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Krishna Das by TheBhaktiBeat.comVideo interview at the bottom.

Yes, it’s true.  Krishna Das went to prison for Call and Response. The Call and Response Foundation, that is.

For the least few years, the nonprofit foundation has been arranging for kirtan wallahs to chant in prisons, psychiatric facilities, children’s hospitals, and other places where people might benefit from the healing power of mantra music.  This time, it was the Chant Master himself serving a little time in prison.

(You can support this important seva by contributing now to the Call and Response Foundation’s Prison Outreach Program.)

It was a gray, frigid Monday afternoon in northern Vermont, vexed by a drizzling rain that threatened to turn to snow. Krishna Das and his drummer, Arjun Bruggeman, arrived at the Chittenden County Regional Correctional Facility for Women early, after a double-header weekend of kirtan+ workshop that were partial benefits for Call and Response.

They were at the medium-security prison in South Burlington to fulfill the pie-in-the-sky request of an inmate named Lucinda.  Six months earlier, Lucinda had picked up a Krishna Das CD in the prison library.  Apparently, she couldn’t get enough of it, and she wondered aloud to her counselor, Philip Pezeshki, if Krishna Das would come chant with them.  Long story short, here he was.

Krishna Das Arjun Bruggeman prison VT Call and Response Foundation by TheBhaktiBeat.comThey brought nothing but a harmonium and a Naal drum.

Bruggeman’s usual tablas were left behind because  the little metal hammer that he uses to tune them was a security risk. The six of us — including C&RF director Jen Canfield and local wallahs Patrick (Yogi P) McAndrew and Jeanette Bacevius — dutifully stashed wallets and cell phones and jackets and scarves that could present a choking hazard into the lockers in the waiting room, then traded our driver’s licenses for visitor’s passes.  Krishna Das and Arjun opened up their instruments for a thorough search by a serious but pleasant enough security guard. I presented my Nikon to the guard, hoping for a miracle, but it was not to be,  so I reluctantly stuffed it into the locker with everything else.  At least he let me keep my little reporter’s notebook (after leafing through it thoroughly) and a pen to take notes. Then we all took off our shoes and filed through a metal detector, their instruments and my notebook set to the side.

We were led through a series of security doors to a windowless, concrete-block room off a main corridor.  There was a whiteboard with a hand-written list of stress-relief strategies on one wall, and on another wall, a single poster exhorting viewers to “end the silence” about sexual abuse.  A few rows of yoga mats, folded in thirds, were set up in a semi-circle, with a row of mismatched chairs at the back.

KD and Arjun set up their instruments underneath the “End the Silence” poster.  Then KD wrote out the words to five chants on an easel.  Shree Ram Jay Ram Jay Jay Ram.  Om Na-moh Bhag a vah tay Na ma ha. Om Na-mah Shee vy ah. Jay a Jagat Ambay. Om Ay-eem Shreem Sara swa ty yay Na ma ha. 

Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.comLucinda, the inmate responsible for all of us being there, came in and sat with KD for several minutes to interview him for the prison newsletter.  Soon enough, about a dozen or so inmates — most appearing to be under 30 — began filtering into the room.  They looked somewhat bewildered, even gruff, like they didn’t know what they were getting into.  Several prison staff members also came in, with serious faces.  Honestly it was hard to tell who the inmates were, until I realized they each had on a dark blue scrub shirt over their street clothes.  The chairs in the back filled up quickly, and the seats in the front, closest to where KD and Arjun were now seated cross-legged on yoga blocks, remained empty.

No, this was not going to be your average Krishna Das kirtan.

KD started by telling the group what kirtan was not.  “This is not a religious practice.  There is no blind faith required,” he said. “This is not a missionary trip.  I’m here because I was invited.”

Arjun Bruggeman at Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.com(In the waiting room, KD had told me that the last time he chanted in a prison, it was with a group of 100 or so men in a maximum-security facility in the South.  “Everything was going along great,” he recalled, “until I started singing the Maha Mantra.” As soon as the prisoners heard Hare Krishna, they started scowling and fidgeting, looking at one another and shaking their heads.  Every one of them got up and walked out.  Every. Single. One. He hadn’t been back to a prison since.)

Kirtan, Krishna Das told those gathered in the cold cement room, was “a way to quiet the mind, to kind of short-circuit the stories we tell ourselves.”

“We mostly don’t get a vote about our thoughts,” he said.  “Chanting is a means of winding down the mind and training ourselves to let go of thoughts.”

