Omega’s annual Ecstatic Chant weekend would not exist without Ram Dass. The legendary Labor Day retreat for chantaholics in the heart of New York’s Bhajan Belt has its roots in Ram Dass’ own epic gatherings at Omega dating back to the mid-1990’s. In those days, Omega co-founder Stephan Rechtschaffen recounted to The Bhakti Beat, Ram Dass would invite Krishna Das and others to come and chant with retreatants during evening concerts as kind of an entertainment extra. Over time, the chanting became an integral part of the weekend, occupying more and more of the retreat schedule.
When Ram Dass suffered a stroke and chose to discontinue most of his travel, the retreats continued…eventually morphing into Ecstatic Chant: The Yoga of Voice, now one of Omega’s most popular programs (among a catalog of hundreds).
In recent years, Ram Dass has joined the program live via Skype from Hawaii, his face projected onto a huge screen in Omega’s darkened, packed-to-capacity Main Hall. Krishna Das, Radhanath Swami, Shyamdas, Jai Uttal and Rechtschaffen have taken turns leading the chat with the man many credit with jump-starting the Western fascination with India generally and the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba (“Maharaji”) in particular.
This is an excerpt from the Skype chat with Ram Dass that was jointly led by Shyamdas and Jai Uttal at last fall’s Ecstatic Chant. (Shyamdas did most of the asking…)
Shyamdas: What’s it like to be loved by so many thousands of people?
Ram Dass: It’s like being with Maharaji. He gave unconditional love. No matter how rotten you were he gave unconditional love. YumYumYumYumYum.
SD: What should we be doing with our lives?
RD: Remember Maharaji. People come to me for advice, but they’re not really coming to me. They’re coming to Maharaji…When they experience that love, they flower. That gives me great happiness and fills my heart. YumYumYumYumYum.
SD: Great job you have.
RD: Yes, yes it is. I am a gardener.
SD: How did you get that job?
RD: I didn’t ask for it. He [Maharaji] laid it on me. The first time I was in India, he said: “Arshivad (blessings) for your book.” I said, “What’s Arshivad, and what book?”
SD: Thank you for your seva and your priceless gifts. We can only bow; we cannot repay you, but we can try…
RD: We are all the same. We’ve all found it; we’ve seen what it is. Now it’s up to us…
Shyamdas wouldn’t let his friend say goodbye without a proper send-off, and he and Uttal were promptly leading the capacity crowd in a sweet little transcontinental kirtan. A thousand voices harmonized in an exuberant Radhe Govinda, flowing from the packed room in New York’s Hudson Valley straight to the heart of Ram Dass in his bungelow in Hawaii. Short and sweet:
Can we just say how much we love livestream? We envision a day when every festival and concert, kirtans included, is streamed free to living rooms and laptops everywhere. With perfect audio. And a strong, steady feed. And — since we’re dreaming — professional camerawork that zooms in on the action. While we’re at it, could we get a caption here and there identifying featured musicians? (Who was that on violin with Karnamrita Dasi anyway?)
Until that vision is reality, we’ll take what we can get. What we got yesterday from Shakti Fest — thanks to New World Kirtan and Kitzie Stern for persevering with the technicalities — was two full sets of the bhav in Joshua Tree, Dasi and Jai Uttal, plus smatterings of choppy, wildly fluctuating audio from Saul David Raye, Deepak Ramapriyan, and David Newman’s sets earlier in the day. By the time Dasi took the stage, it seemed like the bugs had been worked out on the stream AND video had been added. Not only did it sound better, but we had a back-row view of the action. We’re glad we stuck it out and kept listening…
From the stage to the altar. (Photo by Kamaniya Devi)
This is, of course, the first Bhakti Fest without Shyamdas, the beloved “elder statesman of bhakti,” as emcee Shiva Baum described him last night. Normally, Shyamdas would be steering the ship of bhav here, both behind the scenes and stage center, particularly during the legendary final set, where all the wallahs and musicans crowd the stage for a final Hare Krishna mahamantra. (Check out the action from last fall’s finale in the video below.) While he may not have been there in body, it was clear from listening in on the goings-on in the high desert that Shyamdas was on everyone’s minds, and in everyone’s hearts.
