≡ Menu
Share

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.

Connect with The Bhakti Beat!
Subscribe to The Bhakti Beat
The Bhakti Beat on facebook
The Bhakti Beat on twitter
The Bhakti Beat on YouTube
The Bhakti Beat on Google+
 

Like what you see here?  Help us keep The Bhakti Beat flowing!  Consider donating today, a one-time contribution or a recurring contribution — any amount is so appreciated and will help us continue to bring you the bhav.  The Bhakti Beat is a labor of love, completely self-funded by Brenda Patoine (moi), who is a freelance neuroscience writer by day.  Every bit helps! THANK YOU! Donate Here.

 

 

Share
{ 13 comments }
Share

Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe Bhakti Fest 2014 by TheBhaktiBeat.com There is nothing traditional about Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe.  And that’s just fine with us.

Larisa and the Tribe deliver unapologetic Mantra Rock.  Quite unlike anything we’ve seen anywhere else. The first time we experienced their edgy urban-laced brand of bhakti, our jaw dropped, and they just keep get juicier each time we see them.  Quite possibly the tightest little shakti band in the West, they never fail to fill your cup with lovelovelove and take it right over the top — and then bring it back down to earth with something authentic and grounding like Larisa’s now-signature LOVE-IN with the crowd.

Larisa Stow, Bhakti Fest 2014, TheBhaktiBeat.comThis year’s set at Shakti Fest was no exception, as love goddess Larisa snuggled up close and personal at the front of the stage with adoring fans pouring out their affection.  She reflected it right back, singing them a heart-felt love ballad laced with advice for living fully from one who knows how. “We need to embrace all the parts of ourselves,” she said. “Even those wild parts.”  It was like group therapy in the bhav!

“How juicy can we get?” Larisa asked the crowd at one point.  “How much can we open up in this moment?”

They set the tone for their set right off the bat, with a Maha Mantra rock-out that proved why they call this music mantra rock.  Then it was time to “wake up those heartlines,” as Larisa implored the obedient bhaktas before her to put hands to hearts as she launched into an electrified ode to Tara, the Buddhist goddess of compassion who is always ready to spring into action to relieve suffering.  This was like no Om Tara you’ve heard before;  the seed mantra Om Tara Tuttare Ture Soha was fused with the English chorus “Om Tara, wake up in my life…” and driven by rich rhythmic layers of horns from the Wizard of Woodwinds Richard Hardy, bass, guitar, violin, and percussion.  Oh, just watch the video…

Then things got really juicy.

Shakti Fest 2014 by TheBhaktiBeat.com Larisa Stow Shakti TribeWith Tara sufficiently awakened in our hearts, the Tribe turned our attention to the Goddess Who Takes No Prisoners with a powerful seed mantra to invoke Kali.  We were also treated to a brand new song based on the Sanskrit mantra Ahem Prema, which means “I Am Divine Love.”  The Tribe’s version featured Bethany Folsom’s  exquisite violin amidst original lyrics reminding us that “The universe is in my womb” and “I am the love that I seek.”

Quotes, Bhakti Fest May 2014 by thebhaktibeat.comJust when you thought you couldn’t get any more love from the Love Tribe, “Whatcha Gonna Do With All That Love?” poured forth.  The song, already a signature anthem  for this Long Beach-based band, is now immortalized on Shakti Tribe bumper stickers that were given away freely from the stage.

But they weren’t through with us yet.  They hit us with another version of the Maha Mantra that shook the ground with its high-energy must-dance vibe (trust me — I just shook my whole neighborhood blasting it in my apartment…).  If you weren’t dancing by now…well, I don’t think anyone wasn’t dancing.  The set ended, fittingly, blessedly, with the title track from their epic CD “Rock On Sat Nam,” officially sealing the Tribe’s place as the Bhaktas Most Likely to Rock Your World.

What are we gonna do with all that love?  Pass it along of course!  Larisa made us promise.

Shakti Tribe is Benj Clarke on bass, Richard Hardy on woodwinds, Bethany Folsom on violin, Keith Larsen on drums, and of course, Larisa Stow holding court center stage on harmonium and vocals. Bray Ghiglia played guitar at Shakti Fest, and Mirabai Devi held space energetically throughout the set.

