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Sridhar Silberfein dancing on the stage during Jai Uttal’s set at Shakti Fest 2012.

See full coverage of Bhakti Fest Midwest, Shakti Fest, and Bhakti Fest 2011 — links at the end of this article!

If mantra music had a Man of the Year, Sridhar Silberfein just might be it.  The founder of Bhakti Fest is taking his multi-day kirtan/yoga extravaganza on the road, venturing east from the chant-fertile grounds of SoCal for a locale with an altogether different vibe, smack dab in the middle of the American Heartland.  Bhakti Fest Midwest hits Madison, Wisc. June 29 for four days of mantra-music bliss, in all its modern incarnations.

Wait a minute, Wisconsin?  A world-class kirtan and yoga festival in…Wisconsin?

Cheeseheads, Meet Chantheads

Go ahead and put aside any preconceptions you may have that the Midwest is no-man’s land — or maybe, no-mantra’s land? — for chanters.  Kirtan is not just a “coastal” phenom exclusive to California or the Boston-NY-DC corridor.  In true middle-American form, Heartland chanters have been quietly building a chant community and making a name for the Midwest on the mantra-music map.  They got Bhakti Fest before the East Coast for crying out loud!

Native Midwesterner Dave Stringer had a lot to do with that — he told The Bhakti Beat he’s been pushing for a Midwest fest for years, trying to convince people of the vibrancy of the Heartland chant community.  Then there’s Milwaukee-based chantress Ragani; her monthly kirtans regularly draw 400 or more, and she has become a regional celebrity and media darling.  Midwestern wallahs like Brenda McMorrow (okay, if Ontario was part of the U.S.) and Mike Cohen are making their mark on the national (and international, in McMorrow’s case) kirtan scenes, and regional-scene pioneers like Kirtan Path, Sitara and Kalyani with Pavan Kumar, DEVI 2000 and MaaShakti Das are popping up all across the plains.  These are just a few of the bhakti bands with midwestern roots that will be holding the bhav at the Midwest Fest.

It remains to be seen whether Sridhar Silberfein and the team he and daughter/producer Mukti Silberfein have put together can turn out the kind of numbers that have been drawn to the fall Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree, Calif. (heretofore to be known as “Bhakti Fest West,” it seems), but that is not the expectation.  Regardless of the final tally or the fest’s financial “success” (profits are divvied up among a hand-picked list of charities), Bhakti Fest’s march eastward strikes us like a game-changer in the kirtan world.  UPDATE:  About 1,200 people attended BFMW, according to Dave Stringer, and the fest will be back in 2013.

Super-Sizing the Chant Fest

Bhakti Fest has opened up a whole new super-size venue for mantra-makers, not just the “big acts” like Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, who can be assured of an audience of thousands, but also for up-and-coming chanters and complete unknowns seeking a larger audience for their music.  It’s as if the floodgates have been opened: Sridhar told us he gets 10 to 15 CDs a day from wannabe Bhakti Fest wallahs.  That’s a lot of wallahs looking for stage time, and one reason Bhakti Fest West goes all night AND has a second stage to showcase “new” talent (some of whom have been chanting for decades of course).

Bhakti Fest is changing the festival scene too.  Where once there was really just one big multi-day, multi-artist “chant fest” on the US scene (Omega Ecstatic Chant), there is now Bhakti Fest, Shakti Fest, Sat Nam Fest, Boston Yoga & Chant Fest, Bhakti Fest Midwest…and those are just the biggies.  Regional kirtan festivals of various sizes are popping up all over too; witness Chantlanta in Atlanta, Rock the Bhakti in Sarasota, Fla.,  Philly Shakti Chant Fest, Moksha Fest in Santa Monica, Twin Cities Kirtan Fest, VerMantra in Montpelier, Vt., and on and on.  And traditional yoga festivals seem to be opening to including more kirtan and mantra music in their “yoga-music” line-ups.  Hanuman Festival in Colorado does this well, as did the first Tadasana fest in Santa Monica this spring.  You will find at least one kirtan artist at most of this summer’s four Wanderlust fests, and if you’re on the right coast (the West one in this case), you might even find kirtan at a Yoga Journal conference (Dave Stringer will be in YJ San Diego in July, but not a wallah could be found at YJ-New York in April).

The Mainstreaming of Mantra Music?

In the bigger picture, we can’t help but get the sense that this kirtan thing is accelerating.  The “mainstreaming” of mantra music is underway.  It’s a trend arguably launched by George Harrison himself when his song, “My Sweet Lord,” topped the charts internationally and introduced an entire generation to the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra.  Sanskrit chants have crept into popular music ever since, from Boy George to Tina Turner, and we’re seeing more and more chant musicians meld their mantras with modern beats, nontraditional instruments, and pop songs, to the dismay of some purists but the delight of many.  Aside from the spiritual practice of chanting the names of the divine, mantra music is coming into its own as a musical genre.

Mainstream media is even getting on the bandwagon…you’ve seen the stories about Snatam Kaur being summoned as the special surprise guest at Oprah Winfrey’s birthday party, right?  We’ve also seen Ragani explain kirtan to Milwaukee morning television in 30 seconds flat, have watched Dave Russell chanting live on a Massachusetts newscast, and have witnessed the media frenzy surrounding the Holi Festival at the Radha Krishna Temple in Utah.  Heck, even Fox News reported on it!