In every set that we caught, the artist paused to say a few words, share a personal remembrance, or dedicate a song to Shyamdas. Jai Uttal devoted a Sri Radhe chant in what he called “a sad melody” to Shyam; Dasi closed her set with one of Shyam-ji’s favorites, The Song of Sweetness, which glorifies the nectar of Krishna’s form and love. Govindas, one half of Govindas and Radhe and the founder of the Bhakti Yoga Shala, Santa Monica’s temple to kirtan, spoke at length between sets about his time “sitting at the feet” of Shyamdas.
The master of Hari Katha was eternally present.
Jai Uttal & Friends (Photo courtesy of Bhakti Fest)
Just before Uttal played, Bhakti Fest founder Sridhar Silberfein came onstage to pay tribute to his dear friend in words and a three-minute slide show with an audio track of Shyamdas being interviewed in India just weeks before his death. Putting it together, sifting through images and recordings of Shyamdas, “has been tearing me up emotionally every single day,” Silberfein said. He told of the Bhakti Yatra group tour to India in January, for which Shyamdas was a very large part of the itinerary but never made it to the entourage waiting for him.
You may have heard the story before…but Silberfein added some new details. He said Shyamdas called him just before they were slated to rendezvous saying he was suffering a breakout of shingles and wouldn’t be able to join the group of 25 or so Westerners who had traveled to India fully expecting a Shyamdas-led tour of Vrindavan, the holy city in India that Shyam so loved (and was practically the town’s adopted mayor , from what we’ve heard). Instead, Shyamdas stayed in Goa to rest and recuperate; the motorcycle accident that ended his life happened a few days later.
K.d. Devi Dasi and Prajna Vierra tending the Main Stage altar (Photo by Kamaniya Devi)
The audio on the slide show dropped out from the livestream feed so it was difficult to catch, but Shyamdas was telling a funny story involving Uttal and Krishna Das, something to do with Uttal’s assertion that KD was too “masculine to be a Gopi.” (Who can fill us in on the details?) Whatever it was that was lost in cyberspace, it was enough to elicit lots of guffaws from the audience, as well as a good-natured comment from Uttal, who joked that Shyamdas was “hounding me even from the grave.”
Mohan Baba, Shyamdas’s friend of 40 years and one of the close satsang who was with him the night he passed, told of how Shyamdas — in his final hours of life after the accident — was “totally focused inward.”
“He didn’t say a word and was just sitting there calmly, in an intense devotional space,” Mohan said.
One of the things he loved about Shyamdas, Mohan said, was that “he was just a regular guy. He was not a swami, not a renunciate. He lived a householder’s life, and was totally fixated on the divine lila.” Even though he came from a wealthy Connecticut family, “he turned his back on all that, choosing to live very simply.”
During Gina Sala’s set (Photo by Kamaniya Devi)
“There’s a big lesson for all of us there,” Mohan said, “to live life as fully as you can, every day.”
Just when you thought you might make it through this tearjerker tribute without breaking down, Shiva Baum broke down, his voice cracking as he introduced Jai Uttal’s set.
“Shyamdas is irreplaceable, and he will be with us always,” Baum said before turning it over to Uttal “His love blankets this entire festival.”
Here’s the video from last fall’s Bhakti Fest, with Shyamdas steering the bhav in the festival-closing raucous, windblown, stage-lights-about-to-topple all-wallah finale. Through it all, Shyamdas just kept singing to Krishna.
It started with Ahh. A long, rolling round of Ahhs to open our throats and wake up our vocal chords.
That was the first thing we did on the first full day of Sean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band’s 8-Day BHAKTImmersion, and every morning thereafter. Open your mouth and sing Aaaaaahhhhh. Stretch your face, stick out your tongue, make like a lion, and sing it again. Keep singing it. Breathe.
That was the appetizer. Now it was time for sargam.
No, it’s not some New Agey breakfast food. More like breakfast for the soul, a daily tune-up, and we don’t mean just for the vocal chords.
Sargam is essentially scales, the Indian classical equivalent of Do Re Me Fa So La Te Do. Except it goes: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni. Sean Johnson learned it from Russill Paul, a renowned Carnatic and Indian classical vocalist (coming to Omega Spring Chant for the first time this year). Now he does it every day, at his altar, as part of his devotional practice. “To tune my body to the universe for that day,” he said.
“It’s a way to charge our voice,” Johnson said. And so much more. “It’s a prayer, an attunement.”
Each of the individual notes in the sargam scale carries different feelings, he said, as if charged with a different energy. Each note is also associated with a particular chakra, or energy center in the body. A descending series of notes can ground you; an ascending sound can make you feel high. Put a particular sequence of ascending and descending notes together and you’ve got a raga, each one of which is constructed to create a particular mood, or bhav.