He initiated the singing as he always does, with an opening prayer, which he described as “a prayer to that place within us that is looking for true love.”  After the prayer, he paused in the silence of the room, a silence that was routinely interrupted by a loud slam of the security doors in the hallway outside.  Looking out at the women prisoners in the back, he said quietly: “These mantras are sounds that have a magnetism to them.  By repeating these mantras, we bring the mind to a quiet place.  When the mind is quiet and the heart is at peace, your life can take a different course.”

Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram…

And so it went. Not unlike a typical Krishna Das workshop.  Talk a little. Chant a little. Talk a little more. Chant a little more.  Yet this one was verrrrry different.  We were reminded of that about halfway into the session.  KD had just finished saying something about how to “find some peace no matter what the outside world was throwing at us” when a beefy security guard pushed through the door loudly, with a list in his hand.  KD stopped talking and simply said: “Come on in.” The guard peered around the room, unsmiling, checking people off his list.  He called out a few names — not the Names that had been ringing in the room a few moments before, needless to say.  Then with a slam of the door, he was gone.

“We’re all still here,” KD joked self-consciously, with an awkward chuckle.  Then he picked up the thread, saying there were all kinds of practices — chanting among them — that one could use to “find a way to chill yourself out no matter what’s going on.”  It was an appropriate lesson for the moment, and you could feel it resonating with the folks seated in the room.

Arjun Bruggeman at Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.comA couple times during the session, Krishna Das asked if anyone had questions.  It wasn’t until the end that one woman spoke up, asking him if he had always known that this is what he would do.  He told a story he has told many times — of how devastated he was when his guru Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaji) told him to go back home to America; how he had asked Maharaji: “How can I serve you in America?” and Maharaji laughed at him with a look “like he had just bitten a sour pickle;” how he, Krishna Das, was walking across the ashram’s courtyard later on and was suddenly struck by the answer: “I’ll sing for you.”  That was 1973, KD said.  It took him 21 years, until 1994, to finally start singing.

Then he told the inmates a story I had never heard.  He said he didn’t think they were even going to let him into the jail for today’s session because he was a convicted felon.  Say what?   Yep, Krishna Das told us he had been charged with money laundering after a criminal investigation involving the IRS and the FBI.  He told the group that it was an “insane story” that they would never believe.  One woman replied, “Oh yes we will,” and they all laughed.  So he related how he thought he was going to end up in prison, but instead — due to a somewhat remarkable series of graces involving the judge, prosecutor and parole officer in the case — was sentenced to six months of house arrest.  He spoke of the period as a blessing, a relief, a much-needed opportunity for rest after a grueling tour schedule.

More importantly, he said, “Being convicted freed me from the secrets of my past. Now everybody knew.  I didn’t have to hide it anymore.”

Arjun Bruggeman at Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.comWhen there was only time for one more chant, Lucinda, the inmate responsible for KD being there, requested ‘Amazing Grace’ with the Maha Mantra. I held my breath, remembering KD’s story about all the men walking out when he started singing Hare Krishna.  “We cooooould,” KD replied hesitantly… “Let’s sing the third one,” he deflected, pointing to the whiteboard where the chants were written out phonetically.

Om Namah Shivayah. 

A long silence — blessedly uninterrupted by doors slamming — followed.  Then KD looked out at the women and said simply: “Take good care of yourselves, okay?”

Afterward, many of the inmates lined up to thank him, to shake his hand or receive a hug.  Most were new to chanting.  One woman, Chelsea, said she found the session to be “really inspiring and cleansing.” She told us she felt energized, and definitely wanted to chant again.  Another, Sarah, confessed that at first she thought it was “a little weird,” but by the end, felt that “it really worked. I absolutely loved it.”  Adrienne said she felt relieved:  “The stress is gone. I’m more relaxed. I hope he comes back.” A group of them milled around, smiling, chatting, not wanting to leave.  Somehow, the cold concrete room was warmer, softer…

“Come back every week!” a young blond inmate named Suzi exhorted KD.

When all the staff and inmates were gone, our little group walked back down the hallway and through the double security doors .  We gathered our belongings, traded our visitor’s passes back for licenses, and bundled up to face the frigid Vermont evening.  Outside, a cold rain was still falling, and darkness had descended.  None of us seemed to notice.

Before we disbursed, Krishna Das agreed to a short video interview outside the prison door.  I dare you to not be moved by what happens midway through it…

“Everybody’s a prisoner, sweetheart. Prisoners of our own minds.”

Support the Call and Response Foundation’s Prison Outreach Program here.

View the Photo Journals of Krishna Das’ prison visit  in Vermont 2014, and his kirtan and workshop, on The Bhakti Beat facebook page.

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Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com
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Chantlanta Church title shotThere are regional chant fests, and then there are Regional Chant Fests.  Chantlanta proved once again how to “do” a Regional Chant Fest in the best possible way that we’ve seen. Anywhere.  So far.