The ‘Mantra Revolution’

Whether all of that is the reason for the rise of the Bhakti Fest franchise or an effect of it — or some of both, as we would argue — is really academic.  That’s just another “chicken-or-egg” question worth musing over but insignificant to the larger truth:  mantra music/kirtan/sacred chant/bhakti yoga — whatever name you want to call it by — is on the rise.  It’s growing like a slowly cresting tsunami, building gradually but inevitably (to borrow one of Krishna Das’s favorite phrases), just like a perfectly executed chant.  Gaura Vani calls it a “mantra revolution.”

Sridhar Silberfein didn’t start the fire (you’d have to go all the way back past George Harrison, past Srila Prabhupada, to the original 15th century kirtan revolutionary, Lord Caitanya, for that), but he is surely a modern torch-bearer for a movement that asks nothing less than the realization of the divinity within all.  This weekend, he is riding the crest of the bhava wave right into the heart of the Heartland.

The Heartland may never be the same.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about whether mantra music is “going mainstream,” if that’s a good thing or not, and whether you perceive an acceleration of the kirtan movement.  Please tell us what you think!

See our full coverage of Bhakti Fest Midwest!

 Bhakti Fest First: Krishna Das In the Spotlight, Reluctantly, at Midwest All-Wallah Finale
Hanuman Chalisa Rocks New Melodies from Brenda McMorrow and SRI Kirtan at BFMW (Videos)  
Bhakti Fest Break-Out Set? Wallah-to-Watch ‘Kirtan Path’ Wows ‘Em (Video)
Sridhar Silberfein: Changing the Pace of Kirtan in the West, One Bhakti Fest At a Time
Plus Photo Journals from Each Set on The Bhakti Beat on Facebook
And from Shakti Fest 2012 & Bhakti Fest 2011:
Jai Uttal Captures the Essence of Bhakti Fest
You Want Shakti?  Larisa Stow’s Got Shakti
Loco for Lokah and the Bhakti Dance
Bhakti Fest Seeds Planted in Woodstock in ’69
Shakti Fest On-Stage Proposal a First
Amazing Grace from Krishna Das after Bhakti Fest Rain-Out

In the final shows of their inaugural tour, The GuruGanesha Band will be joined by Professor Paramjeet Singh, a scholar, raga historian, and master of classical Indian music who was GuruGanesha Singh’s own raga teacher.

“People are in for a treat,” GuruGanesha told The Bhakti Beat.  “He is an amazing vocalist with a five-octave range.”

GuruGanesha said Professor Paramjeet composed “a good portion” of the music for Aval Allah, a track on GuruGanesha’s latest solo CD, Kundalini Surjhee.  The song is based around a classical Indian raga called Bhairavi, he said, to which GuruGanesha added an intro and bridges that showcase the band’s virtuosity in strings and vocals.

When we heard The GuruGanesha Band play Aval Allah live at their June 2 concert, we were mesmerized.  It had a primal feel — almost tribal — that resonated deeply.  GuruGanesha told us that Middle Eastern/Northern African sound comes from a flatted second, sixth and seventh in the scale. (Music buffs know what he’s talking about, right?)  All we know is this was a prayer for the senses.  Rich layers of musical tapestry enveloped the ancient lyrics, punctuated by the very modern twang of GuruGanesha’s smokin’ electric guitar work, Michelle Hurtado’s soaring vocals, and the almost unearthly wails of Hans Christian’s cuticle-shredding fingerwork on the saranghi (just watch the pained expressions on his face in the video below).

Hans Christian shredding cuticles on the saranghi.

Turns out it was the first time in quite awhile that the band has played this song live, GuruGanesha told us afterward.  “It felt like it really clicked.”

Um, yeah.  The crowd at the historic little town hall in Shelburne, Vt. — many of whom were experiencing “mantra music” for the first time ever — were apparently as riveted as we were.  They exploded with applause at the song’s end.

See for yourself in the video below.  And if you’re anywhere near Toronto or London, Ontario June 8-10, go see The GuruGanesha Band with special guest Paramjeet Singh.  We have it on good advice that they’ll be playing Aval Allah…

Also see:

The GuruGanesha Band: Making Its Mark on Mantra Music

The GuruGanesha Band Photo Album on Facebook





The GuruGanesha Band: Making Its Mark on Mantra Music


The GuruGanesha Band just may be the mantra-music band of the year.  They’ve been making waves at every stop in their inaugural bi-coastal North American tour, which kicked off in March on the West Coast and is now entering the final leg of its Eastern tour.

“This year is a pilot,” GuruGanesha Singh told The Bhakti Beat June 1, before his first of two shows in the historic Town Hall of Shelburne, Vt.  “And the pilot has passed with flying colors.”

Something tells us we’re going to be hearing a lot more soul-rockin’ mantra music from this troupe…

Check out this new video from their show June 1, a roof-raising rhythm melding Sikh mantra with English lyrics built around the central message to “Call on the Light Within.”  It’s a brilliant demonstration both of the exquisite musicianship of each individual band member as well as the overall message behind the music, which as GuruGanesha puts it, is to “uplift and connect people to their own divinity.”  We dare you not to feel uplifted after watching this…

The GuruGanesha Band is GuruGanesha Singh (lead vocals, guitars), Michelle Hurtado (vocals, harmonium), Hans Christian (cello, sitara, saranghi, nykelharpa), Sat Kartar Singh (rhythm guitar), Daniel Paul (tabla), and GuruSangat Singh (bass), with soundman Russel Green (aka Naad Raj) joining in on electric violin.

GuruGanesha Band: The Pilot

For details on where The GuruGanesha Band is heading next, see www.guruganesha.com

View a photo album from the June 1-2 performances.

Stay tuned here for more video from the most recent shows and clips of our interview with GuruGanesha.

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