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Closing Out Bhakti Fest West 2012, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Is it just us, or does it seem like everyone is doing a “chant fest” these days? Or maybe it’s a “kirtan retreat.” By any name, big, little or in between, in your back yard or Bali, at the local yoga studio or a luxury spa, bhaktified music fests and mantra marathons are popping up everywhere.  Which is a good thing. Well, at least we think so…

When is a bhakti festival NOT a good thing, you ask? For starters, if it’s so expensive that only the wealthy can afford it, that’s a problem.  The mantra revolution that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (most famously) popularized in the 1500’s was about bringing yoga — which at the time was a means for spiritual salvation reserved only for the highest castes of society — back to the people. Bhakti yoga was the way. Its hallmark was that it was accessible to ALL.

That’s still the case of course.  Bhakti IS accessible to all.  Love and devotion can have no price tag, and all one has to do to reap the benefits of kirtan is open one’s mouth and chant.  But it’s a rare retreat that is offered up free, with good reason of course. These things cost money to run, after all. We get that. But a retreat that is only accessible to the wealthiest yogis has no business calling itself bhakti. There, we said it.

The point is, there’s a right way, and there’s a wrong way to run a festie.  And lots of ways in between.  We’ve seen ’em all. So, even though no one asked us, here are our unsolicited tips for how to do a chant fest right. (See disclaimer at end.)*

  1. Make it affordable. This is No. 1 for the reasons already stated. It shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to get to a chant fest! Build work exchange and scholarships into the business plan. Line up sponsors to defray the costs. Set up systems so people can contribute toward “Kindness Passes” for those with limited financial means. Get creative and make it accessible to ALL, in the spirit of the bhakti tradition.  (ISKCON, by the way, has perfected the affordable kirtan retreat, largely by collecting donations to subsidize the costs; the rest of the bhakti world could take a lesson from the Hare Krishnas in this regard.)
  2. Give back. Work in a charity component.  Collect donations or have a silent auction, and offer the proceeds to organizations that are making a difference in your community or field of interest, or put them toward scholarships for people with limited financial means.
  3. Pay the artists. Not just the rock stars either. If it’s a local community event or a charity benefit and the artists have offered their services for free, at least cover their expenses.  Take care of their housing and transportation. And please feed them. Well.
  4. Give them time.  Resist stacking a schedule with one band an hour. Two-hour sets should be the norm. (Three if it’s Jai or KD.) This goes for festivals of any size, local community to national multi-stagers.
  5. Sound matters.  Get it right, whatever it takes.  And please amplify the musicians.  All of them.
  6. Aesthetics count. Light the artists, not the room. And please don’t make them pink or blue. Give them a nice backdrop and a place to store their equipment cases so there’s not a bunch of stuff littering up the “stage.”
  7. Build in breaks.  Have a short guided asana practice or meditation in between sets. Set aside an hour for meals if it’s an all-day or multi-day event.
  8. Don’t make us choose.  Until we all have the siddhis to bilocate, could you please not have two or six things going on simultaneously?  Festivals of thousands may need options, but still…the best fests we’ve been to do things sequentially.
  9. Feed people.  Bring in local vendors to offer organic, farm-to-table, ahimsa-principled real food and drink.
  10. Consumerism Lite. Please sell kirtan CD’s.  And go ahead and showcase local artists, crafters and conscious merchants who sell things of interest to your audience.  Just don’t let the materialism interfere with the spiritualism.  Give it its own space and keep it separate.  No one wants to hear people hawking Lululemons in that silent space after a chant.
  11. Don’t be a douchebag. Any event that calls itself yoga or bhakti has an obligation to rise above the business-as-usual model of event production and promotion.  Treat people right. Keep your promises. Set a new standard for conscious business and marketing practices. Cultivate community.  Be nice.

*DISCLAIMER: Not intended to be used in place of a professional event organizer’s advice. We actually have no experience in running a chant festival.  We just know what works from the participant’s point of view.

Okay, that’s our two-cents worth on how to build a bhakti festival we can all love.  What would you add or change? Tell us in the comments please.


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  • Mer February 22, 2016, 10:23 am

    Thank you for this. I’ve mentally been composing a similar article in my head for years. I would add to this – have a work exchange (like you suggested) and be KIND to the volunteers. I’ve seen too many friends of mine in tears after volunteering at such events in exchange for passes and being treated awfully, often by the people at the very top. Thank you again for this.