How’d they do it?  Well, perhaps not how you might have thought…

‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Take the Spotlight

For starters, there were no “big names” at all.  There was no Krishna Das headlining, in contrast to last year.  Nor were David Newman or Wah, or even the South’s favorite bhakta, Sean Johnson, on the bill, as they were two years ago.  In fact, if you didn’t live in the Southeast, you probably wouldn’t recognize any of the 7 bands who played this festival.  All home-grown, all from the region, all up-and-coming and deserving to be more widely known. The Unknown Bhakti Bands of the South, you might say.

Secondly, it wasn’t held in a typical chant fest location (if there is such a thing). It was held at a big ole Baptist church, one built early in the last century in a traditional style: big soaring sanctuary, tall stained-glass windows, wooden pews fanning out from the altar, balcony full of benches hovering overhead.  It must be said that little else about this congregation, the Druid Hills Baptist Church,  is traditional — the church was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention a few years ago for having a woman as a co-pastor.  There’s an experimental theatre in the basement.  Oh yeah, and kirtan.  They host kirtans regularly.  That’s kind of unconventional for a Baptist church in the South.

Then there’s the cost.  Nothing.  As in, zero, zip, zed.  FREE.  That’s right, one full day plus two half-days of mantra music and sound-healing magic for free.  We’re talking non-stop kirtan on a main stage, plus ongoing workshops and classes in two other rooms.  Plus a Friday night kirtan jam and drum circle.  Plus a Sunday afternoon mantra marathon and pot-luck.  All for free.  How often can you say that?

Did we mention the seva?  Chantlanta raised more than $7,000 for two locally based charities.  Seven thousand dollars.  That’s no small potatoes, and can make a real difference if channeled to the right charity — in this case two that will make that money go a long way to helping 1) impoverished girls in India (through The Learning Tea) and 2) rescued cows outside Atlanta (through the Sacred Cows Sanctuary).

A Leap of Faith

So, let’s review.  A group of local bhaktas in a city that’s not exactly known as a kirtan hot spot puts on a 3-day chant fest with no “headliner” — just a bunch of unknown local bhakti bands, charges NOTHING to get in, and walks away with seven thousand bucks for good local charities.  How’d they do that again?

Ian Boccio, Chantlanta, TheBhaktiBeat.com

Chantlanta founder Ian Boccio, at the center of the community kirtan jam.

 

Ian Boccio, who co-founded the first Chantlanta five years ago and continues to be the lead organizer (he also co-leads the mantra band Blue Spirit Wheel, with Stephanie Kohler), readily admits that they took a Hanuman-sized leap this year.  They let go of having a “big name” after having the big name to end all big names (Krishna Das) front and center last year.  The approach caused more than a little hand-wringing, Boccio said, but the Chantlanta organizing committee members were all in agreement.  Boccio is convinced the leap of faith paid off: the event raised more than twice the money for charity that last year’s event did.  He figures it’s because people didn’t have to shell out 35 bucks for KD, so they were more generous at the donation box.  Makes sense to us.

The other key to this event’s success was the Program Guide.  A simple, black and white booklet that Boccio had copied at Kinko’s.  It included not only a schedule of events and descriptions of the workshops and bands (complete with Sanskrit words for novices to follow along), but — and this is key — advertisements from a slew of local businesses interested in reaching a sharply targeted, conscious-living, yoga-oriented community.  The ads are primarily for local yoga studios, upcoming kirtan events, and healers like Jaguar Healing Arts and Louise Northcutt Hypnotherapy.  Between the ad sales in the program and table fees for vendors exhibiting in the Conscious Living Marketplace, Chantlanta could meet its expenses and devote all donations to its charity partners.

Building a Kirtan Nation

But really, what we love more than anything about this festival is that its primary goal is simple:  expand the local kirtan community.  It gives local chantaholics a fest of their own to gather at; it gives local bhakti bands a much bigger audience for their practice than they would ever have at a one-band show, AND it gives kirtan newbies no excuse not to come check out the scene — it’s free!  The strategy is working — Chantlanta is attracting more people each year, more national kirtan bands are putting Atlanta and the Southeast on their tour schedules, and local bands are getting bigger crowds at their regular jams throughout the year.  What’s not to love?

