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Ram Dass, beaming from Maui

We often get asked: “What are the can’t-miss chant events of the year?”  It’s a loaded question, for sure, since everyone has their own idea about what is “can’t-miss.”  Including us.  So we’re sharing our picks for “The Big 5” chant events that are worth getting to, no matter where you’re coming from.  Here’s part 1; stay tuned to this space for the rest (subscribe here).  And tell us what your top picks are!

Omega’s Ecstatic Chant is the original.  Now moving into its second decade as the annual destination for hard-core chantaholics, its roots can be traced back to Ram Dass’s annual retreats at the Rhinebeck, N.Y. campus in the ’80’s. 

Omega Co-Founder Stephan Rechtschaffen told us that, in those days, Ram Dass would invite Krishna Das or Jai Uttal to come and chant with the gathering as evening entertainment, and it became so popular that chanting became a central aspect of the weekend. When Ram Dass could no longer attend due to his health, the chanting continued.  These days, Ram Dass beams in from Maui through the magic of interactive video, delivering his wisdom, humor and reflections of Neem Karoli Baba from a large screen.

What’s So Special About Omega? 

Radhanath Swami (ctr) with Shyamdas and Deva Premal

 Omega is different from everything else on The Big 5 list because it is chant and only chant.  It’s also the only one that is not a “festival” per se — more like a “retreat.”  Or, in Omega parlance,  a weekend workshop (The Yoga of Voice).  The program is chanting.  That’s it.  No simultaneous yoga classes across campus.  No lectures or experiential workshops to compete for your time.  Just chant, chant and chant some more. 


On the second day, there is an extraordinary all-night session that, if you are game, is pretty much guaranteed to take you so deep into the bhav that you just might, as Swami Satchidananda said, “forget everything.”  Participants fairly camp out in the Main Hall, variously dancing furiously or quietly meditating, dozing or chatting in between sets… and before you know it, dawn is rising, right in tune with the lilting flute-play of Manose and Steve Gorn.

But what makes Omega stand out for us are those completely unpredictable moments that are pure gold for the soul — like Radhanath Swami wailing on the harmonica with Deva Premal and Miten.  Or Donna De Lory joining C.C. White to sing Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.  Or this little gem from Shyamdas, who never fails to liven things up with his stories and shenanigans:

‘The Super Bowl of Chant’

Miten, with Omega Co-Founder Stephan Rechtschaffen

Jai Uttal once famously called Omega Chant “the Super Bowl of chant fests,” maybe because only a handful of artists make it to the line-up and the competition to be on the schedule is intense.  (Each artist typically plays at least two full sets over the course of the weekend, and many play a third time at the Labor Day bonus session.)  Rechtschaffen, who makes the line-up decisions, says he is inundated with artists’ CDs and promo tapes and is always on the look-out for bands with a “unique” sound, but knows that bringing in someone “new” means someone else gets bumped, even if they’ve been on the Omega line-up for years. 

C.C. White was at fall Chant for the first time last year, and Dave Stringer returned after a few years’ absence.  Snatam Kaur and Wah!, both long-time Omega regulars, were noticeably absent last fall, as was David Newman (Wah! played at Omega’s smaller Spring Chant in May; Newman and Kaur both led workshop at the retreat center this summer).  Rechtschaffen openly lamented the absence of each of these favorites at fall Chant.   

The 2012 Line-Up 

KD and Arjun Bruggeman

Krishna Das, Shyamdas, Jai Uttal (with Daniel Paul) are constants on the Omega schedule.  They have been leading the Omega Chant pack since the early days and it’s hard to imagine Chant Weekend without all of them.  They can usually be counted on to be stage center during the famous closing session, when all the wallahs and musicians join together on stage for a final free-for-all.   Typically, you can find Shyamdas directing the action, Jai Uttal playfully rebelling, and Krishna Das playfully grumpy at having to be in the spotlight at such an “early” hour (it’s only 11:30 a.m. or so, after all). 

The ever-popular Deva Premal and Miten and Sikh songstress Snatam Kaur round out the top-bill headliners at this year’s Chant.

Vishal Vaid astounds

Vishal Vaid, who has trained in traditional ghazal (an ancient form of poetry in song that translates to “conversation with the divine”), astounds audiences every year (watch this for example) and seems to have a pretty solid position on the Omega roster.  The Mayapuris, the Florida-based band of “Krishna Kids” who have leaped — literally — into the international kirtan scene are back for a third year, and if previous years’ pattern holds true, will join just about everyone else’s bands as well.  