“It’s like opening the sonic medicine cabinet,” Johnson said. “If you’re feeling a little sluggish, lazy, bored, an E sound can help.” He sang a long perfect E note to demonstrate. We all bathed in it, taking it in, inhaling the note deeply.
“Wanna’ another hit, man?” he said afterward, with a Big Lebowsky grin. Yes please.
Leading us through a series of sargam exercises, he invited us to “explore how music opens your heart and creates a certain mood.” We repeated the Carnatic notes in various sequences, first slowly, then a little faster, then faster, forward, backward, call and response…you can see how the mood changes over the course of the practice in the video from Day Three (below). Each round was an achievement, punctuated with little hoots and woots from the Immersionites.
It was a mantra practice wrapped inside a vocal tune-up, or a vocal tune-up inside a mantra practice. Either way, it was potent.
“Sound is powerful medicine,” Johnson said. “It’s like medicinal surgery for a broken heart. It can break down energy forms held in our body. It can be used to change states of consciousness.”
Um, yeah. After an hour of sargam, I was high. But not in a Big Lebowsky way; more like energized, exhilarated, recharged like a battery. Definitely buzzed.
Don’t get me wrong. Sargam was torture and ecstacy rolled into one. Torture to a tone-challenged nonmusician with a very antagonistic relationship with her voice. Ecstatic because of the sheer beauty of the other harmonized voices in the room (from “real” musicians who actually seemed to know a C note from a G flat) .
I panicked a little on the second morning we did sargam, when I realized this was going to be a daily thing and not something I just had to suffer through once. A few minutes into it, I was so bombarded by voices in my head that I had to write them down: When will this end?? I can’t sing in tune! They all sound so celestial, so beautiful. I should just listen. It sounds so much better when I shut up! Maybe I’ll get some video. Yeah, yeah, get some video.
This little “vocal exercise” called sargam was bringing up all sorts of stuff, at least for this tone-challenged nonmusician…
I know I wasn’t the only one who found this practice memorable. For one young Immersionite, Molly (who came with her mom Cynthia from California), Sa Re Ga Ma Ma Ga Ni Sa was running through her mind when she woke up, even after a night out soaking up the music along Nola’s famous Frenchman Street. Someone else noted that “suddenly, singing loud and out of key feels right.” That struck a chord.
I eventually made my peace with sargam practice – and to a far lesser degree with my voice, warts and all. By Day Four I was actually looking forward to it, and by the end of the week I was in love with this little daily tune-up. I even kind of miss it…
You can travel all over the world but sometimes the sweetest vibes are right in your own backyard. The Monday Night Kirtan crew in my home ‘hood celebrated Earth Day chanting for Mother Gaia amid the circle of stones that is Burlington’s Earth Clock. With Lake Champlain shimmering beside us. On a cloudless blue-sky day. With the sun setting over the Adirondacks across the lake. Does it get any more blessed than this?
The red sun sank into the distant mountains while we chanted, its last wink precisely timed to the moment our long Jai Ma chant wound down from a soft whisper to silence. It could not have been choreographed more perfectly if it were a movie. I can’t make this stuff up, I swear.
I had brought along a dilapitated old globe that had been rescued from certain demise in a landfill, repaired, then left to gather dust on a high shelf in my apartment. Freshly dusted, she was placed in the center of our altar-in-the-round along with the candles and prasad and other offerings. Our own little “unknown bhakti band,” Yogi P & the Funky Shanti (aka Patrick McAndrew and Heidi Champney) held the space, but we all sang as one circle. Anyone who was so moved led a chant and everyone was in the band.
People were walking their dogs and riding their bikes along the Burlington Bikeway, which wound right around Earth Clock’s temple of mega stones. Some would stop in curiosity, observing our circle from a safe distance; others would jump right in, chanting and clapping along for a song or two, then meandering on their way. Toward the end Jeanette Bacevius taught us “Ise Oluwa,” the African prayer song that was chanted by millions of people around the globe on 12.21.12 in the One Earth One Voice movement and has become somewhat of an anthem for global healing.
When it got chilly (this being Vermont in April), Yogi P got us up on our feet to get funky with the shanti (and warm up). We danced and twirled around the circle inside the stones, swinging one another as we went, Mother Gaia in the center and all around.
Dancing for Gaia -- and warmth!