The event officially started Friday night, with a community kirtan jam where everyone was in the band and anyone who wanted to lead a chant did — there had to be 200 people there!  The jam was followed by a full-on drum circle that had the natives dancing and grooving.  Saturday’s kirtan line-up included Mantra Ma, LoveShine, Cat Matlock & Japa (from Asheville, N.C.), Kirtan Bandits, and a three-band “headline” evening that featured Phil McWilliams, Blue Spirit Wheel and Rahasya, three of the best regional bhakti bands we’ve experienced anywhere.  Workshops went on throughout the day, everything from Sufi chanting to sacred harp singing to an hour-long gong bath that pretty much sent us straight to the moon after a day of chanting the names.  But wait, there’s more.  On Sunday, Ian Boccio closed out the festival with 1,008 (no, that’s not a typo, it’s 1,008, not 108) repetitions of the Hanuman Mula Mantra.  More on all that and each of these bands in a follow-up post with videos, so stay tuned to this space!

Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Do it Yourself

Can anyone adopt this formula for their own festival?

Well sure, why not? With caveats. Atlanta is a big city, 5 million or so strong. That’s a big population to draw upon. The Chantlanta organizing committee of 11 people, along with a cast of dozens more or so, were all unpaid volunteers offering their time as seva to the cause of building the local kirtan community. The Druid Hills Baptist Church offered their space — a labyrinthine layout with places for a main stage, two workshop rooms, a vendor’s hall and a kitchen where food was served — at a cut rate, because the event was a charity fundraiser. Dozens of local businesses also donated wares or services to a Silent Auction, which boosted the money raised for charity. Expenses were kept to a minimum, but important corners were NOT cut. For example, an expert sound guy (Matthew Hufschmidt) made sure the bands sounded just right and the lighting was favorable for video and photos. This is important stuff.

So, what do you think of the Chantlanta formula?  Could this work for a kirtan fest in your home town?  How might you change things up?  We’d love to hear about other regional fests: what works, what doesn’t, what’s needed…?  Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Please visit The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page for the full Chantlanta Photo Journals.
Stay tuned to The Bhakti Beat’s YouTube page for new videos posting from Chantlanta.
Read about last year’s Chantlanta and its ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands.
Follow The Bhakti Beat on twitter, facebook, Google+ and YouTube
 

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Earth Day Kirtan 2013 @ Burlington Earth Clock by TheBhaktiBeat.comEarth, water, sky, a temple of stones and kirtan.

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. 

Earth Day Kirtan 2013 @ Burlington Earth Clock by TheBhaktiBeat.comPeople 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.

Earth Day Kirtan 2013 @ Burlington Earth Clock by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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? 

__________________

Yogi P & the Funky Shanti are releasing their debut CD, Ganesha Kirtan, at a special Cosmic Love Kirtan Afterparty following the Burlington Yoga Conference on May 4 at Laughing River Yoga in Winooski.  They will also be joining the party April 27 in NYC at the Brooklyn Yoga & Kirtanpalooza.  Follow their facebook page to stay up to date.

Also see Earth Day Kirtan Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page

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It’s been the subject of scholarly study, doomsday prophesizing and New Age philosophizing alike for…well, pretty much forever.  It’s inspired countless books,  millions of articles, a major motion picture, and more than a few good cartoons.  Whatever your beliefs are about 12.21.12 — the end of the world, the beginning of a new world, or none of the above — one thing is clear:  the occasion is being marked worldwide with consciousness-raising events focused on prayer, meditation, and yes, kirtan.  Along with more than a few end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it blow-out bashes.  

It’s no wonder: 12.21.12 is not only the much-ballyhooed date on which the Mayan calendar supposedly ends (but not really); it is also the winter solstice — the longest night of the year and the turning point for the “return of light” by way of gradually lengthening days.  Some theorists suggest the date coincides with Earth’s crossing a central nexxus in the Milky Way galaxy, signifying the end (or beginning) of an epoch in the orbit of our sun around the galaxy’s spiraling vortex.

There are as many theories out there about what 12.21.12 means as you care to dig for (30.5 million Google results in .24 seconds).  One recurring theme is the idea of a kind of global metanoia, a spiritual transformation or rise in consciousness like the world hasn’t seen in say, 5,125 years (the length of this last period in the Mayan timekeeping system).  Within the “conscious community,” 12.21.12 has become, it would seem, a lightning rod for stepping up the call for global unity and action to recognize our interconnectedness and avert ecological disaster on our home planet, a fate that seems to be racing toward us with accelerating speed. 

With that in mind, we set out to find out what was happening in the bhakti community.  We didn’t have to look far…

Worldwide Events

Golden Age Global Kirtan

Quite simply, kirtan will be everywhere on 12.21.12.  From every corner of the globe, chanters will be beating their drums and raising their voices in mantra throughout the day, all day, all night.   Championed by NoCal bhakta K.d. Devi Dasi and the non-profit Kuli Mela Association, whose mission is to promote and preserve bhakti yoga philosophy, Golden Age Global Kirtan links chanters and Krishna communities worldwide for a common gathering celebrating “a shared experience of Loving Service, Bhakti Yoga.” 

