Montreal has gained a reputation for its festivals over the years, but not so much for its bhakti. Lea Longo is trying to change that.
The primary force behind the Montreal Yoga & Chant Fest, Longo has been working to build the city’s nascient kirtan community from the ground up for seven years, ever since she came home from India with kirtan fever and found no one to chant with in the city she called home. Last weekend, the bhakti community she helped birth came out in force to reap the rewards of her efforts for two days of chanting with more than a dozen bhakti bands from the City of Saints and beyond.
Build it and they will come.
Set in the historic chapel of the Jesuit-founded Concordia-Loyola University, the fest was a celebration of kirtan à les Québécois — more than 80 percent of the bands were local to the Montreal metro area.
The line-up ran the gamut from local bands that were on stage at a “big kirtan” for the first time (Anahatha Kirtan and MJ Ganesh, for example)…
…to a veritable legend in Canada’s bhakti scene (Patrick Bernard, who has released 24 CDs over the course of his devotional life).
There were bhaktas from Ottawa (Bhakti Connection, who finished their set with a “rebirthing” line while everyone sang “You Are Welcome”)…
…and from Halifax (Surya Chandra, a 4-piece band featuring exquisite Paraguayan harp by Maryz Thuot and esraj by John Coleman).
There were even a couple Americans (Eddy Nataraj and KC Solaris, who closed out the fest with a high-bhav set that was a nonstop rolling joyride from Ganesha to Krishna & Radhe). (Video below.)
And of course, there was Lea Longo, center-stage Saturday night, surrounded by a seven-piece band and an exuberant crowd that we swear shook the rafters of the old chapel with their high-energy ecstatic dancing.
See for yourself in this rollicking rendition of a chant to the Divine Mother. “Adishakti, Saraba Shakti, Pritam Bhavati, Kundalini Mata Shakti, Mata Shakti Namo Namo.”
If You Can’t Join ‘Em, Start ‘Em
Longo has been singing and performing all her life, but it took a trip to India for her to find her true voice. An accomplished recording artist who has won national singing awards in Canada and whose pop/jazz tunes have graced hit movies and television shows, she discovered mantra music on a yoga retreat in India in 2006. Like many, she hasn’t been the same since.
“I was really mesmerized,” she recalled recently in an interview with The Bhakti Beat. “I was transformed, I was excited, I was confused…I was all of the above. All I knew was whatever this mantra business was that I had learned, it was amazing, and I needed to do more of it. I had never felt that way.”
After searching in vain for kirtans in her home ‘hood, Longo decided to start her own. Her musical partner, guitarist Rad Crasto, signed on enthusiastically, and the two started holding kirtans once a month at a local kundalini yoga studio where Longo practiced. At first, she said, three or four people came to their kirtans, then 10 people, then other studios began to hear about it and invited them to play. She founded the Montreal Kirtan meet-up group a couple years ago; it now boasts more than 200 members. These days, the duo leads kirtans every other weekend across Montreal, regularly bringing out 20-40 people to chant the names.
“We just wanted to make it accessible to everyone, so that everybody can experience this ‘new’ sort of yoga in Montreal,” Longo said.
The chant festival evolved naturally as more people fell in love with kirtan, and more people started hosting and leading kirtans. “The vision was always to grow kirtan in Montreal,” Longo said. With the festival, she said, “People can get introduced to kirtan and naad yoga (the yoga of sound), and to all of these kirtan artists who have come out of the woodwork in the last few years.”
Longo partnered with Anne-Lisa Deforest, who helps coordinate Montreal’s annual Yoga Festival as well, and they were off. They lined up a few sponsors to help cover the costs, but were mostly using their own money to pull this together. The price was kept reasonably low — $99 for a two-day pass, with a half-price ticket offer available online right up to fest. A small marketplace of vendors included yoga clothing, jewelry, Reiki/Massage and the yummiest cookies and veggie burgers from Prem and Sahara of Anahatha.
Hypnotized by Hari
If there was a “headliner” at this fest, it would have to be Patrick Bernard. While that may not exactly be a household name, even among kirtan junkies, it’s a name to remember. His short set, accompanied solely by his musical partner Mahavirya and Alex Trifan on soft djembe, was simple, traditional call-and-response Krishna kirtan, ancient devotional melodies to Radhe and Krishna driven by the chords of the harmonium and vocal nectar of two men singing to Hari. It was hypnotic, in a way that took you deep inside.
“I like this word, ‘hypnotic,'” Bernard said pensively after his set when I described it that way to him. “It is good,” he said with a thick accent (graciously excusing my failed attempt to recall my high-school French), “because the goal is to boycott the mind and go beyond, to touch the spirit soul which is our real identity.”
‘The goal is to boycott the mind and…touch the spirit soul which is our real identity.” We like that.
But really, this festival wasn’t about “headliners.” It was about bringing together a community, about introducing new faces, to give people a chance to connect and “join forces,” as Longo put it. To provide a place where like-minded souls “can just be.”
And speaking of boycotting the mind…here’s how Eddy Nataraj and KC Solaris went about it.
See also: Say Bonjour to the ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands of the Montreal Chant Fest (Coming Soon!)
For more photos of the full line-up of bhakti bands at the Montreal, please see The Bhakti Beat’s Photo Journal on Facebook.
Subscribe to The Bhakti Beat YouTube channel for more videos from Montreal Chant Fest — being updated daily!Also see: www.montrealchantfest.com www.lealongo.com www.patrickbernard.com www.eddynataraj.com www.kcsolaris.com