Mirabai Devi, Shakti Tribe, by thebhaktibeat.com at Bhakti Fest 2014 MaySo go ahead. Pass on the love.

See the full Photo Journal from Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe’s set here.

 Also See:
Too Much Talking from a Kirtan Wallah?  Hmm. Bhakti Quotes Worth Repeating from Shakti Fest 2014
Top 12 Bhavalicious Moments at Shakti Fest 2014 (Photos)
Shakti Fest Moments” Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Shakti Fest Finale” Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
“Jai Uttal” Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
‘We Need a Bus!’  Kirtaniyas Kick Off Shakti Fest Kirtan and Take Bhakti to A ‘Whole Other Level’
 
Connect with The Bhakti Beat!
Subscribe to The Bhakti Beat
The Bhakti Beat on facebook
The Bhakti Beat on twitter
The Bhakti Beat on YouTube
The Bhakti Beat on Google+
 

Like what you see here?  Help us keep The Bhakti Beat flowing!  Consider donating today, a one-time contribution or a recurring contribution — any amount is so appreciated and will help us continue to bring you the bhav.  The Bhakti Beat is a labor of love, completely self-funded by Brenda Patoine (moi), who is a freelance neuroscience writer by day.  Every little bit helps! THANK YOU! Donate Here.

Share
{ 0 comments }
Ram Dass, Jai Uttal, Shyamdas at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.com
Share

Ram Dass, Jai Uttal, Shyamdas at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.comOmega’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.

Ram Dass Shyamdas Jai Uttal at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.comThis 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.

Ram Dass Shyamdas Jai Uttal at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.comSD:  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:

YumYumYumYumYum

More on Shyamdas
Live at Ananda:  Shyamdas Tribute in Bhajan Belt Celebrates the Lila of Bhakti’s Favorite Uncle
Swept Up in a ‘Tidal Wave of Bhav’ with Shyamdas: Epic 45-Minute Maha Mantra
Storytime in the Bhav with Shyamdas & Friends at Bhakti Fest Midwest
Feels Like ‘Yesterday:’ Classic Shyamdas in Wacky Spontaneous Improv at Omega Chant
Bhajan Boat’ Charity Cruise Circles Manhattan with a Boatful of Bhaktas
Ananda Ashram Shyamdas Tribute Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Remembering Shyamdas Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Shyamdas Remembered, Video Playlist on YouTube
 
Also see:
www.shyamdas.com
www.jaiuttal.com
www.ramdass.org
www.eomega.org
 
 
Share
{ 0 comments }
Share

Sean Johnson Wild Lotus Band Bhaktimmersion by TheBhaktiBeat.comIt 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.

Gwendolyn Colman, The Wild Lotus Band @ BHAKTImmersion by TheBhaktiBeat.com“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.

BHAKTImmersion by TheBhaktiBeat.comLeading 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.

Dan Shanahan @ BHAKTImmersion 2013 by TheBhaktiBeat.com“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 highBut 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…

Alicia Nur Karima Patrice @ BHAKTImmersion 2013 by TheBhaktiBeat.comI 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…

That’s why this is really good to have:

BHAKTImmersion 2014 dates have just been announced: March 15-22. See www.seanjohnsonkirtan.com for details.

Stay tuned to TheBhaktiBeat.com for more on BHAKTImmersion 2013.

Also see:
BHAKTImmersion Photo Journals on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page:
1. BHAKTImmersion 2013
2. New Orleans Sacred Music Festival
3. Shiva Day at BHAKTImmersion
4. Alvin Young, Bollywood Dancer (just for fun)
 
www.seanjohnsonkirtan.com
Share
{ 1 comment }
Share

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, sitar for Kirtan Bandits at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Chris Korb on sitar, Kirtan Bandits

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.  

Jeffrey Lidke, Kirtan Bandits, at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Jeffrey Lidke

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.

Kirtan Bandits just released five songs recorded at Chantlanta 2013; check ’em out here.

 Sunmoon Pie

Sunmoon Pie at Chantlanta day 2, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Bonnie Puckett & Michael Levine, Sunmoon Pie

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.) 

Victor Johnson for Sunmoon Pie at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Victor Johnson

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.

