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You Want Shakti? Larisa Stow’s Got Shakti


The first time I experienced Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe was at Bhakti Fest 2010, and I pretty much spent the whole set in jaw-drop disbelief.  I know I wasn’t alone;  the mid-day crowd on hand — many of whom, it seemed, were also new to this band from Long Beach, Calif. — was riveted.  This was not your average kirtan.  It was edgy, urban, hip-hop-infused modern “mantra rock.”

I fell in love with the Tribe’s vibe, and have seen them live at two Bhakti Fests since — each one more powerful than the last.  When their latest CD, “Rock On, Sat Nam” (a work of conscious art) came out, I listened to it incessantly (and wrote about it).  I interviewed Larisa Stow about her music and her bhakti path, followed the Tribe’s news about shows around SoCal, and pined to road-trip with them to the Holi Festival in Utah, where they played before a crowd of 50,000 or so drenched in flourescent colors.

So I figured I knew what to expect from Larisa and the Tribe this time around.  I was wrong.

Benj Clarke on Bass

What transpired on the stage over the midnight hours of Night One at Shakti Fest 2012 was beyond expectation. (There’s a nice long taste of it in the video below.) I can’t quite even put my finger on what it was that made this Shakti-fied set stand out so. Maybe it was the late hour or the fact that we’d been “in the bhav” for 15 hours or so, but those who stuck around (most of the crowd) after the Mayapuris finished know what I’m talking about.  It was like the perfect storm of exquisite musicianship, connection between “performers” and “audience,” and straight-from-the-soul message of forgiveness, transformation and hope. Larisa Stow has this inimitable way of connecting at a heart level — there I said it — that just seemed to resonate deeply with the throng of bhaktas crowding the front stage.

Richard Hardy

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she is backed by four top-notch musicians, who are resonating right along on that heart-vibe with her.  This band is tight.  For “just” three guys and a drummer, they conjure incredibly rich melodies. Woodwinds wizard Richard Hardy (who also played with Marti Walker and C.C. White at Shakti Fest) performed his magic on the sax and the flute and…how many other instruments did he have in his bag of tricks?

Kimo Estores

Kimo Estores is masterful as the guitar hero, Benj Clarke lays down the funked-up bass grooves, and Paloma Estevez, the newcomer in the Tribe, rocks on drum kit.  Everyone sings response.

Center stage and weaving it all together is Shakti Sister Larisa, alternately playing the harmonium, dancing with Benj or Kimo, and belting out lead vocals.  But it’s more than her voice, with its incredible range; underneath it all is a warm, approachable authenticity to a depth that is surprisingly rare even in the “love-all, serve-all” world of sacred chant.

Before long she was sitting at the front of the stage, eye-to-eye with everyone, touching palms, connecting personally, physically, soulfully, with each one.  Later she declared from the stage midway through a soaring Radhe-Krishna mantra: “I just want to climb right down there with all of you!”  Then she did just that, leaving the spotlights behind to dance and chant with the throng in the shadows. It was a Larisa Lovefest!

The set electrified from the start: a HUGE Shakti Ma chant that woke everyone up and commanded attention. In a loving sort of way.  But that’s sort of the point with this music:  “Wake Up and Pay Attention.  LoveLoveLoveLoveLove.”  While that may be an oversimplification, it’s the message that, to us, pervades the multi-layered lyrics laced with mantra.

This ethic is on glorious display in the Tribe’s anthem-like “Peacemakers” song (video below), which gives us chills every time.  Do you feel it?

For more Shakti Tribe love, visit www.larisastow.com

"I just want to love you all."


 For more Shakti Fest coverage, see also:

Jai Uttal Captures the Essence of Bhakti Fest

Loco for Lokah & the Bhakti Dance

On-Stage Proposal a Bhakti Fest First

Bhakti Fest Seeds Planted at Woodstock in ’69



Five for the Ride: Car Kirtan (Use with Caution)


Who shall we take along on the ride today?

You know when you’ve got one of those seemingly endless drives ahead of you?  Four, five, six hours in the car with nothing to do but drive drive drive?  Well, silence may be golden, but throw in a couple bhakti-rockin’ CD’s and the miles will just flyyyy by.  Trust us.

Having just endured a 6-hour drive home from Cape Cod, we know this.  I was about to crawl out of my skin from sheer boredom when I discovered Om Spun (the latest release from Wynne Paris’ all-star band Groovananda) in a crevice of my car and popped it into the CD player.  Immediately I started bopping and singing along with the gospel-infused chants and multi-layered instrumentalism.  I was grooving to Groovananda and loving life.  And apparently, driving faster.