Afterward, when the prasad was all gone and the socializing winding down, a small knot of stragglers huddled in a tight circle, and someone lowered the old globe into the center of us. Spontaneous unscripted prayers for Ma Earth’s health and healing came pouring forth, one after another, showering her with love and blessings….gathering the energy of our kirtan and concentrating it on Gaia. Then, one final Om Shanti Shanti Shanti for the Mother.
I tucked the globe — now verily glowing — back into my bag and made my way home, smiling and humming for the sweetness and authenticity of this last-minute gathering. But it didn’t feel right to just put her back in her corner of the shelf high above, out of sight, out of mind, gathering dust. She had just been the focus of so much love, the receiver of so many prayers, the center of attention — didn’t she deserve better than to be forgotten again? So I put her in the center of the table, held up by a lotus-shaped candle holder.
And I thought, what would happen if we all gave this much attention and love to Mother Earth every day — not just Earth Day?
The Southern Bhav rose again on Day 2 of Chantlanta on the altar-cum-stage of the Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta, the backdrop for a line-up of regional bands that showed the depth and diversity of the “unknown” bhakti bands in the Southeast. (We use the quotes on “unknown” because they’re only unknown to those not in the know, you know what we mean?) And we want all y’all to be in the know, because these bhaktas really deserve to be known…you know?
So here’s Part 2 of our series on Chantlanta’s “Unknown” Bhakti Bands. Read Part 1 here. (More Chantlanta coverage linked at the bottom.)
Chris Korb on sitar, Kirtan Bandits
This was an unexpected treat. First up on Day 2 of Chantlanta, the Kirtan Bandits stole hearts with a mix of Sufi prayers and Sanskrit mantras set to trancey tabla-driven rhythms. The Bandits were new to us, but the Chantlanta crowd sure seemed to know this sextet of multi-instrumentalists from Rome, Ga. Jeffrey Lidke, a go-to tablist for the region who gets the prize for most stage time at Chantlanta, led the troupe, with Jen Corry sharing lead vocals.
Even against the vocal finesse and seasoned musicality of Lidke (tabla and harmonium) and Corry (flute and keyboarding) — both of whom are professors at Rome’s Berry College — young bassist Chris Korb shone on the 25-stringed sitar in a Maha Devi chant punctuated by scat-like call-and-response vocal exchanges between Lidke and Corry (watch it here). With John Graham and Jesse Burnette on guitar, and Hari Siddhadas on clarinet and cymbals.
Soon-to-be-newlyweds Michael Levine and Bonnie Puckett, aka Sunmoon Pie, have been bringing Hebrew chants into the Chantlanta mix since the the first fest in 2010. (At one point Levine cheekily pointed out the irony of singing Jewish prayers at a kirtan festival in a Baptist Church.)
He on guitar and she on the keys, they led us through a stirring sequence of chants based loosely on the prayers recited in a traditional Jewish Shabbath celebration. Each was layered over the band’s own original melodies…or in the case of the last prayer, borrowed melodies: Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” provided the musical score. (Video coming soon.) Larry Blewitt laid the drum beat, and Victor Johnson wailed on the electric fiddle.
Phil McWilliams brought us back to India on the wings of a bluesy/folksy singer/songwriter and the guitar that never left his lap. We’re already on record as loving everything we’ve heard from McWilliams and his Journey of Sound, so you might know where this is going. And we can’t seem to stop ourselves from using the warm-blanket metaphor to describe the feeeel of this music. But we’ll try, for your sake, dear reader.
The vibe was soft, deep and warm (oops) — but not in a way that made you want to lie down and go to sleep. You wanted to capture every word, every chord, and wrap yourself up in the rhythms (sorry!). There’s an authenticity to McWilliams’ music, a yearning in the voice that borders on melancholy yet feels soothing, not sad. And just when you thought you might drift away on a prayer of a melody, McWilliams & Co. kicked it up a notch, punctuating the set with a sublime, slow-build Mahamantra whose ecstatic peak seemed to shake the rafters in the soaring Druid Hills sanctuary. It was all holy.
Journey of Sound
The Journey of Sound featured Amanda Feinstein on vocals; Susan Stephan and Nakini Groom sang back-up. With Rob Kuhlman on bass, Michael Levine on electric guitar, Larry Blewitt on drum kit and Brihaspati Ishaya on percussion. Phil McWilliams’ first solo album is Signs of Peace, and yes, we’re in love with it. (Personal favorite song: “Holy Now”) Okay I give up: it’s like goose-down for the soul. Snuggle in.
