many hours — as is common at kirtan festivals — are sometimes described as “stoned on the bhav.”

The scientists reported that they had also identified a potent neurotransmitter that seems to be expressed in excessive quantities after prolonged chanting, which they have accordingly named bhavatonin.  They found bhavatonin-specific receptors in the hippocampus, where the biochemical seemed to trigger a remembrance of one’s own divine nature, and in the amygdala, where it apparently tamped down fearful reactions and anxiety.

Long History in India, But New to the West

Historical documents suggest that bhav brain has been around since at least the 15th century; there are oblique references to the symptoms in sacred texts in the vedic traditions and in the works of so-called bhakti poets like Hafiz and Mirabai.  But the syndrome of symptoms has only recently been observed in the West — first in an area of New York’s Hudson Valley known as the Bhajan Belt, and then in Southern California, especially around the town of Joshua Tree.  More recent evidence suggests the condition is spreading — last summer there was a flurry of reports from Madison, Wisc. of chanters driving in circles, heading in the wrong direction on the highway, and unable to use simple machines like gas pumps.  The geographic and temporal distribution of these reports is closely associated with large-scale chant festivals.

That’s no coincidence, says Bhavakirtananda.  He said he had long suspected there was a signature biological “fingerprint” associated with the syndrome, and was frustrated that no serious scientist had attempted to investigate it.  So he took it upon himself, first investigating it in a pilot study at India’s legendary Kumbh Mela festival before traveling all the way to Southern California to study attendees at a 4-day festival where the chanting was virtually nonstop.  His team recruited 100 men and women ranging in age from 16 to 97 (median age 39), and conducted functional MRI scans before, during and after the festival.

Prevalence is Rapidly Increasing

In the article, the authors noted that the prevalence of the condition — virtually unknown in the West until recent years — has been rapidly increasing in step with the growing popularity and “mainstreaming” of bhakti yoga, an obscure form of yoga from 15th century India that eschews the Western yoga world’s fixation on having a really great butt in favor of an emphasis on loving devotion and seva, or selfless service.

Reactions from the bhakti community have been mixed.  Kirtan musician Dave Stringananda said he was not surprised.  “I’ve been fascinated for years by how chanting might be affecting neurotransmitters like anandamine and serotonin, so the idea that there is a brain chemical called bhavatonin that is specifically ramped up by kirtan makes so much sense.  I am elated.” Stringananda immmediately set to work incorporating the findings into a new workshop series.

Skepticism in the Bhajan Belt

In Woodstock, N.Y. in the heart of the Bhajan Belt, long-time kirtan wallah Sruti Ramananda dismissed the findings as overhyped hogwash.  “Symptoms of a disorder?  Pshaw! Here in Woodstock, these kinds of behaviors are as common as peacocks in Vrindavan,” he said.  “If ‘bhav brain’ is a disease, then I’m a monkey-god’s uncle.”

The Bhakti Beat asked the members of the popular ensemble band The Hanumen, fresh off a regional tour that included stops at a prison and a psychiatric treatment facility, to comment on the research, but a spokesperson said the band was covered in mud on a beach somewhere and couldn’t be reached.

The Chant and Chill Foundation issued a statement praising the research as an important step forward in understanding what’s going on in the brain of a bhakta:  “This continues to be one of the deepest mysteries of the universe — just look at those Hanumen.  We are delighted to see that someone is finally putting some real effort into it.” The foundation plans to start a campaign encouraging hard-core bhaktas to donate their brains to research in hopes of advancing scientific knowledge about bhav brain.

Stay tuned to TheBhaktiBeat.com for more on this developing story.  Because no one knows bhav brain like we do…

If you like this, you might also like “10 Signs You Might Be a Kirtan Addict”

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Jai Uttal’s Latest Release Goes Back to the Future to Show a Gentler Side of Jai (Review, New CD)

March 28, 2014
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