Suddenly, there were blue lights flashing in my rear-view.  Talk about a buzz-kill.

“Is there any particular reason you were speeding, Ma’am?” the baby-faced rookie officer asked me in that official, you’re-busted tone.  Me: “um, uh….”  I thought about taking out the CD and handing it to him, but didn’t know how that would go over.  Plus, I still had three hours to go — I needed that CD!

I’m thinking that there are a lot of kirtan CD’s that need to come with a warning label like this one from Krishna Das’s Chants of a Lifetime CD:

Caution: This CD features chants that render it inappropriate for use while driving or operating heavy machinery.

Warning label or not, here are a few of our favorites for car kirtan.  Please use with caution.

Five for the Ride

1. Om Spun, by Groovananda.  This is “raga rock kirtan,” brilliantly fusing world beat, jam-band, rock, jazz, kirtan, folk, Indian, trance and gospel. Whew!  Featuring Wynne Paris on vocals and sarod, Rick Allen on drums, JT John Thomas on organ and Doug Derryberry (Bruce Hornsby band) on mandalin, plus Mark Karan, Krishna Das, Badal Roy, Perry Robinson, Girish Cruden, Dave Stringer, Kim Waters (Rasa), Ramesh Kannan and many others. (2011) Get it here.

2. This IS Soul Kirtan, by C.C. White.  By now everyone’s got this on their playlist, right? C.C. White’s debut solo album is a sweet, rollicking joy ride of classic chants reinvented with a Southern Gospel and soul-shaking exuberance.  I’m in love with the reggae-style Hare Krishna maha mantra punctuated by a deep, thunderous — and alltogether too brief! — Krishna rap by Bob Wisdom.  Chills.  Every time.  Co-produced with Matt Pszonak, with Patrick Richey, Denise Kaufman, Cooper Madison, Steve Postell, Richard Hardy, Michael Jerome Moore, Jeff Young, Arjuna O’Neal, Vasu Dudakia, more special guests and the Soul Kirtan Choir. (2011) Listen & buy here

3. Thunder Love, by Jai Uttal.  Queen of Hearts, Jai’s reggae-kirtan CD released last fall, would easily fit the bill here too.  But Thunder Love, released in 2008, has occupied one of the slots on my car CD changer since I bought the disc.  Jai’s trademark heart-soaring vocals will make you forget you’re stuck in a car and take you right with him into the inner chambers of the heart.  Please, put it on cruise control before Bolo Ram (Track 2) comes on…Produced by Jai Uttal and Ben Leinbach for Nutone Records.  Get it here.

4. Love Holding Love, by Wah!  Of all the Wah! albums I love, I love this one the most.  (Of course, I haven’t heard Loops and Grooves yet, which is due out any day now.)  Maybe it’s the chill, almost trancey lounge feel, or the heart-pumping electronica beats, or the soft-rap riffs of love-centric lyrics that never fail to remind me that it’s all love baby, even if you’re stuck in the worst traffic this side of the 405.  It holds a near-permanent slot in the Baja’s player.  A two-year collaboration with Paul Hollman, with guest artists that include Elijah Tucker (drums), Katisse Buckingham (vocal percussion, flute), Ryan Pate (drums), produced for Nutone. (2008)  Get it here.

5. Live Your Love, by SRI Kirtan.  Make sure you’re buckled in when this one cues up; it sweeps you up in Track 1 with a hard-rocking Govinda/Hare Krishna medley and carries you on that current of bhakti love right through the duo’s signature Rock the Bhakti and on to the final track, a joyous tribute to the sacred Ganges River.  SRI Kirtan is the fusion of Sruti Ram and Ishwari, whose collective musical background spans punk, opera, Gregorian chant, electronica and doo-wop.  It shows.  With Steve Gorn on bansuri flute, Visvamhar from the Mayapuris on mrdanga, the sacred-rap genius of SriKala Kerel Roach , Charlie “Govind” Burnham on violin, Noah Hoffeld on cello, Kyle Esposito on bass and electiric guitar, and Curtis Bahn on dilruba and sitar. Co-produced with Julie Last for Mantrology/Ishwari Music. (2010)  More info here.

That’s our Five for the Ride today.  What’s playing in your car?