Sunmoon Pie has a 5-track digital EP out, recorded at Chantlanta 2012. Personal favorite: Modim Anachnu.

Phil McWilliams

Phil McWilliams at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Phil McWilliams

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.

Phil McWilliams Band at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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.

See www.philmcwilliamsmusic.com for music and events (he’s opening for Dave Stringer and Donna DeLory for their SE mini-tour), and www.bhaktimessenger.com for Universal Prayer, the CD by McWilliams’ previous band project (with Ian Boccio), Bhakti Messenger Kirtan.

Blue Spirit Wheel

Blue Spirit Wheel at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Stephanie Kohler & Ian Boccio, Blue Spirit Wheel

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.”

Stephanie Kohler, Blue Spirit Wheel, Chantlanta day2 by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Stephanie Kohler

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 for Blue Spirit Wheel at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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.

www.bluespiritwheel.com
www.bhaktimessenger.com (Boccio’s previous project, with Phil McWilliams.)

Whew! And that was all just a warm-up to Krishna Das…

Krishna Das at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com
Krishna Das packed them in…
Also see:
Pt 1: Chantlanta’s ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Show Depth & Diversity of Southern Bhav (Video)
Fresh from The Grammys, Krishna Das Shines At Chantlanta, With Band of One (Video)
Southern Bhav Rising: Chantlanta Demonstrates How To Do a Regional Chant Fest (Video)
Photo Journal of Chantlanta, on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Photo Journal: Krishna Das at Chantlanta, on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Chantlanta Playlist on The Bhakti Beat’s YouTube Channel (building daily!)
 
www.chantlanta.org
www.swahaproductions.com (co-organizer of Chantlanta; produces kirtan events in the South)
 
 
Share
{ 2 comments }
Share

Jeffrey Lidke, tabla, at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.comWatch these Wallahs…

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 at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Mantra Ma

Mantra Ma

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…

Chantlanta Day 1 by TheBhaktiBeat.comAt 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.

Chaitanya at Chantlanta Day 1 by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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.)
 

Wynne Paris

Wynne Paris at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Wynne Paris

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.

Wynne Paris gospel jam at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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.

See www.wynneparis.com, and do check out Groovananda, a personal favorite driving CD.  But be careful…

Chaitanya

Chaitanya at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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, at Chantlanta Day 1 by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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. 

Chaitanya’s debut album, Ark of Love, is available now on CD Baby; a CD release party is set for June 1 in Asheville.  www.chaitanyakirtan.com

Chaitanya at Chantlanta Day 1 by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Last-jam dance party with Chaitanya & the Chantlanta chanters

Don’t miss Part 2 for the rest of the Chantlanta line-up — Kirtan Bandits, Sunmoon Pie, Phil McWilliams and Blue Spirit Wheel

See also:
Part 2: Chantlanta’s ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Reveal Depth & Diversity of Southern Bhav (Videos)
Fresh from The Grammys, Krishna Das Shines at Chantlanta, With Band of One
Southern Bhav Rising: Chantlanta Demonstrates How To Do a Regional Chant Fest
Chantlanta Photo Journal (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Krishna Das at Chantlanta Photo Journal (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Chantlanta Playlist on The Bhakti Beat YouTube Channel (new videos being added)
 
www.chantlanta.org
www.swahaproductions.com (produces kirtan events in the South)
www.krishnadas.com
Share
{ 4 comments }
Share

Chantlanta at Druid Hills Baptist Church, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Ahhh Chantlanta. How we love thee.  Let us count the ways…

  1. Your goal is to spread the bhav.
  2. You put on a two-day festival with seven great regional bands, all for FREE.
  3. You topped it off with KRISHNA DAS on the schedule, concert + workshop.  Nice.
  4. You raised more than $3,000 to send an impoverished young woman in India to college.
  5. You brought the community together and opened up kirtan to people who would otherwise be clueless.
  6. You did it all in a Baptist Church that practically donated its space.
  7. You came up with a killer name to boot.

Thank you.

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 at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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.

Chantlanta at Druid Hills Baptist Church, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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.

Chantlanta volunteers, byt TheBhaktiBeat.com

Volunteer Team

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 at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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.

Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.comNo 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.

Bravo, Chantlanta, for showing how it’s done.

