Wait a minute, kirtan at Jazz Fest? THE Jazz Fest?? The one going on right now in New Orleans, featuring Elton John, the Who, Lady Gaga, Jimmy Cliff, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy and a long list of luminaries from a genre-blending spectrum of rock/jazz/blues/gospel and more?
Yep, that’s the one. You can add Sean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band to that lineup of musical legends.
So, what’s the big deal about kirtan at a mainstream music festival like Jazz Fest?
The Bhakti Beat asked Sean Johnson this in an interview shortly after the band’s set. He paused, contemplating the question, then offered this: “I feel like kirtan music gets put into a box by people who are not familiar with it. People who aren’t into yoga or meditation don’t even really give it a chance; there’s a prejudgement about what it is.”
Even kirtan artists, Johnson observed, have a hard time describing what they do in words that resonate with someone who doesn’t already relate to the bhakti world. Playing a mainstream music festival, he said, “is an opportunity to put mantra music right in front of a general audience, so they can bypass their own judgments about what it might be — to really be able to experience it in their bodies rather than judging it with their minds.”
“We in this kirtan subculture create these experiences and events where we can get together and be inspired by each other, but I think there’s value in the magic of what we share that can really be a gift to the wider culture,” he continued. “Mantras in and of themselves are really powerful, so if we can create experiences that bypass the boundaries that are put around certain cultural experiences, even certain kinds of art, it becomes an opportunity for the labels to become unimportant, to no longer separate us from each other.”
Any way you look at it, a kirtan band at the epic New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest is, well, epic. And this little bhakti band from NOLA has been invited back to Jazz Fest three times so far. We’re tempted to call them a regular.
Parmita Pushman, the founder of White Swan Records and herself a pioneer in bringing mantra music to the mainstream, had this to say about the Wild Lotus Band’s Jazz Fest participation: “Jazz Fest features the colors and creativity of New Orleans; artists like Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band are part of a vital new future for New Orleans. Kirtan music and yoga are bringing peace and music to people, but wherever it happens they also bring along their own musical influences and tastes which are seen in the expression of their song.”
The trio of Johnson (vocals/harmonium), Alvin Young (bass/guitar), and Gwendolyn Colman (vocals/percussion) has become somewhat of a legend in their own right, at least in the bhakti world. Their brand of funked-up, bluesy, soul-tingling mantra music is a favorite at chant festivals and yoga retreats, where they never fail to whip the crowds into a frenzy of ecstatic free-dance. But this band consistently delivers much more than rock-out dance mantra. They will take you deep, lift you up, and crack you open with soulful sprinklings of bhakti poetry and tear-jerker gospel classics like their signature set closer, Fly Away. Gets us every time.
Apparently we’re not alone. Even at Jazz Fest — a big, boisterous, outdoor, party-scene festival with a dozen stages plus parades, pow-wows and pavilions — the band moved people to tears, Johnson told us. Performing on the first day of the two-weekend Fest, the band had their biggest crowd yet in their three years at Jazz Fest, with lots of kirtan newbies plus a dedicated group of hard-core fans, friends and family, who held the response.
“Many people were crying at one point or another,” Johnson said of the band’s Friday afternoon set. “I don’t know how often that happens at a big music festival, so I was really grateful that even in that outdoor, larger-scale environment with a lot of people who were not familiar with kirtan, people had such an intimate emotional experience.”
With less than an hour to play, the NOLA native said it was challenging to find a way to make the experience as accessible and comfortable as possible to people new to kirtan. He told the crowd that the language of bhakti might be a little different than what you’re used to, but what happens in kirtan is really not that different from what happens in the gospel tent across the field or even at the main stage.
Connecting Through Music
“I don’t want people to think that kirtan is this strange esoteric form of music from another place and time,” he said. It’s just another way of connecting through music, he said. “The most exalted moments of a stadium rock concert are when everybody knows the song; there is this communion between the band and the crowd. The essence of what happens in that experience is the same thing that happens in kirtan.”
Based on the reports we heard, there was a whole lot of communion between band and crowd going on at Jazz Fest’s Lagniappe Stage during the Wild Lotus set. The band led just four songs in their 50-minute set, all from their brilliant 2014 CD, “Unity,” with a little intro to each to offer some context for the mantras. (You’ve got “Unity,” right? If not, get it here.)
They opened with the exotic, rollicking tribute to the Remover of Obstacles, “Ganesha’s Belly Dance,” then moved into the CD’s title song, a mash-up of original lyrics around the theme of oneness fused with Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu, the Hindu prayer of peace for all beings. Next, their powerful, primal Kali chant, “The Way of Love,” had the crowd leaping over hedges to dance in a grassy area near the stage in what Johnson called a “little bit of a Bhakti Fest moment…but with grass.”
Then, with the revelers securely in the palm of their hands, the trio knocked it out of the park with the soulful song of hope that they wrote for the city they love in the wake of the hurricane that nearly destroyed it. “I Will Rise Again” is a moving tribute to the band’s beloved NOLA rising from the floodwaters of Katrina. It gives us goosebumps, and we’re pretty far removed from the Big Easy…
We imagine there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd.
Jazz Fest photos courtesy of Bonnie Gustin Photography.
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