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Ram Dass, beaming from Maui

We often get asked: “What are the can’t-miss chant events of the year?”  It’s a loaded question, for sure, since everyone has their own idea about what is “can’t-miss.”  Including us.  So we’re sharing our picks for “The Big 5” chant events that are worth getting to, no matter where you’re coming from.  Here’s part 1; stay tuned to this space for the rest (subscribe here).  And tell us what your top picks are!

Omega’s Ecstatic Chant is the original.  Now moving into its second decade as the annual destination for hard-core chantaholics, its roots can be traced back to Ram Dass’s annual retreats at the Rhinebeck, N.Y. campus in the ’80’s. 

Omega Co-Founder Stephan Rechtschaffen told us that, in those days, Ram Dass would invite Krishna Das or Jai Uttal to come and chant with the gathering as evening entertainment, and it became so popular that chanting became a central aspect of the weekend. When Ram Dass could no longer attend due to his health, the chanting continued.  These days, Ram Dass beams in from Maui through the magic of interactive video, delivering his wisdom, humor and reflections of Neem Karoli Baba from a large screen.

What’s So Special About Omega? 

Radhanath Swami (ctr) with Shyamdas and Deva Premal

 Omega is different from everything else on The Big 5 list because it is chant and only chant.  It’s also the only one that is not a “festival” per se — more like a “retreat.”  Or, in Omega parlance,  a weekend workshop (The Yoga of Voice).  The program is chanting.  That’s it.  No simultaneous yoga classes across campus.  No lectures or experiential workshops to compete for your time.  Just chant, chant and chant some more. 


On the second day, there is an extraordinary all-night session that, if you are game, is pretty much guaranteed to take you so deep into the bhav that you just might, as Swami Satchidananda said, “forget everything.”  Participants fairly camp out in the Main Hall, variously dancing furiously or quietly meditating, dozing or chatting in between sets… and before you know it, dawn is rising, right in tune with the lilting flute-play of Manose and Steve Gorn.

But what makes Omega stand out for us are those completely unpredictable moments that are pure gold for the soul — like Radhanath Swami wailing on the harmonica with Deva Premal and Miten.  Or Donna De Lory joining C.C. White to sing Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.  Or this little gem from Shyamdas, who never fails to liven things up with his stories and shenanigans:

‘The Super Bowl of Chant’

Miten, with Omega Co-Founder Stephan Rechtschaffen

Jai Uttal once famously called Omega Chant “the Super Bowl of chant fests,” maybe because only a handful of artists make it to the line-up and the competition to be on the schedule is intense.  (Each artist typically plays at least two full sets over the course of the weekend, and many play a third time at the Labor Day bonus session.)  Rechtschaffen, who makes the line-up decisions, says he is inundated with artists’ CDs and promo tapes and is always on the look-out for bands with a “unique” sound, but knows that bringing in someone “new” means someone else gets bumped, even if they’ve been on the Omega line-up for years. 

C.C. White was at fall Chant for the first time last year, and Dave Stringer returned after a few years’ absence.  Snatam Kaur and Wah!, both long-time Omega regulars, were noticeably absent last fall, as was David Newman (Wah! played at Omega’s smaller Spring Chant in May; Newman and Kaur both led workshop at the retreat center this summer).  Rechtschaffen openly lamented the absence of each of these favorites at fall Chant.   

The 2012 Line-Up 

KD and Arjun Bruggeman

Krishna Das, Shyamdas, Jai Uttal (with Daniel Paul) are constants on the Omega schedule.  They have been leading the Omega Chant pack since the early days and it’s hard to imagine Chant Weekend without all of them.  They can usually be counted on to be stage center during the famous closing session, when all the wallahs and musicians join together on stage for a final free-for-all.   Typically, you can find Shyamdas directing the action, Jai Uttal playfully rebelling, and Krishna Das playfully grumpy at having to be in the spotlight at such an “early” hour (it’s only 11:30 a.m. or so, after all). 

The ever-popular Deva Premal and Miten and Sikh songstress Snatam Kaur round out the top-bill headliners at this year’s Chant.