 See also:
Fresh from The Grammys, Krishna Das Shines at Chantlanta, With Band of One
Chantlanta’s ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Reveal Depth & Diversity of Southern Bhav
Chantlanta Photo Journal (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Krishna Das at Chantlanta Photo Journal (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Chantlanta Playlist on The Bhakti Beat YouTube Channel (new videos being added)
 
www.chantlanta.org
www.swahaproductions.com (produces kirtan events in the South)
www.krishnadas.com  

 

Share
{ 3 comments }
Krishna Das, Chantmaster, at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com
Share

Krishna Das, Chantmaster, at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.comBarely 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.

Krishna Das and Arjun Bruggement, Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

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.

Krishna Das at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

"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. 

KD shone like the sun, and we all sunbathed.

Krishna Das at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

See also:
Photo Journal: Krishna Das at Chantlanta (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Southern Bhav Rising: Chantlanta Demonstrates How To Do a Regional Chant Fest (Video/Photos)
Chantlanta’s ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Reveal Depth & Diversity of Southern Bhav (Part 1)
Chantlanta’s ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Reveal Depth & Diversity of Southern Bhav (Part 2)
Photo Journal: Chantlanta (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Chantlanta Video Playlist (on The Bhakti Beat YouTube Channel)
www.krishnadas.com
www.chantlanta.org
www.swahaproductions.com
 
And don’t miss these classics on Krishna Das from our archives:
Krishna Das, Bhakti Rock Star, Keeping It Real
Kirtan First: Krishna Das Invokes Narayana & Yardbirds at 55th Grammy Awards
Krishna Das’ ‘Live Ananda’ Earns Grammy Nomination; Kirtan Grammy Would Be a First
With Deva’s Miten, Krishna Das Does Dylan & Shyamdas Does the Blues
Bhakti Fest First: Krishna Das in the Spotlight, Reluctantly, at Midwest All-Wallah Finale
Amazing Grace by Krishna Das After Bhakti Fest Rain-Out

 

Share
{ 4 comments }
Ananda Ashram Shyamdas Tribute by TheBhaktiBeat.com
Share

One month after Shyamdas’ passing, the bhakti community is still reeling from the gash torn in its heart by the loss of the great Sanskrit scholar who had become, in recent years especially, the Western bhakti world’s favorite uncle.  From the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad India, where a moment of silence in honor of Shyamdas was observed among the millions gathered for the world’s largest spiritual convergence, to the bhaktified walls of Bhakti Yoga Shala in the heart of SoCal’s fertile kirtan country, to a little healing space over a garage  in Montpelier, Vt., near where Shyamdas lived for many years, those who knew and loved Shyamdas have gathered to honor his life and celebrate his lila.

Ananda Ashram, the Yoga Society of New York, offered up its own tribute to its patron saint of satsang on Sunday, Feb. 17.  Ananda sits in the heart of New York’s “Bhajan Belt,” near Shyamdas’ home when he was in the U.S.  The little community tucked away in a sleepy NY hamlet was “the first place he came” when he returned to the States after his winter in India, said Hari Mulukutla, a long-time friend of Shyamdas who organized the tribute in concert with Ananda’s Jennifer Schmid.  (Ananda has more recently come to fame via the Grammy nomination of Krishna Das’ Live Ananda, which was recorded at the ashram in 2007.)

Hari Mulukutla: “This was his playground, and we are all his Gopis.”

“This was his playground, and we are all his Gopis,” Mulukutla said, referring to the famous lila of Krishna and his devoted dairy maidens who would follow the sound of his flute into the forests of Vrindavan, the divine playground of the Hindu scriptures.  Shyamdas chose the Vrindavan region as his home base in India in order to “touch the dust of the dust of the dust that touched the Beloved’s feet,” he once said.

An image of Shyamdas ecstatically singing was the focal point of a high altar at the gathering.  An offering of Krishna Devi, Ananda resident and “gypsy kirtan” wallah, it was lit by tealights and nestled with flowers and Indian textiles of the type Shyam-ji often wrapped about his neck or head.  It gave the impression throughout the evening that the teacher himself was there, watching over the musicians gathered on stage and singing right along with them.

