We’re not sure she’d call herself a “wallah,” but regardless of labels, Jai-Jagdeesh is a rising star in the chant world. Her music is firmly rooted in the Sikh/Kundalini tradition of Gurmukhi-language chants (the tradition of Snatam Kaur, most famously), but with a modern edge that gives her music almost a pop-inspired feel. And she’s not above breaking out in an old favorite — like she did at Sat Nam Fest with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s luscious Hallelujah…
Nothing Sikh about that, and the hard-core kundalini yogis at the festival ate it up.
Which, as an aside, proves a point about Sat Nam Fest that maybe some of us — including this writer, until I went to the festival — don’t completely get: it’s not ALL hard-core kundalini yoga, and you don’t have to be a hard-core kundalini yogi (whatever that is) to love this festival. I’m not, and I did. (Of course, there is plenty of hard-core yoga on the bill — you wouldn’t believe how long Gurmukh had those yogis holding tree pose! I, of course, needed to take pictures…ahem.)
Jai-Jagdeesh, with Tripp Dudley on percussion and Leonardo Har Prakash on sitar
One of the highlights for this SNF newbie was, without doubt, Jai-Jagdeesh’s set on Saturday morning (it started at 8:30, which was like, lunchtime for some of the hard cores who had been up since 4 a.m. for morning prayers).
Now, we may have been biased going into it, because GuruGanesha Singh, the founder (and now minority owner) of Spirit Voyage, the record label that produces all of the Sat Nam Fest artists, had singled out Jai-Jagdeesh as someone not to miss. He called her style “a little bit more eclectic” in comparison to the stalwart of the label, Snatam Kaur, or Nirinjan Kaur, a young Sikh artist Singh also proclaimed “up-and-coming.” (Both Snatam and Nirinjan, Singh said in his inimitable style, are “like, realllly ‘Sikh-y’.”)
Nirinjan Kaur, also rising...
Sat Nam Fest, Singh pointed out, has been a boon to young artists like Jai-Jagdeesh and Nirinjan, because it gives them an opportunity to “get out in front of a bigger audience.” In the case of Jai-Jagdeesh, who debuted on the festival schedule last year, “it was a real confidence-builder. People responded really favorably to her.”
We can vouch for that reaction at this year’s East Coast fest (in Waynesboro, Penn. Sept. 13-16). The crowd loved her. They cheered when the curtain first drew back to reveal her at her harmonium, percussionist Tripp Dudley on her right and sitar player Leonardo Har Prakash on her left. They applauded long and strong after each song. They whistled and hooted when she stood up to offer a Bollywood-inspired classical Indian dance piece (you’ll see why in the video below).
It’s clear this young woman, steeped in yogic tradition and Indian music since she was a child, hardened up on the streets of L.A. pursuing an acting career, then resoftened perhaps as sacred music reclaimed the forefront of her life, is a favorite daughter of the kundalini crowd — and beyond.
Just look at what she does with her neck…
How does she do that?
Jai-Jagdeesh’s debut album, I Am Thine, has reportedly been one of Spirit Voyage’s top sellers in recent months. No wonder; it’s a luscious mix of traditional Gurmukhi chants and love-infused English lyrics, backed up by the exquisite musicianship of Krishan on piano, guitar and gentle percussion and Hans Christian on cello, sitara, sarangi and nickelharpa. She recently launched an ambitious tour in the Eastern U.S. and Canada that wraps up Oct. 13 in Vienna, Va.
Well, Swami-Ji apparently left his harmonica behind, so what’s a blues lover like Miten to do? Get Shyamdas in on the act, of course. You just knew it was going to be good when Miten called him up to the stage toward the end of Miten and Premal’s set during the Labor Day session of Omega’s Ecstatic Chant weekend.
Nothing quite like the Radhe blues…
Later that same evening (yes, sticking around Omega for that final, fourth day of chanting IS worth it), there was an even bigger surprise. And yes, it too involved Miten…who was kind of hiding in the dark corner for this one:
Whoa! Krishna Das singing Bob Dylan’s famous ballad (often credited to Eric Clapton, who made it famous). Never seen that before.
In fact, Krishna Das told The Bhakti Beat, this was the first time he has sung Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door at a public concert, and only the second time he has sung it at all. A week prior to Omega, KD joined his Russian friend Boris Grebenshchikov — who KD called “the Bob Dylan of Russia” and Wickepedia calls the “grandfather of Russian rock” — on stage at a private gathering for a spontaneous rendition of it. We can’t help wondering if this signals a return to rock ‘n roll for “Ex-Rocker” Krishna Das.