Vishal Vaid astounds

Vishal Vaid, who has trained in traditional ghazal (an ancient form of poetry in song that translates to “conversation with the divine”), astounds audiences every year (watch this for example) and seems to have a pretty solid position on the Omega roster.  The Mayapuris, the Florida-based band of “Krishna Kids” who have leaped — literally — into the international kirtan scene are back for a third year, and if previous years’ pattern holds true, will join just about everyone else’s bands as well.  

C.C. White

C.C. White is back for her second year, having solidified her return with two crowd-rousing sets last fall showcasing songs from her debut solo CD, This IS Soul Kirtan, which was “pre-released” at Omega.  Gaura Vani and bansuri flute virtuosos Manose and Steve Gorn complete the bill of musicians.  Radhanath Swami, who caused all sorts of excitement last fall when he joined Deva Premal and Miten on stage for an impromptu (and seriously wailin’) harmonica solo, will also be on hand.  We hope he brings his harmonica.

The Deets

When:  Aug. 31-Sept. 3, with a special 10-Hour Labor Day session on Sept. 3.  (If you still haven’t had enough, Krishna Das keeps the bhav flowing with a separate workshop on Tuesday, Sept. 4.)


Radhanath Swami & Donna De Lory

Where:  Omega Institute is located in Rhinebeck, NY, smack in the middle of the “Bhajan Belt,” the upstate New York region known for a confluence of kirtan.  It’s about 90 miles north of NYC and roughly the same distance from Albany.  There’s an Amtrak station nearby and a commuter train to NYC.

How Much:   This is the only bug in the ointment.  Tuition alone for Ecstatic Chant is $395.  The Labor Day session is $125, or $75 if you’re doing the weekend retreat also.  Accomodations are additional, and on-site cabins or dorms tend to be, shall we say, “rustic” (but pleasant enough).  See http://eomega.org/workshops/ecstatic-chant for details.

What Else? Rhinebeck is a quaint and boho-chic Hudson Valley town with lots of restaurants, shopping and an indie movie house.  But you may never want to leave the Omega campus, a rolling oasis with a small lake where you can kayak, hiking paths, great vegetarian meals, a wellness spa with all manner of body-work and subtle-energy treatments available, a soothing sanctuary at the top of the hill, and the charged energy of 30 years as a destination for spiritual masters and seekers of all stripes. 

So, what do you say?  Will you be going to Ecstatic Chant this year?  Why or why not?




Bhakti Fest Seeds Planted at Woodstock in ’69


Bhakti Fest founder Sridhar Silberfein vividly recalls standing on the stage at Woodstock next to Swami Satchidananda before half a million or so flower children in August 1969.

Barely 19 at the time, but deeply involved in chanting and yoga, he had been charged with bringing “an element of spirituality” to the festival by Woodstock producers Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld .  Silberfein immediately turned to his guru Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga, and they flew together by helicopter to Yasgur’s farm to deliver the opening invocation that set the festival — and the “Woodstock generation” — in motion.  Swami famously called music ”the celestial sound that controls the whole universe” and led the crowd in chanting Om Shanti.

“At that moment, while I was standing there looking out at that sea of people, the seed for Bhakti Fest was planted,” he told The Bhakti Beat.  In 2008, 40 years later, the vision of a Woodstock-esque gathering completely devoted to kirtan and yoga came back to Silberfein, and he set forth to nurture the seed into life.  He likes to think of Bhakti Fest as a “spiritual Woodstock” — minus the drugs, sex and alcohol — a place for people to go and immerse themselves in the bhav for three or four days straight and “dive deeper into the self.”

Shakti Fest Dives Deep Into Ma

This weekend the fruits of Silberfein’s labor are ripening into Shakti Fest, the first of three big gatherings this year under the Bhakti Fest umbrella.  Shakti Fest, billed as a “more intimate” version of the 24-hours-a-day-for-3-days-straight bhakti blow-out that happens in September, is built around the theme of, well, shakti…a celebration of the divine mother. (It falls on Mother’s Day weekend, after all, and what self-respecting bhakta would pass up that kind of chance to get everyone singing ecstatic Jai Ma chants for hours on end?)