It has been a volunteer, person-to-person effort, Devi Dasi said, using social networking for spiritual activism. “On a deeper level we are activating a network of real people, real hearts to be connected, not on-line this time, but in our hearts, body, mind and spirit…in COMMUNITY!” she said.  As of Wednesday, some 25 countries had signed on to participate in Global Kirtan — with groups of ‘2 or 200’ people — and the list was growing fast as the news went viral in the bhakti world.   

“This is not simply each of us in our own corner praying,” Devi Dasi said. “This is a grass-roots call out to one another, as brothers and sisters, activating our communities with unified intentions, beyond borders, countries, or organization.”   For more info and to add your kirtan to the list, visit the Kulimela Assocation’s page on facebook.

UNIFY Global Moment of Peace

This worldwide effort links events around the globe in an umbrella event being called simply, UNIFY.  Highlights are a globally synchronized “Solstice Moment of Peace” at 11:11 GMT (6:11 a.m. EST) and a “Global Unification Moment” at 20:00 GMT (3 p.m. EDT), where people will gather the world over for a silent prayer, meditation or ceremony with the intention of uniting for world peace.  From a Unify.org press release:

The hope behind the ‘Unify’ idea is that joining in with these events will demonstrate that people have more desire to participate in something positive, than to dwell on the doom and gloom of apocalyptic predictions. Unify.org is serving as a hub for these events, including helping organize meditation flash mobs in city centers to live-streaming ceremonies at Mexican archaeological sites with hundreds of thousands in attendance to coordinating an interfaith moment in Jerusalem between major world religions.

Unify.org will live-stream footage of key events on the day including festivals, ceremonies and events from Jerusalem, The Pyramids at Giza, Stonehenge and Glastonbury, Chichen Itza, Palenque, Teotihuacan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas, Lake Titicaca, Cape Town, Byron Bay, Australia and even Antarctica.  For details on the movement and individual events, see www.unify.org.

Global Convergence at Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

Global Convergence is a 3-day adventure retreat to Giza, Egypt (and a continuing Nile River cruise afterward) that culminates with a dawn-breaking ceremony at the Great Pyramid on 12.21.12, which will be live-streamed via www.unify.org.  Details of the ceremony are sketchy on the Global Convergence website, but as far as we can tell, it will feature “a selection of the top electronic music producers and DJ’s from the west coast’s music scene” as well as world-music pioneers Arjun Baba and Fallah Fi Allah, who never fail to rock the stage at Bhakti Fest with their high-voltage brand of Sufi Qawwali music.  Presented by L.A. electronic-music producers The Do Lab; for more details, see www.globalconvergence2012.com.

Best Bhakti Bets

(If we had a teleporter and could go anywhere, we’d beam in on these first — right after Arjun Baba’s set at the Great Pyramid, that is.)

Kirtaniyas at New BrajAt the top of the list is the first-ever New Braj 24-Hour Kirtan at the community of Krishna devotees in New Braj Village in central California, near Sequoia National Park.  Spearheaded by The Kirtaniyas, the internationally beloved foursome of “Krishna kids” Vijay Krsna, Sarasvati, Rasika Dasi and Nitai Prem, this kirtan immersion will span 12 hours each day Friday and Saturday.  Rumor has it there may be a live-stream of the chanting (the next best thing to beaming there); stay tuned to The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page for up-to-the-minute updates.  Starts at 10 a.m., New Braj Village, CA.  Details here.

SRI Kirtan & World Peace in the Catskills: It will be mantras and meditation in the mountains at this weekend retreat featuring Sruti Ram and Ishwari, the Woodstock, NY duo behind SRI Kirtan, who will lead ecstatic chant as part of Friday evening’s program.  Go for the night or the whole weekend by joining the World Peace Meditation Retreat at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, N.Y.  Learn more.

Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe in Phoenix: Can you say transformance? Any show with this band will transform you; Larisa Stow is passion personified, love without limits, delivering a wake-up call to anyone who will listen. Can you hear it? The Tribe takes their mantra rock to Phoenix this weekend, kicking it off with a celebration of ceremony and community with drum, flute, song and dance that they are headlining Friday night. On Saturday, Stow will lead a Mantra Playshop session, all part of the 12.21.12 festivities of the non-profit Fusion Foundation. Find out more.