Omega Moments — highlights for us from a long weekend of inspired, blissful (and decidedly more traditional than these two videos suggest) chanting, in all the deliciously diverse incarnations of the contemporary practice of kirtan. What were yours?
On the altar at Bhakti Fest. Photo courtesy of Kailash Ananda.
For all the festiveness of Bhakti Fest, the nonstop bhav was tinged with an underlayer of shock and sadness as the news spread that one of bhakti’s own had died suddenly just two days prior to the gathering in the desert. Geoffrey Gordon, master percussionist, producer, composer, wallah and Neem Karoli Baba flame-keeper, was gone. Gordon was one of the original bhakti brothers from the Ram Dass era who helped sow the seeds of the Western kirtan movement, drumming alongside Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Bhagavan Das, and many others.
It was fitting, perhaps, that so many heard the news first at Bhakti Fest, because, as Girish told the fest’s emcee, Shiva Baum: “There is only a Bhakti Fest today because of the work that Geoffrey started with Jai Uttal all those many years ago when it wasn’t widely popular yet to sing kirtan.”
We first heard the news from the Bhakti Fest Main Stage, early on Day 1. Ben Leinbach was about to launch into a song in his set with Prajna Vieirra, when he silenced his guitar abruptly, whispered “I just thought of something…”, then put his head down, hand at forehead, as if trying to collect himself. His voice deep with emotion, he told us of Gordon’s death and dedicated the set to his friend and collaborator. The morning crowd hushed and people exchanged perplexed glances, heads shaking in disbelief.
Photo Courtesy of Mike Crall
Leinbach’s was the first of many heart-rending tributes to a man who — while not exactly a household name in the broader world of kirtan — was deeply loved and respected by the brotherhood of bhaktas that forms the core of modern Western kirtan. The wallahs knew him, without exception, and their love for him poured forth. Sruti Ram fought back tears as he dedicated the Hanuman Chalisa to Gordon during SRI Kirtan’s set. Sean Johnson recounted how Gordon, in their last conversation, had told him how pleased he was to see the next generation of artists moving kirtan forward. Girish moved half the crowd to tears with a poignant tribute at the end of his set on Sunday. Krishna Das called him “a good friend for a long time” in his Sunday afternoon workship (Gordon played tabla on KD’s debut CD, One Track Heart, and they have collaborated many times since).
Jai Uttal: ‘A Great Buddy’
Gordon and Jai Uttal. Photo courtesy of Jai Uttal.
In his headline set Thursday night, Jai Uttal told the crowd that Gordon was “a very very dear friend of mine and of the bhakti community here in the United States.” He said he had first met Gordon in 1969 or ’70, when they “were both young yogi kids looking to get high.” (“And we did,” he added with a wink, to a ripple of chuckles.) But then, normally joyful Jai got uncharacteristically serious. And quiet….He quickly introduced the next song — an 18-minute joyride of a Hare Krishna chant interspersed with his now-signature “Help! I Need Somebody” Beatles-inspired chorus. Perfect.
In an email, Uttal said “Geoffrey and I played so much music together for so many years. He was a key member of the Pagan Love Orchestra and he also played tablas and sang with me for literally thousands of kirtans. He was deep into the devotional path and also a committed musician, always trying to learn and grow. He was also a great buddy.”
“I trust that by now Geoffrey is jamming in the heavenly Kirtan band, gazing into Maharajji’s shining face, and showering love and bliss upon his family and beloveds still here on Earth,” Uttal wrote in a facebook post Sept. 6, the day of his Bhakti Fest performance.
Shiva Baum: Gordon ‘A True Bhakta’
Shiva Baum recording Girish's tribute to Gordon at Bhakti Fest.
Shiva Baum, who as the former head of A&R/Triloka Records pioneered the mantra music movement in the West and views Gordon as a “beloved uncle…friend, mentor and co-conspirator,” told us in an email: “Geoffrey was loved by all who knew him. He was extraordinarily passionate and always on the side of the artist. He was an advocate for the “little guy” — the musicians behind the scenes who the spotlight often missed but whose contributions were essential. His heart was massive and he was able to pull you over to the right side of the road if you ever fell astray. He was someone who truly valued friendship and knew that the value of life was love. He was a true Bhakta.”
And, Baum added: “Perhaps most importantly, he sang one of the most beautiful versions of the Hanuman Chalisa I have to this day ever heard. You can only sing like that if you are truly a devotee. Geoffrey was and will always be.”