More than any other, this was the band we wanted to experience live at Chantlanta. By the time Blue Spirit Wheel came on to close out the afternoon, the crowd was primed. Ian Boccio (vocals and bass) and Stephanie Kohler (vocals and harmonium) are kind of the hometown heroes, and have each been instrumental in making Chantlanta happen. The Atlanta kirtan community was out in force — and they were pumped. The forestage was packed, dancers weaved at the edge of the altar, children played limbo under saris…
My notes on the scene read: “Rockin’ it! Joyful chaos. Dancing at edges. Kids everywhere.”
Chaos in the church be damned, this pair of mantra mavens took us deep, orchestrating a trance-inducing mash-up of overlayered mantras drawn from their debut CD, adi. They “wanted to do something different” for their hometown followers, Kohler told us afterward, so she devised this long thread interweaving the individual chants they’ve been leading for the last year or so. The mantra mash-up. Judging from the response they got, we’d say the homeys liked it. The post-chant silence was eventually broken by a single “Wow,” giving us all the permission we needed to applaud. Loudly. And that was just the first chant.
They finished out the set like they started, mixing mantras. This time, Kohler sang a lilting old Christian hymnal she learned from her grandmother. It was layered in between and over a low, deep chorus of “So Hum” led by Boccio’s gravelly baritone. Her hymn over his Hum. (Couldn’t resist.) Without the pun, it was enchanting. (Watch it here.)
Jeffrey Lidke, tapped again
Grounded by Jeffrey Lidke and Brihaspati Ishaya on percussion and Lindsey Mann on back-up vocals, Blue Spirit Wheel proved why they’ve become one of metro Atlanta’s favorite mantra bands. But you don’t have to be in Atlanta to experience their bhav live; the duo starts a six-week most-of-the-US tour May 30, including Bhakti Fest Midwest in Madison, Wisc. July 5-7. If they’re coming anywhere near you, check ’em out. And don’t miss the magical mantra trip that is adi.
One of the things we love about this “mantra revolution” is how many largely unsung local bands are out there doing their thing, bringing the bhav to their communities, just waiting for people to wake up to this thing called kirtan. The Unknown Bhakti Band. Of course, they’re not unknown to those in the know…but there must be thousands of them, right? Under-the-radar ensembles and Monday night quartets, each with their own unique expression of bhakti, quietly offering music and mantras for anyone who will come out and chant with them?
Chantlanta grew out of this kind of community in Atlanta and beyond. Seven local and regional bands ended up on the “free” part of Chantlanta’s two-day line-up in the sanctuary of the Druid Hills Baptist Church, representing kirtan in a broad range of incarnations. From traditional Sufi chants to Hebrew Shabbath prayers, from Hindu scripture to contemporary Gospel, and from Paul Simon to the Beatles, Chantlanta embraced it all.
We’re putting each one of these bands on our “Wallahs to Watch” list. You might want to too. Just sayin’.
This is Part 1 of 2, because…well, there were seven of them, and they each deserve attention. And blogs aren’t supposed to be 1,600 words long.
First up, Friday night’s line-up of Mantra Ma, Wynne Paris and Chaitanya. Don’t miss Part 2, with Kirtan Bandits, Sunmoon Pie, Phil McWilliams and Blue Spirit Wheel. Video highlights from each artist, some still uploading…(hello, wifi?)
Mantra Ma, aka singing moms Jocelyn Rose and Shonali Banerjee from Atlanta, opened us up softly with a long, layered Ganesha chant, then graced us with Gayatri, the mother of all mantras. With Crystal Stafford on acoustic guitar and Rose on harmonium, the mood was meditative, soft and earthy, reverent and reassuring…
At one point Banerjee invited everyone to open their palms to the sky and repeat “I am open to receive all of life’s blessings.” Communal abundance prayer…we swear it sent a ripple of energy right down our collective spine.
They closed with Asato Ma Sadgamaya in a slow build (watch it here). This is a Sanskrit prayer from the Upanishads (Hindu scriptures) which translates to: “Lead me from the unreal to the real/Lead from the darkness to the light/Lead me from death to immortality/Let there be peace peace and peacefulness.” It was the perfect punctuation mark to a powerful set of mantras, delivered with vocal finesse and a mother’s grace. (And we loved how Banerjee’s two young children raced to the stage at the end to give their mom a group hug.)