Shyamdas’ sister, Susan S. Ryan

Susan S. Ryan, Shyamdas’ sister, was presented with a traditional flower garland to place over Shyam-ji’s picture, after which she spoke briefly about her brother and the outpouring of love for him from the bhakti community.  “I always knew he was special, but now I’ve learned that he really did have a million best friends,”  Ryan said, drawing laughs from the crowd.  “And I thought I was his best friend,” she chuckled.

She said growing up with Shyamdas for a brother was full of surprises, because he “was such a rascal.”  At the same time, she said, he was “such a devoted person, devoted to his translations and to his music, but also to his family.”  She called him “sometimes mindful, sometimes manic,” but always “clear-headed.”

“He was willing to risk everything to express what he knew to be true,” Shyamdas’ sister said.

The evening proceeded with stories, poetry from Shyamdas’ translations, and of course, kirtan — in a rapid progression of 9 separate bands/artists leading two chants each.  Vallabhdas, Shyamdas-ji’s dear friend and devoted student who has collaborated on many of his books, offered up a poignant ode to his teacher and mentor, singing what might be the anthem song of Shyamdas’ life:  Beloved.  The song, from Shyamdas’ first CD, Beloved Chants, combines Shyam’s original lyrics with a traditional composition written (in the Brajabhasa language) by the 16th century Ashta-Chaap poet-saint Govinda Swami. Vallabhdas described the bard as someone whose “life was full of deep realizations, and his words carry to us the essence of pure devotion.”   (Scroll to the bottom for Govinda Swami’s words, plus Shyamdas’ translation and original lyrics for Beloved.)

At the end of the song, Vallabhdas said: “I think Shyamdas found his beloved.  We all miss him of course…but we’ll just keep singing the Beloved’s names and following in his footsteps, and we’ll get there…”

SRI Kirtan with Naren Budhkar

Bhajan Belt favorites SRI Kirtan (Sruti Ram & Ishwari) took the stage next, singing two of their favorites from their many sails on the Bhajan Boats with Shyamdas.  Sruti Ram told a humorous story about long road trips with his bhakti brother (“driving to Vermont for coffee”) and seeking his friend’s counsel about a difficult interpersonal situation (Shyam’s advice: “Delete.”), then launched into a rousing Sri Ram Jai Ram.  Ishwari took over the lead to deliver her now-classic Jai-Jagatambe Ma Durga chant — punctuated with her earth-shaking take on Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet.”

To close it out, Hari Mulukutla sang Sharanam, a hymn of auspiciousness from the Upanashids (Hindu scriptures) that Shyamdas often sang when closing his programs.  The evening ended with a recording of one of Shyam-ji’s followers — a Western woman named Nicole — singing a Holi devotional song to Shyamdas for the first time.  It was a sweet, simple reminder of the many lives he touched during his presence in this world and how his influence continues still.

“Hundreds of years in the future, they will still be talking about Shyamdas,” Mulukutla said.  “And it will be very hard to describe him.”

Shyamdas, we imagine, would have chuckled.

The full roster of musicians included:

Krishna Devi

Krishna Devi, who started it off with Radhe (what better for a Shyamdas tribute?) and Krishna, warming up our response with her “gypsy kirtan.”

The Rev. Kim Lesley, who, joined by Jennifer Schmid and Renee on vocals, kept the Maha Mantra flowing.

Arundhati read a poignant remembrance sharing “the ultimate lesson” Shyamdas taught her — “Take shelter of Krishna” — then sang a beautiful Arati followed by a Govinda/Hare Krishna medley.

Prema of the Woodstock sangha sang and played on her tanpura one of the hundreds (thousands?) of ancient love poems that were brought to light by Shyamdas: “Lift up the veil and meet your Beloved.”

Ned Leavitt aka Jambavan

Ned Leavitt aka Jambavan sang Sri Krishna Sharanam Mama — “Sri Krishna is my refuge” — a song much beloved by Shyamdas that he sang often.  Shyam-ji’s partner Ally Gopi was softly singing it in the car as they were raced to the hospital in India just before his physical death, she wrote in a poignant memoir for the spiritual journal Nama Rupa.