Influenced Early On by George & Ravi
Gordon’s love affair with the tabla apparently begain in 1971, when according to a biography on Gordon’s website, he went to see The Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden, the epic East-meets-West event organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar and featuring Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and many others. Ravi Shankar and tabla maestros Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Allarakha — Gordon’s future teachers — performed as the opening act.
“This concert had a profound effect on Geoffrey,” his bio says. “He knew there and then that he wanted to study North Indian classical music and learn to play the tabla.”
A year later, he met Ram Dass and became a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba. His bio details a long and rich history as a student-turned-teacher and professional percussionist for recordings in many musical genres as well as plays, films, and dance theatre. “He wasn’t ‘just a drummer,'” says long-time friend Mohan Baba. “He was a full-on, professional world percussionist.” To which Baba quickly adds: “Of course, his real love was his spiritual focus, and his drumming reflected that.”
Gordon’s passion for devotional music stayed with him to the end. He reportedly received a standing ovation for a percussion solo at a concert in Sedona the Sunday night before his death. He was on his way home to Santa Fe that Tuesday when he suffered a massive heart attack along the way, Mohan Baba told The Bhakti Beat. He said Gordon was evacuated by helicopter to the nearest hospital but resuscitation attempts en route failed to revive him.
‘Turn Off and Float Downstream’
My first kirtan with Gordon leading was at Bhakti Fest just last year. It was a morning set, and the low desert sun was already blasting its intensity onto the musicians on stage and the small crowd of early risers. I remember the set being quietly powerful somehow, in a way I can’t readily describe — it was as if it really didn’t matter to Gordon if anyone was there, because he was singing to something deeper…
When I searched my files for the photos I was sure I had taken that day, all I found was a single three-and-a-half-minute video:
The song, Tomorrow Never Knows, was written by John Lennon. Jai Uttal covered it, with Geoffrey Gordon on percussion, on the 2001 Grammy-nominated CD Mondo Rama by Uttal and the Pagan Love Orchestra, where it was fused with a Shiva chant. It seems to have been a favorite of Gordon’s in his fairly new incarnation as kirtan wallah; he sang it again at his last kirtan in Sedona the Sunday morning before he died, according to Sedona kirtaneer Natesh Ramsell, who met Gordon for the first time that weekend.
Here are the words, as Gordon sings them in the video:
Relax your mind, turn off and float down stream It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, It is shining, it is shining.
That you may know the meaning of within It is being, it is being
Om Namah Shivayah, Shivayah Namaho…
Or play the game “Existence” to the end Of the beginning, of the beginning, of the beginning, of the beginning.
Photo Courtesy of Mohan Baba
Memorial Services Honor Gordon’s Life
A memorial service for Geoffrey Gordon was held Tuesday, Sept. 25 at Open Secret Bookstore in San Rafael, Calif., where Jai Uttal, Ben Leinbach, and dozens of other artists offered their musical tributes. And on Sunday, Sept. 30, friends will gather at the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram in Taos, N.M., to chant and celebrate his life. The Ashram’s page includes a link for contributions to assist in the funeral and memorial expenses and other financial needs of Gordon’s long-time wife, Sandra.
“After the ecstasy, the laundry.” In those few words author Jack Kornfield captured the essence of the seeker’s search for that “something else” and the back-to-reality recognition that, having tasted it even fleetingly, one cannot escape the laundry of life that awaits us in this 3-D world.
Go ahead and taste the ecstasy. Savor it. Relish every moment of it. But don’t forget to wash your underwear.
Kornfield’s popular title rings in my ears as I return home after an 18-day sojourn chasing the bhav from one end of the country to the other. The Bhakti Beat’s Big Bhavalicious Adventure took us from Omega’s Ecstatic Chant in the heart of the “Bhajan Belt” in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to the high desert of Joshua Tree, Cali. for the 4th Annual Bhakti Fest West, and then back East to the cornfields of Pennsylvania for Sat Nam Fest, the kundalini yoga and chant retreat organized by Spirit Voyage Music. Sandwiched in between was the NYC premeire of Jeremy Frindel’s new documentary, “One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das.”
That’s a lot of kirtan, even for a confessed junkie.
Me & my cameras, chasing the bhav. (Photo courtesy of Maie P Jyoti)
I savored it. Relished every moment. And in the end, couldn’t wait to come home, with a resolute determination to bring the bhav right back with me. Surely this immersion in the ocean of devotion, this tidal wave of spiritual energy generated from the ultimate Kirtan Trifecta — or Tri-Festa, as GuruGanesha Singh labeled my journey — would keep me high on life for days, weeks, maybe even months, right? Right?