(Oh, and the baby-faced rookie cop?  He let me off with a warning.  Maybe it was the music…)


The majestic Meditation Hall at Garrison Institute

Unlike a Krishna Das kirtan, where you pretty much know what you’re going to get, a workshop with KD can be wholly unpredictable.  Case in point: last weekend’s Heart of Devotion Retreat at the awe-inspiring Garrison Institute, a former Franciscan monastery perched on the banks of the Hudson River across from West Point, N.Y.  The retreat included two afternoon workshops along with public kirtans Friday and Saturday night, daily chanting of the Hanuman Chalisa with Nina Rao, Shyama Chapin and Ambika Cooper, and morning yoga with Jeremy and Lily Frindel of the Brooklyn Yoga School.

The kirtans were classic KD (well, classic in the current post-Heart As Wide as the World era).  It’s the music you know and love, the songs that are playing on your car stereo, the ones playing at the yoga studio.  But the chantmaster himself is right there in front of you (and several hundred others), pumping the harmonium and singing his heart out for his beloved Maharaji.  And whatever that place is that he goes when he’s chanting, KD takes you right along with him.  Repeating the names has a way of “polishing the dust off the mirrors of our hearts,” he has said often.

Garrison retreat inspires a new KD T-shirt. (Photo provided by “Jenni;”original shot by Dr. Ellen Ruth Topol; as shared by Krishna Das on Facebook)

‘I Survived a KD Workshop’

It was the mid-day workshops where the polishing got a little intense.  So intense that KD opened the Saturday night kirtan by joking: “After this afternoon, we’re having a T-shirt made that says I SURVIVED A KD WORKSHOP.”  (It took about a day for the photoshopped version of the imagined T-shirt to reach Facebook; the organic cotton version can’t be far behind, we predict.)

What was so grueling about a couple hours chanting and chatting with KD and a couple hundred of your bhakti family?  No, folks, it was not the chanting.

‘So, What’s Up?’

If you’ve been to any of these day workshops or retreats with KD, you know the drill:  there’s going to be some singing and there’s going to be some talking.  The ratio of one to the other, you never know.  You have to hand it to KD; he essentially opens up the floor to anybody who wants to ask anything.  “So, what’s up?” he said as he invited questions Saturday afternoon in the grand meditation hall at Garrison, the same soaring sanctuary in which the Capuchin friars used to pray.

Think about it:  it’s your chance to ask this icon of Western kirtan, this beloved devotee of Neem Karoli Baba, this bhakti rock star, anything you want.  What would it be?

Why Is Your Apparel Red?

The very first question: “Why do you always wear red?”  A lot of people must wonder about this, because it came up not once, but twice in the first Q&A (the second asker declared herself “Busted!” for coming in late when KD replied perplexedly “Were you here earlier?”) Note to conference participants: never ask a question unless you’ve heard every question already asked. D’oh!  But I digress.

The answer? Well, it’s a long story.  Here’s KD’s condensed version for now: “Maharaji said, ‘Wear red.  Even your underwear.’  It’s Hanuman’s color.”

After the “red question”, KD was asked if he would relate his experience at Aushwitz with Bernie Glassman’s Bearing Witness retreat.  He exhaled loudly, and begged off.  “I will, but not now.”

KD on Relationships: ‘Love Is Not Between People; It’s In Us”

Next, he was asked what constitutes a “spiritual marriage?”  “It’s so horrible everything else looks good?”  KD replied playfully.  Then he said he had no idea what that meant. “That’s not the world I live in.  What’s not spiritual?”  This is what I love about KD, this wry, self-deprecating humor and irreverent wit that just lays it on the line.  He makes no claim to be an expert on anything, least of all relationships, which he has essentially said, more than once, that he sucks at.  Still, he offered this:  “We can learn a lot from relationships.  They can teach us a lot about ourselves, because they show us what we are not.  But relationships never last!…Love is not between people, it’s in us.”  Then, more wry wit: “I’m kind of cranky today, so romance might not be the best topic.”  (Several hands went down.)

Later, he came back to the love question.  “Maharaji didn’t give love.  He was love.  You were loved unconditionally.   That’s what we’re all looking for.  But who can give that?  I can’t.  Only someone who is love can let you into that room.  That room is your heart.”  He said Westerners have a hard time believing this kind of love exists, but  that it “already lives in us.  It’s who we really are.  We just don’t quite know how to find it.”