C.C. White

C.C. White is back for her second year, having solidified her return with two crowd-rousing sets last fall showcasing songs from her debut solo CD, This IS Soul Kirtan, which was “pre-released” at Omega.  Gaura Vani and bansuri flute virtuosos Manose and Steve Gorn complete the bill of musicians.  Radhanath Swami, who caused all sorts of excitement last fall when he joined Deva Premal and Miten on stage for an impromptu (and seriously wailin’) harmonica solo, will also be on hand.  We hope he brings his harmonica.

The Deets

When:  Aug. 31-Sept. 3, with a special 10-Hour Labor Day session on Sept. 3.  (If you still haven’t had enough, Krishna Das keeps the bhav flowing with a separate workshop on Tuesday, Sept. 4.)


Radhanath Swami & Donna De Lory

Where:  Omega Institute is located in Rhinebeck, NY, smack in the middle of the “Bhajan Belt,” the upstate New York region known for a confluence of kirtan.  It’s about 90 miles north of NYC and roughly the same distance from Albany.  There’s an Amtrak station nearby and a commuter train to NYC.

How Much:   This is the only bug in the ointment.  Tuition alone for Ecstatic Chant is $395.  The Labor Day session is $125, or $75 if you’re doing the weekend retreat also.  Accomodations are additional, and on-site cabins or dorms tend to be, shall we say, “rustic” (but pleasant enough).  See http://eomega.org/workshops/ecstatic-chant for details.

What Else? Rhinebeck is a quaint and boho-chic Hudson Valley town with lots of restaurants, shopping and an indie movie house.  But you may never want to leave the Omega campus, a rolling oasis with a small lake where you can kayak, hiking paths, great vegetarian meals, a wellness spa with all manner of body-work and subtle-energy treatments available, a soothing sanctuary at the top of the hill, and the charged energy of 30 years as a destination for spiritual masters and seekers of all stripes. 

So, what do you say?  Will you be going to Ecstatic Chant this year?  Why or why not?




Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, arts, science, and music, so it’s not surprising that her name gets thrown around a lot at chant fests.  The daughter of Shiva and Durga, Saraswati represents the free flow of wisdom and consciousness.  She has four arms representing four aspects of human learning:  mind, intellect, alertness, and ego.  She is usually depicted playing a veena, a classical Indian stringed instrument, and the symbolism around this and her other accoutrements is rich.  In the Hindu tradition, Saraswati alone can grant Moksha, the final liberation of the soul.

Moksha, huh?  Not a bad goal.  No wonder kirtan artists are always chanting to Saraswati-Ma.

Today we want to share two versions of call-and-response kirtan invoking Saraswati, from Joni Allen and Dave Stringer.  Because we could all use a little help in achieving final liberation, couldn’t we?

Joni Allen at Shakti Fest, where she sang with Wah!

We’re starting to think of the first version, from Joni Allen, as her signature song.  She has sung it on tour with Stringer (she has been his vocal accompanist for nearly a decade).  She led it on stage at last year’s Boston Yoga & Chant Fest alongside Boston chantress Irene Solea (see that video here).  And a few months later, on the opposite side of the country, she belted out a slightly slowed-down rendition of it during Mike Cohen’s set at Bhakti Fest 2011, with Cohen and Brenda McMorrow singing response (video below).  

We really hope she keeps on singing it, because it gets us every time. 


Dave Stringer at Bhakti Fest Midwest

That’s video No. 1.  The second in this two-for comes from Dave Stringer himself (with Allen and Brenda McMorrow on response vocals), and has a completely different feel.  Stringer called in Saraswati Maha Devi early in his Bhakti Fest Midwest set ,with a slow, sumptuously intensifying call-and-response co-performance.  It was a classic kirtan slow-build culminating in a prolonged ecstatic climax.  The Heartland bhavsters were leaping and throwing their arms to the heavens as if they had already achieved Moksha. 

Witness the gyrating crowd under the full moon in Madison midway into this 8-minute snippet capturing the peak of the chant.  And don’t miss the inspiring one-armed guitar riff by Yehoshua Brill at the end.  Is he channeling Jerry Garcia  there?  (He said on facebook that that “seems to happen with Dave gigs for some reason.” )  Love that.

Is this Moksha in the making?


Saraswati Ma Ma Ma…


The bhav is bountiful in Brooklyn these days.  Nina Rao, right arm to Krishna Das and Champion of the Chalisa, is based there.  Amma devotee Devadas is there.  Chantresses Shyama Chapin and Ambika Cooper, tabla whiz KC Solaris, Jeremy & Lily Frindel and their kirtan-championing Brooklyn Yoga School…the list goes on.  Now you can add a new kid — er, kids — to the list:  Kirtan Soul Revival.