Bhakti Blessings Coast-to-Coast

IN THE WEST

Venice, CA:  Rebirth of the Light Winter Solstice Movement Meditation with Shiva Rea, Dave Stringer, Global Sonic DJ Fabian Alsultany , Donna De Lory, Spring Groove, Yehoshua Brill and more. 2-10 p.m., Exhale Center for Sacred Movement, Venice, CA.  More info.

Los Angeles, CA:  Celebrating the New Age, an evening of “live yoga, live music, live food and live people” featuring multi-instrumentalist Sheela Bringi and Clinton Patterson (producer of Bringi’s debut CD in-the-works), with Leonice Shinneman, playing blues/raga/kirtan.  6:30 p.m. at Peace Yoga Gallery, Los Angeles.  Details.

Richmond, CA:  Blessings for the New Millennium,a multicultural evening of mantra, music and sacred ceremony, featuring Daniel Paul and Gina Salá, who are just finishing up their West Coast storm tour to launch their collaborative CD, Tabla Mantra. Includes Sound Healing with  Jan Cercone, Taiko drumming with Eden Aoba Taiko, and of course, tabla mantra with Paul & Salá.  Find out more.

San Rafael, CA:  Cosmic Dance Party with MC Yoga & special guests.  Described as an “Intergalactic Planetary Dance Party In Northern California to celebrate the end of the Mayan Calendar, the Winter Solstice, and anything else that makes you feel like dancing.”  That about covers it…and dance you will want to:  with Robin Livingston on deck and Amanda Devi on visuals, this threesome pumps out high-voltage, bass-heavy tracks from MC’s latest CD, Pilgrimage, that you can’t help but move to.  Get the scoop.

Vancouver, BC: Mantra, kirtan and labyrinth meditation featuring the World Peace Flame, organized by Sandra Leigh and Give Peace a Chant Kirtan Community. 7 p.m., Labyrinth at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Vancouver, BC. Details here.

Seattle, WA: Dharma Sound is presenting kirtan at 7 p.m., Samudra Yoga, Bremerton, WA.

IN THE EAST

Rosemont, PA:  Stay Strong 2 Release Party and Winter Solstice kirtan celebration with David Newman, Mira and The Beloved.  This is the official release party for Stay Strong 2: You Can Count On Me.  The evening is a benefit for The Bridge Foundation and Global Green USA.  8 p.m., The New Leaf Club, Rosemont, PA.  Details here

Boston, MATom Lena is hosting a special Solstice edition of his regularly scheduled Kitchari Kirtan, featuring Beantown chantress Irene Solea. The evening will open with Shakti Rowan leading the KK Posse in a Solstice Ritual to welcome the new earth. 7 p.m., Cambridge, MA.  Details here.

Bedford, NY:  Satya Franche & MA Kirtan will add their “vibration to the celestial vortex” for holiday chanting and potluck gathering, beginning 7 p.m. at Transcendence at Sun Raven, Bedford, NY.  More info.

West Hartford, CT:  Celebrate the Winter Solstice with friends and family in a gathering that includes the ancient Homa Hotra fire ceremony to “let go of that which we no longer need and manifest all that we envision for ourselves in the future.”  And of course, there will be chanting and dancing.  8:30 p.m.; West Hartford Yoga.  Details here.

Bennington, VT:  DEVI presents an evening of Solstice kirtan with special guest, Bill ‘Jambavan’ Pfleging.  DEVI’s just-released CD, “The Path of Love,” will be available for purchase.  6 p.m., Karma Cat Yoga, Bennington, VT.  More info.

 IN THE MIDWEST

Minneapolis, MN:  The Midwest gets a head start on 12.21.12 with a celebration of mantra by Heartland bhaktas Sitari and Kalyana with Pavan Kumar (aka Susan Shehata, Colleen Buckman and Keith Helke), who are releasing their first self-titled CD on 12.20.  The evening includes a guided “clearing” meditation and a celebration of the return of the sun, and also features the music of Blue Soul Caravan and special guest Jill James. Long-time champions of midwestern bhav, this Minneapolis-based band (which also includes Will Kemperman) made its debut at Bhakti Fest Midwest this summer.  Details here.

Green Bay, WI:  Erika King and Be Alford team up for live music and yin yoga for a Winter Solstice Celebration at the Studio for Well-Being in Neenah, WI.  More info.

Chicago, IL:  The Bodhi Spiritual Center is hosting Birth of the Golden Age Celebration, a two-hour program including a Q & A led by Mariana Gigea on the Awakened State, a Crystal Bowl Meditation, dancing, and hands-on blessings for awakening in the tradition of  Amma Bhagavan, founder of the Oneness University. Find out more.

Your turn: tell us where you’ll be chanting on this long-anticipated day.  Will you be celebrating, praying, hiding your head in the sand…?