Worldbeat troubadour Wynne Paris from Florida can hardly be considered unknown — more like a musician’s musician. He’s played with, well just about everybody (quite a few of them made it onto Groovananda, his latest CD). He had his own set on the main stage at Bhakti Fest last year. (What? You missed that 4 a.m. set?) We were there, and it was worth staying up for the sarod serenade alone.
He brought his sarod to Chantlanta, thankfully, playing a couple of songs on it before switching to harmonium, then guitar. The set started traditionally with an invocation to Ganesh, then rollicked right into He Ma Durga with the crowd clapping along. A detour to the 1960’s with a Beatles-inspired Krishna love medley was followed by a full-on gospel jam-dance in the contemporary “sacred steel” tradition popularized by the Lee Brothers and Florida’s House of God church. This little roof-raiser had everyone jumping and hollering like…well, like we were at a Baptist church in the South… Even Druid Hills Pastor Mimi Walker joined the joy parade on the altar-turned-stage. Watch it here.
Everyone joined the jam, including the pastor!
In the end, Paris went back to his sarod to close the set with a hypnotic Om Namah Shivaya he learned from Bhagavan Das. Lori Michele Love and Dorianne Aillery sang back-up; Jeffrey Lidke and Rishi Waterman on percussion.
Silvia Riverwind & Koriander of Chaitanya, with Laurie Fisher on fiddle.
Chaitanya took the Friday night bhav to the next level with a high-energy set of traditional mantras swept along on a jam-band medley of rhythm and strings. It was clear these Asheville, N.C. bhaktas weren’t going to let the night end without a shaktified dance jam. Jai Jagadambe fit the bill nicely. Watch the video here.
This band has been a perennial favorite at Chantlanta for four years running, so we’ve heard. Now we know why.
Rishi Waterman of Chaitanya
Sylvia Riverwind shared lead vocals with Koriander, whose harmonium was the bloodline of the band (though she switched it up for an acoustic guitar occasionally). Overlayed with some serious fiddling by Laurie Fisher, Rishi Waterman on percussion and Tom Aldrich on bass, it was hard NOT to move.
Ahhh Chantlanta. How we love thee. Let us count the ways…
Your goal is to spread the bhav.
You put on a two-day festival with seven great regional bands, all for FREE.
You topped it off with KRISHNA DAS on the schedule, concert + workshop. Nice.
You raised more than $3,000 to send an impoverished young woman in India to college.
You brought the community together and opened up kirtan to people who would otherwise be clueless.
You did it all in a Baptist Church that practically donated its space.
You came up with a killer name to boot.
We finally got to Chantlanta this year, its fourth year running. It was worth the trip. In fact, we’d say it’s officially a “destination kirtan” — can we use that term? As in, not just for the locals. Maybe you won’t fly in from California — yet — but if you’re East Coast or Midwest, hey, Atlanta’s a hub airport…
Kirtan Bandits, “unknowns” from Rome, Ga., stole hearts.
This year, Krishna Das was the headliner at Chantlanta, and he showed up fully. (Read that story here.) That said, it was Chantlanta’s line-up of regional bands that really got us excited. That, and the Chantlanta organizers’ formula for eking out success from a notoriously unprofitable venture like a regional chant fest. Did we mention that there were 12 hours of great kirtan from seven regional bands, all for free? Topped off by Krishna Das, in concert and workshop? And that Chantlanta still managed to raise over 3 grand for a small charity in India (The Learning Tea)?
Chantlanta proved that you can have your bhav and serve too.
Stan Holt (L) and Ian Boccio, Chantlanta co-organizers
Not that it came easy. Chantlanta founder Ian Boccio, who started the fest in 2010 to “raise the profile of kirtan in Atlanta,” freely admits that he and the all-volunteer team that pull this thing together are learning as they go. The first two years were all local bands, all offering their music to the community for free. About 250 people showed up the first time — more than they dreamed — and the numbers have grown consistently. Last year, Chantlanta brought in three “national” kirtan artists — David Newman, Wah!, and Sean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band — to sweeten the pot and boost attendance. This year, Boccio aimed even higher, successfully bringing Krishna Das back to Atlanta for the first time in at least four years.
The results, Boccio said, “exceeded my expectations in every way.” We don’t think he was just blowing smoke.
The catch 22 of any chant festival, large or small, is that the “big names” that bring in more people also increase the expenses, making it more challenging to break even, never mind have some left over for charity, or (gasp!) a little profit for the folks who are making these things happen. The key for Chantlanta, Boccio said, has been to line up sponsors — local yoga studios, merchants, artists, and natural-living businesses — who buy space in the festival program and in the “merch hall” at the festival. This year, sponsorships effectively covered the overhead for the event.