Pulling Back the Proverbial Curtain

Someone asked what sustains him.  He paused, finding the words.  “It’s not hope, but some kind of wisdom that, in spite of myself, everything’s going to be okay.”  He attributed this to Maharaji, who “pulled back the curtains” one day and opened KD’s eyes to “what is.”

“Within each of us there is this sense of well-being,” he said.  “This is who we really are, but mostly we’re cut off from that.  We need to look at whatever ‘stuff’ is cutting us off from that — whether it’s greed, selfishness, attachments, whatever.”  That’s where spiritual practices like chanting, meditation or yoga come in, KD said.  “These practices help us let go of our stuff, to gather our longings and focus them on what is most important to us, whatever that is.  The result is that we actually start to focus on what’s important, which is finding that missing piece of ourselves that we’re looking for.”

‘Bliss is Our True Nature’

Just when things were getting deep, someone asked a deep question — about the relationship between Sita and Ram in the classic Hindu story, the Ramayana, and who Ram really is.  KD’s answer? “I don’t even know who I am, how do I know what Ram is?”  Then he dropped a bomb that made my jaw drop — and I don’t think I was the only one.  He said: “Look, folks, let’s get real.  I know one thing:  Maharaji is love.  That’s my whole life in a nutshell.  All this other stuff, I don’t have a f***ing clue.”  Thanks KD, for keeping it real.

When everyone stopped laughing, he paraphrased Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s idea that what most people call bliss is really just a little less pain.  “Bliss is our true nature,” he said.  “Singing extracts me from all that stuff that has me stuck, and I come back to that place of love. That’s all I know.”

The moment that prompted the “I Survived” T-shirt came later, an exchange between KD and a participant he knew, quite well apparently.  Well enough to call it like he saw it.  There was sobbing involved.  I felt a little like an awkward observer to a spiritual counseling session.

Chanting Brings Stuff Up

But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?  We’re all in this room together, chanting and hashing out our individual “stuff.”  And stuff is coming up.  Chanting brings stuff up.  If you’ve ever lost it in the middle of a kirtan, silently weeping or sobbing and heaving, you know what I’m talking about.  And if you haven’t, keep dusting.

“Every time you sit down to practice,” KD said, “you’re breaking that cycle of attachment, so you can let all that stuff go.  The moment you let it go, you feel better.  But we have big problems letting go.  These practices are training us to work with stuff in a new way, to have a vote in the way we deal with things that come up in life.”

Okay, I’m in.  Now can we just chant?  Then we did, blessedly.

After the chant, just before the workshop ended, he left us with this:

“So much pressure builds up in our daily lives to be someone we are not.  That’s why I love these weekends, because everyone gets to see that everyone else is just as weird as they are.  It’s okay to be just who we are.  It’s crazy to go through life expecting the bottom to drop out at any moment because someone is going to find out who you really are.  We have all this stuff that we are trying to hide from others, from the world.  What are we hiding from?”

And then there was silence.  Looooong pin-drop silence.

End of Workshop #1.  I think we survived.








Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe Rock On


It’s fitting that the new album from Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe, Rock On Sat Nam, was released on the Fourth of July, because these tracks are explosive! Rock On Sat Nam blasts you off on a rocket ride of Stow’s undulating, straight-from-the-heart vocal fireworks and sends you soaring on a current of hard-driving guitar riffs and percussive alchemy riddled with brilliant interludes from that wizard of woodwinds, Richard Hardy. It’s a seamless fusion of edgy, urban rock and sacred mantra-with-a-message. It will very likely have you dancing like a wild man and contemplating the nature of your true existence. Simultaneously.

Mantra Rock With a Message
Perhaps this CD should come with a warning, something like: “Caution: This is NOT your average kirtan.” The band doesn’t call this kirtan, in fact, describing it instead as mantra rock. You won’t find a mantra rock category on iTunes, but the moniker is not new. In 1960’s San Francisco, there was a famous counterculture event led by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada himself (the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, popularly known as the Hare Krishnas) that featured hot rock acts of the day, including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane.

Like we imagine the “Mantra-Rock Dance” did in Haight-Ashbury in 1967, Rock On Sat Nam melds full-on jam-band rock music with sacred Sanskrit chant and wraps it all up in an underlying message of love and self-realization. But it’s not all sweet and serene. There is a hard-edged urgency to this wake-up call, and the Tribe kinda gets in your face about it. Like, WTF are you waiting for?

It works. Oh how it works.