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You Can Count On Me, the much-anticipated sequel to David Newman’s Stay Strong charitable project for Global Green USA, was released this week with a new single available on iTunes and Amazon and a nice long video of the joy-filled jam session that created it.  Newman spoke with The Bhakti Beat about the project’s Aha! moment, kirtan activism, and how his own practice has evolved in the 20 years since he founded Yoga on Main in Philadelphia (hint: fatherhood has factored!).
Have you seen this video yet?  It’s a bhaktified joyride with a boatload of the wallah world’s favorite musicians singing their hearts out and generally having a blast recording the charity single, You Can Count On Me, in one of the music industry’s most famous recording studios. 

The epic jam session began as a twinkle in David Newman’s eye when he was driving to Los Angeles after Bhakti Fest last September.  “I just got a very strong feeling about doing it,” he said.  “I thought: wow, what if I brought a bunch of my colleagues into this really special, historic studio and we recorded this together, and filmed it all?”

Photo courtesy Stay Strong Project

The pieces came together at the speed of an L.A. minute.  iPhones were humming all over Southern California — Newman said everyone was invited by text!– and the response flowed in.  Shiva Baum signed on to co-produce the single with Newman and long-time axeman/collaborator Philippo Franchini. Amy Dewhurst came aboard to produce the video.  The very next day — and lots of thumb-tapping later — anyone in the bhakti world who was in L.A. at the time gathered at the legendary Village Recorder studio to give it up for Global Green USA.

Responding to the call...er, text. (Stay Strong photo)

Photo courtesy of Stay Strong Project

“Everything was put together in a 24-hour period,” Newman said. “The final decision to do it was made Tuesday morning after Bhakti Fest and the recording session happened on Wednesday night.”

Talk about instant karma…

Just look at the list of musicians who showed up to collaborate in the band, choir and dance party.   “I guess you could call them the L.A. Bhakti All-Stars,” Newman said, adding that many artists who were invited had already left the area. 

 

You Can Count On Me , written by Newman and Donna De Lory, is a feel-good anthem chant in the songwriter-meets-wallah style Newman is known and loved for.  The medley fuses Newman’s original lyrics evoking an “I’ve got your back” loyalty and kinship with a rollicking Shyam Bolo refrain that you can’t help but sing and dance along with (see the video for evidence of that).  The single — available digitally only as a single short track or a two-track set with the longer Shyam Bolo jam — features the vocal nectar of De Lory, C.C. White, and Shyamdas, in addition to all three of the Newmans.  Yes, even toddler Tulsi got her chance at the mike (she’s officially listed in the credits for “giggles”).  Cuteness overload alert! 

Pulled To Do Something Different

With this song and the original Stay Strong single, which broke the top 5 in the iTunes world-music chart, Newman said he had felt pulled to do something different.  “You could say these two songs didn’t feel like they belonged to me.”   At Bhakti Fest he sang a somewhat mellower version of Count On Me, and it was during the course of the festival that “it started becoming clear that the song would be a wonderful vehicle as a follow-up to Stay Strong,” he said. 

Mira & Tulsi Newman (Photo courtesy of Stay Strong Project)

All proceeds from the song go directly to Global Green’s Green School program, supporting the organization’s effort to build green schools in needy communities and help foster appreciation for sustainability in the next generation, the future stewards of the planet.   With Tulsi as a constant reminder, Newman says these are the topics he thinks about a lot these days.  Read the interview below.

Q&A With David Newman

THE BHAKTI BEAT: You Can Count On Me is a benefit for Global Green, as was the first Stay Strong.  Why this cause?

DAVID NEWMAN: As we’ve seen with Hurricane Sandy, there are lot of issues going on in our environment, and sustainability for our future and for our children’s futures is an important issue.  The idea of green schools is critical to building a sustainable future .

Now that I have a child, I think a lot about what this world is going to be like for her.  The children are really the shepherds of a future sustainable life on this planet Earth, so environmental issues are very dear to me.

Initially, I did Stay Strong with Global Green partially because I really loved what they were doing, and partially because the chief operating officer, Richard Wegman, is a bhakti yogi/Reiki kind of person – he is someone who really sees the relationship between living with an open heart and activism. I have a real strong connection with Richard, so there’s a synergy there between us.

TBB: What inspired you to create this sequel to Stay Strong?

DN: I would say 50 percent or more of what I do on the Stay Strong project in terms of my impetus or inspiration is just simply to put something out there that inspires people, opens hearts and brings a smile to those faces who see it. That’s my main inspiration. 