Volunteers do the bulk of the work, people like yogi-musician Stephanie Kohler (co-leader, with Boccio, of Blue Spirit Wheel) and yoga teacher Karen Dorfman — both of whom have taken lead organizational roles since the first Chantlanta. And like Stan Holt of Swaha Productions, a co-sponsor of the weekend fest and host of the post-fest workshop with Krishna Das.
This formula enables organizers to offer the bulk of the festival at no charge (this year, everything but the KD events were free), and donate any at-the-door donations to the chosen charity. It builds the community and turns new people on to chanting by not giving anyone an excuse NOT to come — it’s free! The “Big Headliner” draws the crowd (Krishna Das packed the place), and everyone else — all those “unknown” local bands who are putting out great kirtan regularly for those in the know — tags along on the coattails of the Rock Star, playing for bigger crowds than they might normally get and opening up new audiences to their devotional art. What’s not to love?
Chaitanya, from Asheville, NC, whips up the bhav.
More than anything else, Chantlanta proved just how many great local bhakti bands are out there doing their thing and spreading the bhav in their own little (or not-so-little) communities, just kinda’ waiting for people to wake up to this thing called kirtan.
Stay tuned to this site for more about Chantlanta’s “unknown” bands.
No doubt there’s a Chantlanta waiting to happen in every nook of the nation, drawing together all the locals, maybe bringing in a big name or two, and growing the bhakti community in their little — or not-so-little — corner of the world. It’s already happening, of course, in Denver, in Houston, in Minneapolis and Montreal, in Oregon and Ojai…hell, even in Vermont. We can only hope it continues.
Barely a month after his 15 minutes of fame in the Grammy spotlight and fresh from a tropics tour of Costa Rica, Sivananda, Bahamas, and Florida, Krishna Das showed up fully for the headline show at Chantlanta last month — even after fighting a spring snowstorm in the Northeast to get there. Tablist Arjun Bruggeman was his sole bandmate. No Nina Rao. No Genevieve Walker on violin. No Mark Gorman on bass or David Nichtern on guitar. The band was stripped down to KD and Arjun, harmonium and tabla, the newly Grammy-nominated Yoga Rock Star and “his partner in crime,” as KD has called Bruggeman.
It was like we were in Russia or something…
Just before the kirtan started, I said as much to Bruggeman, and he offered that he actually preferred it that way — that it allowed him to be more attuned to KD’s chanting, to get deeper into the rhythms of the bhav. (These are my words, paraphrasing him.) As the night unfolded, you could feel the difference, subtly, in their interactions between and during the songs.
He even had Arjun Bruggeman cracking up.
Krishna Das was in a good mood.
He came onto stage to resounding applause, settled himself before his harmonium, adjusted his ear piece, squinted out at the full-house crowd jammed into the soaring sanctuary of the Druid Hills Baptist Church, and waved. “Hey y’all,” he said in his best Southern drawl (for a New Yorker).
After his traditional invocation to grace, he looked out at us and deadpanned: “Please open your hymnals to page 108.” The crowd cracked up.
"My priest won't steal."
The pared-down duo went on to deliver the Best of Krishna Das Live, commencing with Sita Ram (what else?), flowing into Om Namo Bhagavate, then to our favorite tear-jerker, My Foolish Heart /Bhaja Govinda, complete with the story of its writing (you’ve heard that one, right? The old man who was told by the traveling guru to stop wasting time and just “Bhaja Govinda” — glorify God…?). Then it was time for Durga Ma, and his classic story of when Neem Karoli Baba made him, KD, the pujari of the Durga Temple at Maharaji’s ashram after all the “real” priests were caught stealing from the donation box. Jesus was there too, Mainlining to a mass of writhing dancers, built up to with the story of the unusual statue in the secret temple high in the Himalayas where they chanted in a very esoteric language…English! The crowd cracked up.
The next day at the workshop, KD joked about how happy he was that there were so many newcomers at the concert, the kind who still laughed heartily at all of his old stories. The crowd cracked up…
Krishna Das was Still the Same. Grammy fame hadn’t gone to his head, as far as we could tell. In the Sunday workshop he was playful but prescient, wise and wise-cracking all at once, dispensing timeless bits of insight in between the notes of Hare Krishna and Hanuman’s Chalisa. Like this one on “bringing the light” through spiritual practice:
The audience was in love with him, including a sweet little girl in the front who kept trying to give him pictures of Neem Karoli Baba. He answered questions till there weren’t any more, way past the allotted time, and ended the love affair with a long, sweet Chalisa, fulfilling a special request from a participant.