Whatcha Gonna Do With All That Love?
Rock On Sat Nam’s lead-off track, “Whatcha Gonna Do,” sets the tone of the album and lets you know straight out this music has a message. It begins with Stow’s deep gutteral vocals invoking Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, in a classic Sanskrit chant. But wait. Just as you think you’re into a sweet ode to the elephant-headed diety, Stow shakes you up with an edgy urban rap punctuated by a hard-rockin’ refrain that emphatically declares: “There’s more love here than we know what to do with.”

“Whatcha gonna do with all that love?,” Stow asks over and over…sweetly at first, then more ardently, until she is fairly screaming the question at you. The message is personal, impassioned, a call to action that’s almost desperate in its urgency: “In every single one of us, there is a seed of genius. But it takes love, and it takes intention. And the time…is…NOWWWWW.”

You can download this song free at www.larisastow.com, and hear it in this cool video from the Shakti Tribe.

Wow! And that’s just the first song. (There are eight full-length tracks and three “bridges.”)

Bhaktified Ballads & Rap ‘N’ Roll
Track 3, “Kalikayei” takes a traditional Sanskrit mantra to Kali, the fierce femme ego-slashing diety, and blows it out to ecstatic heights. “You See Me” feels like a love song to the divine, a lilting ballad of original lyrics that melt into Om Namah Shivaya and then Hallelujah over and over again, taking you higher and deeper with each repetition. If this doesn’t give you goosebumps, see a doctor.

The title track returns resoundingly to mantra rap ‘n’ roll, reverberating with clever quotables like “Redefine, refine your state of mind/With an attitude of gratitude shift the paradigm/Rock On. Sat Nam” and “We’ll see it, we’ll be it, when we believe it/There’s a gift in this moment if you choose to receive it.” Get the message?

Tracks 7 (“Saraswati”) and 9 (“Om Namah Shivaya”) go back to bhakti with age-old mantras spun Shakti-Tribe style. Which is to say, rockin! The latter culminates in a Gospel-esque chorus of vocal harmonies evocative of an old-fashioned Christian revival or a Baptist service in the Deep South. If this doesn’t get you dancing, see a doctor.

And then there’s the cool-down, in true bhakti fashion. “Guru Life” has a country-ballad feel to it, for some reason taking me right back to a Nashville siren my mother played on LP’s back in the day. Stow’s voice is softer here, the song almost a lullaby that weaves her own divine-love lyrics (“I’m here to love you…”) with the Tibetan Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. It flows seamlessly into the final track, a gentle, haunting 108-times repetition — japa style — of the same mantra. Gentle breath (or is that the wind?) is the last thing you hear as you bask in the vibration of this powerful ancient invocation to compassion.

Larisa Stow shaking things up at Bhakti Fest 2010.

Pushing Boundaries
Even in an era when the boundaries of kirtan are being pushed wide open — there’s soul kirtan, reggae kirtan, gospel kirtan, and so on — Rock On Sat Nam blows the top right off any preconception one might have about sacred music.

In a recent interview with Stow, we asked if she ever felt “push-back” from more traditional kirtan artists who question her unconventional, edgy style. “Oh my God YES!” was her emphatic reply. “There’s a perception of what a kirtan wallah is,” she says carefully, pointing out that when she first encountered kirtan a decade ago (at a smallish Krishna Das concert), “the dancing had not begun; it was much more sedate back then.”

“My bhakti has a very different expression,” she said. “Any time you have people who are really pushing it, there can be huge push-back. But that’s what pushes people deeper into devotion.”

She embraces the role of paradigm pusher, pointing to Amma and Gandhi as inspirations. “I’m doing what I need to do to be honest and authentic with myself. By doing so, I hope that I can help give permission to the person next to me, who may have a different expression, to be uniquely who he or she is.”

“I want to create a bridge so more people are exposed to Sanskrit mantra, which is so powerful, in a way that feels safe and inviting.” Rock On Sat Nam, she said, “is probably the biggest bridge we’ve ever created.”

In addition to Larisa Stow, the band includes Kimo Estores on lead guitar, Benj Clarke on bass and loops, and Richard Hardy (Carole King, Dave Matthews Band, Lyle Lovett, David Lindley) on woodwinds. Occasionally sitting in are “good friends and honorary tribe members” Walfredo Reyes Jr. (Santana, Steve Winwood, Traffic), and Victor Bisetti (Los Lobos, Elvis Costello).

Until July 18 you can NAME YOUR OWN PRICE to own Rock On Sat Nam! See www.larisastow.com for details.

And get ready for fireworks.