John McDowell

Naren Budhkar, who often played tabla for Shyamdas, read another of Shyam-Ji’s translated love poems to the Divine, then joined John McDowell for a drum call-and-response.  McDowell, who co-produced Shyamdas’ first CD and has played with him for many years, called Shyam a “musician’s musician” who “understood that rhythm was one of the ways to keep the bhav going.”

Supporting the music all evening were Sundar Das on flute and Avinash, Tommy Be and John McDowell on percussion.

Sri Krishna Sharanam Mama

Tommy Be, Avinash, Renee, Jennifer, and Rev Kim

Beloved

From Vallabhdas: “This traditional composition in the Nata Raga, sung to Shri Krishna in the early afternoon, was written by the 16th century Ashta-Chaap poet-saint Govinda Swami. His life was full of deep realizations, and his Brajabhasa words carry to us the essence of pure devotion:”
pritama prita hi te paiye
yadyapi rupa guna, shila su-gharata
ina batana na rijhaiye
sat kula janma, karma subha lakshana
veda purana padhaiye
Govinda bina sneha sualo
rasanaa kahaju nachaiye
Shyamdas’ Translation:
The Beloved is found only through love.
Physical beauty, good virtues, fine character
and a noble home –
these possessions will never please God.
You could have a high birth,
good karmas, auspicious signs, and
have read the Vedas and Puranas.
Sings Govinda, “But, my friend!
Without love for the Beloved,
what is the point of wagging your tongue?”
Shyamdasji composed these English lyrics to go along with the song:
Find the Beloved through the beloved Name.
Even if you have good looks and virtues,
they don’t matter in this game.
If you don’t love Shri Govinda,
what are you doing with your day?

More on Shyamdas:

Swept Up in a ‘Tidal Wave of Bhav’ with Shyamdas: Epic 45-Minute Maha Mantra
Storytime in the Bhav with Shyamdas & Friends at Bhakti Fest Midwest
Feels Like ‘Yesterday:’  Classic Shyamdas in Wacky Spontaneous Improv at Omega Chant
Bhajan Boat’ Charity Cruise Circles Manhattan with a Boatful of Bhaktas
Ananda Ashram Shyamdas Tribute Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Remembering Shyamdas Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Shyamdas Remembered, Video Playlist on YouTube
 
Also see:
www.shyamdas.com
www.sacredwoods.net (for Shyamdas’ books and recordings. Note: many sold-out books are being reprinted)
www.anandaashram.org

 

Share
{ 3 comments }
Share
Project: Full-length Studio-Recorded CD
Fundraising Goal: $25,000
Deadline: Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 @ Midnight PT.
 
Ed. Note: This is part of our ongoing series, Crowd-Funding Kirtan (more article links at bottom).  Crowd-funding, in which fans and friends contribute money for new recording projects in exchange for “perks” ranging from free downloads to private concerts, has become a huge trend in the music business as record labels have cut back.

The Artist

Brenda McMorrow is hot and getting hotter.    She recently released a music video and single of her popular Hanuman Chalisa rap, just wrapped up recording back-up vocals for David Newman’s CD in-the-works, and is deep into songwriting and prep for solo album No. 3, the focus of her current crowd-funding campaign on IndieGogo.   She’s been touring incessantly in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and a second European tour starts in March.  She has landed center stage at Bhakti Fest and other chant festivals worldwide and has performed live with such bhakti luminaries as Jai Uttal, Dave Stringer, GuruGanesha Singh, Wah!, and more.  Just a couple weeks ago, in what McMorrow told us was “a dream come true,” she got to sing on stage with Snatam Kaur as part of the Sikh songstress’ double-header concert in Boulder, Colo., with David Newman (who McMorrow accompanied on vocals).

A relative newcomer to the kirtan circuit (she released her first CD, Ameya, in 2008), she is not new to life as a traveling musician, having played live concerts since the 90’s.  A firey, Canadian-born singer/songwriter with an approachable, down-to-earth vibe, McMorrow combines that songwriter ethos with folk, jazz and bluesy roots — and some serious chops on the acoustic guitar.  All of these influences come through in her live kirtans and recordings. 

During Dave Stringer's set at Bhakti Fest Midwest

McMorrow discovered kirtan in 2004 when a friend invited her to a yoga workshop where the instructor led a simple Shiva chant.  The experience triggered in her “a profound knowing [that] her musical journey was leading her to places more expansive and heart-opening than she had ever imagined,” according to her bio.