What did we love about the Texas Yoga Conference? The bhakti, baby!
No surprise there, but seriously: these folks “get” that yoga is more than asana. TYC founder Jennifer Buergermeister told us the integration of practitioners from a wide array of yogic and healing arts was by design, a nod to the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Bhakti was weaved seamlessly into the weekend, the way we dream about it being weaved into every yoga conference out there.
NOLA’s Sean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band
For starters, there was Saturday’s Bhakti Bash with Sean Johnson And The Wild Lotus Band, the New Orleans-based trio who are pioneering the integration of kirtan and asana. Johnson told of his own yogic journey, first to hatha yoga, then to bhakti, and finally to a fusion of the two. When he first started teaching yoga 16 years ago, Johnson said, his “physical practice” and his devotional practice were very separate. “Even to ‘Om’ in class was scary for me then,” he shared. But after years of this separation, he said his yoga practice “felt a little dried up.” For the last several years, he has been “experimenting with how to bring these two paths together.”
“We have to figure out ways to keep bringing juice to our practice,” Johnson said. “Bringing bhakti to hatha has helped sustain me.”
Bhakti Bash with Sean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band
Over the next two hours, he brought some juice to the convention center ballroom and proved that his “experimentation” is working. With a rapt audience of a couple hundred yogis huddled close to the stage, he recounted classic tales from Hindu scriptures and mythology, of Radha and Krishna, of Shiva and Shakti, of Kali and Saraswati. He told of Durga Ma’s cursed war with the demons, how each time she slayed one, a hundred more would appear from the drops of blood, until she was overwhelmed and could do nothing more but sit down to meditate; how it was only by going within that she found the strength to slay every last demon and return peace to the land. Then we all joined our voices in praise of Ma, with Gwendolyn Colman’s rich vocals leading the response to Johnson’s call. Jai Jai Ma, Saraswati Ma.
An hour or so into the session, Johnson sent us back to our mats for a bhakti-infused yoga flow to the rhythms of Colman’s percussion and Alvin Young’s bass. It was a side of Sean Johnson we hadn’t experienced before (the yoga teacher) — and one we highly recommend. Very juicy.
The Bhakti House Band
The Bhakti House Band proved why they are Texas’ favorite kirtaneers with bookend sets in the morning and evening on Saturday. By the end of their final set, the little crowd gathered in the common area was rockin’ out to the rhythms of Kristin and Randall Brooks and their band of bhaktas, and didn’t want to see them stop. Particularly when Randall, the self-described “kid from the ‘hood,” tried out a freshly devised conscious hip-hop riff on us — look for that one on the upcoming album from this Fort Worth-based group, a charity effort for their Peace Love Om project, which aims to raise cultural awareness and promote diversity among youth around the world and support suffering children, families, and communities in need through donations and seva. Remember this bhakti couple — they are the go-to back-up band for Texas-touring artists and are fast making a name for themselves on the national kirtan scene. Watch this space for videos and more on The Bhakti House Band…
On Sunday, we got to experience the sweetness of new-to-us Aaron Lind and Pratibha Kirtan from New Orleans, with Ashley Beach rockin’ the acoustic bass and Jordan Arey on drums. Lind, whose talents include some pretty impressive acro-yoga, said he was first inspired to lead kirtan thanks to fellow NOLA yogi Sean Johnson. The bhakti trio is currently touring Texas and in the midst of recording their first CD.
Flight School with ex-punk/monk Raghunath Cappo took off in three sessions over the weekend, a testament to the popularity of Cappo’s practically legendary approach to mastering gravity-defying arm balances, for anyone who dares to fly.
What we liked was his down-to-earth, New Yorker style and his keeping-it-real vibe. What we loved was his bhakti; he started each class with satsang and chanting, complete with a little lesson in what kirtan is (“meditation with your voice”) and does (“It’s about uncovering self-knowledge, or ‘atma jnana'”).
“The saints and yogis in India are not performing yoga to get six-pack abs and a nice ass. They’re practicing it to become transcendent,” Cappo said.
TYC Founder Jennifer Buergermeister
Thank you Texas Yoga Conference founder Jennifer Buergermeister and all the teachers and bhaktas at TYC for bringing the bhav to yoga. Wouldn’t it be great if EVERY yoga conference did so?