Granted, KSR, as they’ve labeled themselves (how vogue!), may not exactly be a household acronym in the kirtan world, but remember the name, because this trio is building something beautiful (to borrow a line from one of their original songs).  Their promo materials herald them as NYC’s “newest, funkiest, devotional music experience.”  We’ll buy that.

Double-Billing with The Hanumen

We first caught up with these Brooklyn bhaktas — Helen Styring Tocci, Calia Marshall and Todd Keller, along with fellow Brooklynite K.C. Solaris guesting on tabla — at Goddard College in Vermont, where they played a short set after The Hanumen concert there (not bad company). Their set was audiocast live over WGDR-FM’s Website along with The Hanumen, creating a little buzz and giving this young start-up some welcome exposure. It was all part of their first mini-tour, which also included concerts at Evolution Yoga in Burlington; Yoga Mountain in Montpelier, Vt., and South Boston Yoga, the kirtan nursery where Irene Solea, among others, got their start.

KSR has an inviting, easy-going vibe that drew everyone — even first-time chanters — into the bhav, whether it was call-and-response to a traditional Sanskrit chant (like “Jaya Bolo Ram,” video below) or sing-along to a Beatles classic fused into one of their own feel-good anthems (like “Imagine/We Can Live in Love,” video below).

But make no mistake. What sets this threesome apart is simple:  three sets of pipes.

Where many bands, of any genre, may have one outstanding vocalist who carries the weight of the singing, KSR has three.  And they don’t hold back.  In between solos showcasing their individual vocal prowess, they were belting out three-part harmonies like the best a capela barber shop trio.  You couldn’t help but sit up and take notice, even after the vocal fireworks of Benjy Wertheimer’s Alleluia solo (a tough act to follow, no doubt.)

Those harmonies — along with a taste of K.C. Solaris’s rockin’ tabla magic — are on display in both videos below. See if you agree that this group is one to watch.

Tell us what you think!

KSR doesn’t have a full album yet, but does have an EP with three nice long chants on it, including a version of Jaya Bolo Ram.  You can find out more and sign up for the email list by visiting Kirtan Soul Revival on facebook.


You never know what’s coming next with The Hanumen, the ensemble band created by Gaura Vani, Benjy Wertheimer and John de Kadt.  That came through in their live Webcast concert at Goddard College July 24 (part of an East Coast summer tour with Purusartha Dasa on bass), as well as the unpredictably amusing interview we had afterward with all four Hanumen.

As we’ve written, the evening’s musical agenda sauntered between Hafiz on the hang from drum poet John de Kadt (“Come Dance with Me”) to slave songs from 1800’s America (“Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”) to original love poems to the world (“I Love You, I Do”) to 11th century Gregorian Chant (“Alleluia,” video below). Traditional Sanskrit chants to the Divine were weaved in throughout.  Often, each of these seemingly diverse genres was wrapped up into one seamless medley of musical artistry.

Each of the trio traded off instruments throughout the night: Benjy Wertheimer variously played the tabla drums, the esraj (a traditional Indian stringed instrument), or acoustic guitar; Gaura Vani switched between harmonium, flute, and guitar, and John de Kadt selected from the mountain of drums that surrounded him.

‘A Living Dialog of Faith’

This was not a “kirtan concert” so much as an exploration of musical mantras in every form, from vastly different spiritual traditions.  “A living dialog of faith,” Gaura Vani called it.

It’s this “ecumenical sensibility,” Wertheimer says, that is at the core of The Hanumen.  “We want to feel like anybody who really wants to give themselves completely to the divine has a way to sing with us and participate in what we are offering.  We are inviting people into the deepest expression of their own love for the divine, whatever path that they’re taking,” he said, adding wryly:  “You don’t usually go to kirtans and hear Gregorian Chants or Sufi poetry.”

Not usually, no.  But we say Alleluia to more of that.

See if you agree after hearing this Alleluia solo by Wertheimer, which he described as “a chant from a somewhat different tradition where men would gather to sing together.”  The Latin words in this 1,000-year-old Gregorian Chant are from Psalm 91 in the Volgate bible of the time, which speaks of justice.  It translates to: “May those who are loving and just flourish like the palm tree/And just like the famed cedars of Lebanon, may they multiply, may they grow. Alleluia.”

A studio version of Alleluia sung by Benjy Wertheimer and long-time collaborator Sean Frenette is on “Jaya,” the latest CD from Shantala, the Music of Benjy and Heather Wertheimer (www.shantalamusic.com), and forms the soundtrack for a beautiful video montage of images from the Wertheimer’s Northwest ‘hood and their bhakti travels.   View that video here: http://youtu.be/9Eqr9QqGRk4.

 Also see:
The Hanumen Prove that a (Mantra) Revolution Can Be a Hoot (Interview, Video, Photos)
Photo Journal of The Hanumen on facebook

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