The Project

McMorrow has teamed up with sought-after producer/musician Ben Leinbach, who produced Ameya and Love Abounds, to create the yet unnamed new CD.  She praised Leinbach’s “brilliant” musicality and “inspiring” talents as producer, engineer, co-writer and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire.  Recording is set to begin in late March at Leinbach’s Marin County, Calif., studio, with a goal of releasing the disc this summer.  Her back-up band so far includes (in addition to Leinbach) percussionist Narada Wise, Philippo Franchini on guitar and Adam Bauer, with special guests to be announced.  Hmmmm…might we see a David Newman cameo on this record? 

At the core of the new album, McMorrow told The Bhakti Beat, will be a collection of songs familiar to those who have been at her live kirtans over the last couple years — songs like this Maha Lakshmi, perhaps — plus some new songs that she said have been “coming through” just in the last few weeks.  It’s still early in the album-creation process, so she was cautious about predicting a “feel” for the disc, but terms like “groove-oriented” and “ambient electronic sounds” worked their way into the description.  Hmmmm…might we see a little smackering of — dare we say it — kirtronica in the mix? 

Kirtronica Trance

There was that trancey late-night session at Bhakti Fest Midwest where she and Dave Stringer chanted improv from the Radiance Sutras to electronic grooves and percussive riffs amidst a crowd of writhing night-owl bhaktas and flourescent strobes…

It’s all speculation of course, because, hey, these things take time, and tend to be revealed over the course of the recording and engineering of an album.  About the only thing one can say for certain at this point is that McMorrow will be bringing her axe:  the  acoustic guitar ever-present at her kirtans will be “very present” on the CD, she promised. 

‘Offering Our Services to the Song’

Part of her own evolution as a kirtan artist, McMorrow said, is to let go of any “fixed ideas” about how a song or compilation of songs should be.  “When I first started singing kirtan, my mind was a little more involved.”  She was always second-guessing herself, she said, questioning if she was “doing it right,” if the songs were long enough, if she was leaving enough time in silence between chants… “Now, I find that it’s much easier to just allow whatever emerges to emerge.  It’s a much more graceful experience…”  Having experimented with a lot of different genres of music has helped her to “just be open to how the songs want to emerge.”

“As kirtan artists, what we’re doing, really, is offering our services to the song,” said McMorrow.

Up Next: Europe and Beyond

McMorrow has been storming the country for months now, with an ambitious tour schedule plus the recording project with David Newman.  The Bhakti Beat caught up with her  at Yogaville, the Satchidananda Ashram in Virginia, where she is catching a little R&R before she heads out in a couple weeks for her second European tour.  Joined by Italian songstress Emy Berti, who also sang for the David Newman recording , she starts in Milan, Italy March 6 and winds her way to Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Czechoslavakia.  Seoul, South Korea is also on the schedule for this year.

Check out McMorrow’s IndieGogo campaign site to learn about a whole slew of “bhakti extras” that McMorrow’s friends in the kirtan community have donated to help her reach her goal.  Think: two tickets to a show in Prema Hara’s upcoming tours; a Resonance Healing session from Sarah Garney;  a mala from Katie Campbell’s Bliss Jewels, or a Home Consultation from “Space Guru” Susan Shehata.  And lots more you can learn about on the IndieGogo page.

Links & Deets

Contribute Now to Brenda McMorrow’s CD Funding Drive
www.BrendaMcMorrow.com
Official Music Video of the Hanuman Chalisa
Download the Hanuman Chalisa (Windblown Version) single on iTunes
Hanuman Chalisa Rocks New Melodies from Brenda McMorrow, SRI Kirtan
Where’s the Bhav: Brenda McMorrow NorthEast Tour 2012

 

Also see previous articles in this series:
Sean Johnson & The Wild Lotus Band
David Newman aka Durga Das
Sheela Bringi
 
Subscribe to The Bhakti Beat
The Bhakti Beat on facebook
The Bhakti Beat on twitter
The Bhakti Beat on YouTube
The Bhakti Beat on Google+
Share
{ 3 comments }