  • Rick February 22, 2016, 5:41 pm

    This article opens a valuable conversation which could become a must read for event organizers of all stripes. I appreciate the initiation of a list of ways to improve the musician’s lot, being one myself. A house supplied “backline” of amplifiers and a good drum kit would make changing acts much quicker and easier. Less stress on the sound and stage crew. Less hauling of gear on and off stage. Less bruises on guitar fingers. Quality food supports getting the best performance from everyone. Personable and empathetic managers who demonstrate a commitment to everyone’s joy makes all the difference!

  • Owen Green February 22, 2016, 8:52 pm

    I have been keenly aware of this for some time now, would note the significant “everyone’s trying to get into the act” attitude which has developed. As a musician myself (who is grateful for having other means of financial support) I have also become hyper sensitive to those who derive their livelihood from music and may do these festivals or participate in kirtan events for the mere love of doing so.
    That said, it would be wise to also point out that many of these events (some quite well established) have adopted a “pay to play” policy. If musicians are donating their time and their art, not to mention often traveling long distances to remote locations to do so, those who would demand money to allow them to play may well be in need of some serious self evaluation. IMHO, these events should be boycotted.

  • amy February 22, 2016, 11:24 pm

    Thank you for setting things straight! I would like to add:
    1) make sure event is family friendly/ kid friendly. Kids love chanting too!
    2) chanting is intoxicating. There is no need for intoxicants at a kirtan Fest. Leave your booze at home!

  • Lisa A Pfost February 23, 2016, 1:21 am

    amen! you really should have included dave with your jai and kd comment….

  • Pat Sandford February 23, 2016, 9:16 pm

    Deep bow and Love to you, sistah, for bringing this conversation into the open. As a participant who has had many incredibly powerful experiences at large bhakti festivals, I feel they came in big, and perhaps that time is passing and gatherings will return to a more modest size. Now, I feel the power in community/living room kirtans … no rock stars, no politics, no amplification, just a sweet sharing of Divine sound (and perhaps pot luck food after!) xo

  • Lalita Garrett February 24, 2016, 12:55 pm

    Thank you for this.. very helpful

  • Yaffa Gold February 27, 2016, 5:59 pm

    Thanks for soliciting my contribution… Here’s my two cents!


    In Wanting
    I Am
    I cannot Be


    I Am
    I Am
    In Perfection
    Being Perfect
    In Perfection
    Imperfection cannot Be


    I keep Becoming, apart in Love, in Time and again!
    My purpose in Becoming Here, in this sequential Duality of Time and Space, is to invoke The Name and be THAT Sat-Chit-Ananda, knowing the
    All-That-Is… Self contracting in expanding Expansion… Godspeed! To Brahman and Beyond!

    By Divine Will… Carry on!

    The One who gathers is tuned and in tune with the vibrational frequency of THAT gathering. The Ones who gather together, gather in a gathering THAT serves Perfectly All who are gathered…
    Yes! even the Ones who cannot pay…. the price of Bhakti!

    By Your Grace,

    And then…

    I get to squeak out loud
    The Name
    In Perfection
    Surrender Being
    Cannot Be

    My Love…

    Thank God for All-Yous!
    In Self Service we become Selfless…

    Damn! Damn! Damn!

  • Montino Bourbon February 29, 2016, 12:59 pm

    Learn the difference between chanting and pure music, and don’t let people make huge money off your attraction to spirituality. Playing music with friends in your house is better than going to the bhakti circus.

  • Gautami Devi May 8, 2016, 4:07 pm

    You hit it right on! Yes it takes $$$ to put on festivals but when $$$ concerns become paramount, “Bhakti” suffers. Everyone should be treated with kindness and respect not just those individuals deemed “influential” and “rock stars”. ??❤️

  • Katie Wise December 8, 2016, 11:27 pm

    This is a great article! Thank you! I had the pleasure of playing six different festivals last summer- and as an artist things like Kindness, and FOOD went a long way! Pay is also so appreciated. Just because we would do it for free (because of our love for it), doesn’t mean we should. Let’s make this a sustainable art form for all involved.