Secondarily, with both this new song and the first Stay Strong release, there was something unusual about the writing process that motivated me to do something different. I guess you could say, for whatever reason, these two songs didn’t feel like they belonged to me. When I wrote the song You Can Count on Me, I just felt that I wanted to do something special with the song. Then when I was at Bhakti Fest, it started becoming clear that it would be a wonderful vehicle as a follow-up to Stay Strong.  That’s how it came about.

Photo courtesy of Stay Strong Project

The inspiration to do the video at this legendary recording studio called Village Recorders in Los Angeles really came to me while I was driving back from Bhakti Fest to L.A., where I was going to be for a week. I just got a very strong feeling about doing it, I thought wow, what if I brought a bunch of my colleagues into this really special, historic recording studio and we recorded this together and filmed it?

What was so graceful about the project was that everybody involved, including the producer, musicians, singers, film-makers, it was all put together in a 24-hour period. The final decision to do it was made Tuesday morning after Bhakti Fest and the recording session happened on Wednesday night. And, talk about the technology of 2012 — every single person invited was invited via text message. 

TBB: Wow. What does that say about this community coming together?

DN: The outpouring of energy was amazing. The evening in the studio was just absolutely charged, really a creatively high experience. To some degree I was limited by the people who were still in L.A. [after Bhakti Fest]; there were others I contacted who had already left the area.  So in a lot of ways this is kind of a Los Angeles project — the L.A. Bhakti All-Stars, I guess you could say.

TBB: Does that mean there will be an East Coast version to balance it out?

DN: I never know.  This all came alive in such a short period of time.  The Stay Strong project to me is a mystery: I didn’t expect it to happen the first time and didn’t expect to do a second release, so who knows what could come from it moving forward.

TBB: We’re seeing a lot of “kirtan activism” these days, from Hurricane Sandy relief to sex trafficking in India.  What role can or should kirtan play in activism?

DN: I think the practice and the sharing of bhakti kirtan is its own form of activism (chuckles), because it activates people’s hearts and that inspires them to follow their bliss and passions and to participate in life in a conscious and joyful way.

For all of us road warriors out there doing door-to-door kirtan, that is activism. It’s playing an active role in the upliftment of the planet.  I think all of us who practice bhakti are connected to serving humanity. I can’t really speak about what the role is in getting involved in more traditional activist settings, but to me, [bhakti yoga] is a means to help in a broader way. That’s always been a big part of what I do, and one of the reasons my presentation of kirtan has a little more of a Western flair is to bring it to more people.

In terms of supporting charities and nonprofit organizations, I can’t speak for other people but it definitely plays a role for me. My last CD, Stars, gave a portion of every CD sold to Peter Gabriel’s Witness.org, a humanitarian organization that distributes cameras and iPhones to people around the world to document human rights violations. The video we made, Love Belongs to Everyone, was dedicated to the work that Witness does.

TBB: You’ve just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the yoga studio you founded in Philadelphia, Yoga on Main. How has your practice evolved in the past two decades?

DN: I think the way in which my practice has evolved is that it has expanded, in a very profound way.  When I was younger I had very strong ideas about what was “spiritual” and what was a “spiritual experience,” so in a way I was confined to identify with that through certain kinds of practices – which were very supportive of my spiritual expansion.

Now 20 years later, there isn’t anything that isn’t spiritual to me. It matters less and less what particular activity I find myself engaged in, whether it’s talking with you or having a cup of tea or practicing yoga or taking a walk.  Whatever it is, to me, it’s all part of the same oneness. It’s really been quite liberating, like letting go of a burden of seeing it in some places and not in other places. To see everything as spiritual, as divine — for me that’s been a big shift.  

Photo by Balramdass, from ImageEvents.com

To me this is what we’re working for as bhaktis.  As my guru Neem Karoli Baba said: “See the divine in everything and in everyone.”  

He also said: “The best form to worship god is in every form.” This is the bhakti vision, the divine is in all beings and in everything. So 20 years later, I feel that there’s a much deeper awareness of spirituality in exactly what the moment presents. There is less of a compulsion to make it look different.

TBB: How has fatherhood contributed to that evolution?

DN: In a huge way!  My daughter Tulsi is just full of love and full of awe. She’s so present and so joyful.  Being with her, you just see the transparency of spirit, because she’s so close; she’s living in that. Being serious, being heavy, or being preoccupied just doesn’t work in her presence.

I always say: who needs a guru when you have a child like Tulsi?

 

Banner artwork by Jenni Young

See also:
www.davidnewmanmusic.com
www.staystrongproject.com

You Can Count On Me/Shyam Bolo is available on:
iTunes at: http://tinyurl.com/StayStrong2iTunes
Amazon at: http://tinyurl.com/StayStrong2Amazon

 

 

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