Can we just say how much we love livestream? We envision a day when every festival and concert, kirtans included, is streamed free to living rooms and laptops everywhere. With perfect audio. And a strong, steady feed. And — since we’re dreaming — professional camerawork that zooms in on the action. While we’re at it, could we get a caption here and there identifying featured musicians? (Who was that on violin with Karnamrita Dasi anyway?)
Until that vision is reality, we’ll take what we can get. What we got yesterday from Shakti Fest — thanks to New World Kirtan and Kitzie Stern for persevering with the technicalities — was two full sets of the bhav in Joshua Tree, Dasi and Jai Uttal, plus smatterings of choppy, wildly fluctuating audio from Saul David Raye, Deepak Ramapriyan, and David Newman’s sets earlier in the day. By the time Dasi took the stage, it seemed like the bugs had been worked out on the stream AND video had been added. Not only did it sound better, but we had a back-row view of the action. We’re glad we stuck it out and kept listening…
This is, of course, the first Bhakti Fest without Shyamdas, the beloved “elder statesman of bhakti,” as emcee Shiva Baum described him last night. Normally, Shyamdas would be steering the ship of bhav here, both behind the scenes and stage center, particularly during the legendary final set, where all the wallahs and musicans crowd the stage for a final Hare Krishna mahamantra. (Check out the action from last fall’s finale in the video below.) While he may not have been there in body, it was clear from listening in on the goings-on in the high desert that Shyamdas was on everyone’s minds, and in everyone’s hearts.
In every set that we caught, the artist paused to say a few words, share a personal remembrance, or dedicate a song to Shyamdas. Jai Uttal devoted a Sri Radhe chant in what he called “a sad melody” to Shyam; Dasi closed her set with one of Shyam-ji’s favorites, The Song of Sweetness, which glorifies the nectar of Krishna’s form and love. Govindas, one half of Govindas and Radhe and the founder of the Bhakti Yoga Shala, Santa Monica’s temple to kirtan, spoke at length between sets about his time “sitting at the feet” of Shyamdas.
The master of Hari Katha was eternally present.
Just before Uttal played, Bhakti Fest founder Sridhar Silberfein came onstage to pay tribute to his dear friend in words and a three-minute slide show with an audio track of Shyamdas being interviewed in India just weeks before his death. Putting it together, sifting through images and recordings of Shyamdas, “has been tearing me up emotionally every single day,” Silberfein said. He told of the Bhakti Yatra group tour to India in January, for which Shyamdas was a very large part of the itinerary but never made it to the entourage waiting for him.
You may have heard the story before…but Silberfein added some new details. He said Shyamdas called him just before they were slated to rendezvous saying he was suffering a breakout of shingles and wouldn’t be able to join the group of 25 or so Westerners who had traveled to India fully expecting a Shyamdas-led tour of Vrindavan, the holy city in India that Shyam so loved (and was practically the town’s adopted mayor , from what we’ve heard). Instead, Shyamdas stayed in Goa to rest and recuperate; the motorcycle accident that ended his life happened a few days later.
The audio on the slide show dropped out from the livestream feed so it was difficult to catch, but Shyamdas was telling a funny story involving Uttal and Krishna Das, something to do with Uttal’s assertion that KD was too “masculine to be a Gopi.” (Who can fill us in on the details?) Whatever it was that was lost in cyberspace, it was enough to elicit lots of guffaws from the audience, as well as a good-natured comment from Uttal, who joked that Shyamdas was “hounding me even from the grave.”
Mohan Baba, Shyamdas’s friend of 40 years and one of the close satsang who was with him the night he passed, told of how Shyamdas — in his final hours of life after the accident — was “totally focused inward.”
“He didn’t say a word and was just sitting there calmly, in an intense devotional space,” Mohan said.
One of the things he loved about Shyamdas, Mohan said, was that “he was just a regular guy. He was not a swami, not a renunciate. He lived a householder’s life, and was totally fixated on the divine lila.” Even though he came from a wealthy Connecticut family, “he turned his back on all that, choosing to live very simply.”
“There’s a big lesson for all of us there,” Mohan said, “to live life as fully as you can, every day.”
Just when you thought you might make it through this tearjerker tribute without breaking down, Shiva Baum broke down, his voice cracking as he introduced Jai Uttal’s set.
“Shyamdas is irreplaceable, and he will be with us always,” Baum said before turning it over to Uttal “His love blankets this entire festival.”
Here’s the video from last fall’s Bhakti Fest, with Shyamdas steering the bhav in the festival-closing raucous, windblown, stage-lights-about-to-topple all-wallah finale. Through it all, Shyamdas just kept singing to Krishna.