Ha. Tell that to the dirty underwear. And the stack of bills screaming for my attention. And the deadlines looming for the day job that pays the stack of bills. Videos to edit, pictures to post, blogs to write. A boyfriend who has forgotten what I look like and secretly wants to heave my laptop out the window. And so on.
The crash came hard and fast. Leaving me wondering: Where’s the bhav now?
Easier said than done...
This, I gather, is where that “great magic trick of existence” comes in…how to “snatch the eternal from the desperately fleeting,” as Tennessee Williams wrote. How to sustain the “blissful love or loving bliss,” as the religious studies scholar David Haberman defined “the bhav” in a workshop at Bhakti Fest, even when the fest is over and we’re faced with the unpleasant minutiae of daily life.
Krishna Das has said it in so many workshops: “When you leave here, you’ve still got to pay the bills.” His advice? “Practice.” He doesn’t care if you chant, meditate, do asanas…whatever; just do something. “There’s a reason they call it practice,” he always says. You’ve got to do it. As in, every day, chant fest or no.
Note to self: a crowd of 5,000 isn’t required. A festival of One works too.
Shyamdas, the respected author, Sanskrit scholar, and master of Hare Katha (sacred teachings interwoven with bhav-inducing kirtan) was asked what it means to “be in the bhav” during the Bhakti Panel workshop on Day 4 of Bhakti Fest. Among other gems you can hear in the video below, he said this:
“The bhav makes us understand that there is eternity within the present moment, and that makes the individual unconcerned with what is going to happen next, because everything is already a perfect manifestation as it is.”
In the bhav, Shyamdas told us, “everything is directed for the pleasure of the Beloved.” By which he means the Supreme. The Divine. It matters not if you call it God, Krishna, Christ, Grace, Universal Oneness, Higher Self — label it as you will, or not at all. The point is that when everything we do is offered up to the greater good, then — and only then — can we get anywhere near the bhav.
Need a pay-off? Shyamdas says: “When a person can have that attitude, I think they receive a response from the Source Bhav.”
“A response from the Source Bhav.” I like the sound of that. I want that.
Tulasi & Purusartha Dasa
A remarkable woman I met on my journey, Tulasi Devi Dasi (whose husband, Purusartha Dasa, plays bass for The Hanumen), made this exact point to me a week before I heard Shyamdas say it, in a casual breakfast conversation at Omega the morning after four days of Ecstatic Chant. She told an innocuous story of a large gathering at their home in the community of Krishna devotees in Alachua, Fla. She said all the preparation and labors were seen not as effort, but as joy, because all was done in service to Krishna. Every act, no matter how small, was offered up as a prayer to the Beloved.
Her words had that goosebump effect on me. You know, that tingly “hit” you get when something resonates deeply in your soul. I nearly wept right there in the cafeteria. (Chanting for four days will do that to you.)
Gong bath at Sat Nam Fest
Tulasi’s words stayed with me.
“I offer my service to Krishna” became my mantra (I would interchange Krishna with Christ, God, Universal Oneness, The Divine, because to me they are all one). I did this as I posted pictures. I did it as I wrote emails and returned phone calls. I did it as I sweated my way through NY rush-hour traffic to make my flight at JFK after Google Maps sent me on a ridiculously convoluted route. And so on.
Well, call me crazy, but you know what? Doors started opening. Interviews came through. Connections were made. Relationships were healed with a hug. Helpful people were showing up precisely at the right time. Oh yeah, and I made the plane. With perfect timing.
I ran into Tulasi again on Day 3 of Bhakti Fest, five days later and 3,000 miles from our breakfast chat. I told her how she had inspired me with her words, how it had made all the difference. We hugged. I wept. She wept. (Chanting for eight days will do that to you.)
So here’s what I’ve learned…
You can chase the bhav all you want — and you might even snatch it for a fleeting moment. But until you can find that sweet spot of devotion and gratitude, that attitude that life is a gift — that “ever-expansive loving feeling that we’re all thirsting for,” as Haberman put it — right in your own home, your own heart, even with the stack of bills screaming and the deadlines looming and the boyfriend glowering, you’re just running on empty.
Make your life a prayer. Then stand back and watch what unfolds.
Sridhar Silberfein: Grace in Action
Or, as Bhakti Fest founder and executive producer Sridhar Silberfein so says:
“Do what you can. Then get out of the way and let Grace take over.”