So, who’s chanting at Shakti Fest?  Who’s not chanting would be an easier answer!  Bhakti Fest’s spring fling is sort of a little sister to September in the same way that Omega’s Spring Chant is a little sister to Ecstatic Chant weekend in the fall.  As such, it lacks the really big names that headline the September Fest (like Krishna Das, Deva Premal, Dave Stringer).  But, seriously, with a line-up like this, who’s going to feel like they’re missing something?

The Line-Up for Shakti Fest. What's not to love?


If you can’t be in the bhav at Joshua Tree this weekend, you can still follow the flow by staying tuned to The Bhakti Beat’s ongoing coverage on Facebook, Twitter, and right where you are now.  We’ll be posting updates daily, talking with artists and producers, and posting more from our earlier interview with Sridhar.  Get the bhav, wherever you are!



Where’s the Bhav? Omega Spring Chant!


The spring chant-fest season has officially arrived, and the bhav starts flowing Friday night 5/3 with Spring Ecstatic Chant at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y.  This weekend’s chant retreat, now in its fifth year, is the little sister to Omega’s epic Ecstatic Chant weekend over Labor Day, a don’t-miss destination for chantaholics for more than a decade.

Spring Chant headliner Jai Uttal has had to bow out of this weekend’s festivities due to an ongoing battle with pneumonia — and the whole bhakti community is praying for his complete, speedy recovery.  Even without Jai, the line-up shines:  Shyamdas, Wah!, Donna DeLory, SRI Kirtan, Gaura Vani, and — just announced and at Omega Chant for the first time ever — Masood Ali Khan, who will be joined by tabla virtuoso Daniel Paul and multi-instrumentalist phenom Sheela Bringi.

Ali Khan and Bringi are two rising stars in the sacred music scene, and their addition to the Spring Chant line-up cements their reputations as world-class artists in the “yoga music” genre.  Ali Khan’s second album, “The Yoga Sessions: Hang With Angels,” released last September, features his percussive magic on the hang drum (pronounced “hung”) in collaboration with a star-studded list of world musicians that include bansuri flute master Steve Gorn, guitarist Ray Ippolito and vocal harmonies by the likes of Visvambhar Seth of the Mayapuris, Kamaniya Devi of Prema Hara, and West Coast yogi-wallah Suzanne Sterling.  For a little taste of the magic that can be expected during Ali Khan’s set Friday night, check out this video:

For those who have never experienced a chant retreat Omega-style, put it on your bucket list!  There’s something about Omega that sets the Hudson Valley center’s famous chant weekends apart from the rest.  Maybe it’s the fact that there is nothing to do but chant, chant, chant and chant some more — there are no competing yoga classes or workshops to entice you away from the calling of the names.  Or maybe it’s the fact that the audience tends to be “hard-core” chanters — everyone knows the words and they’re not afraid to sing them out, creating a resounding response chorus that you won’t hear many other places.  Or maybe it’s just simply the magic of the Omega campus, a former Jewish camp at the foot of the Catskill Mountains converted to a high-end holistic wellness retreat center,  where countless thousands of seekers have gone in search of enlightenment (or at least to get a little closer to it).

Whatever it is, there’s nothing quite like it.  And while the younger and less-likely-to-be-sold-out Spring Chant doesn’t have the big headliners that Fall Chant has — including Krishna Das, Deva Premal & Miten, and Snatam Kaur —  it remains a perennial highlight on our short list of must-do kirtan events.

Shyamdas will be there of course — he told The Bhakti Beat at last year’s Spring Chant that he has been there every year and wouldn’t miss it for the world.  The Sanskrit scholar and wallah extraordinare’s inimitable style of Hari Katha — chanting intermingled with stories and teachings from Hindu scriptures — will be on display throughout the weekend, and he will lead the closing session on Sunday.  That session has always been a highlight for us, as the whole kit and kaboodle of wallahs join together on stage for a last rousing round of Hari Bols (check out the video below for a taste of the fun from last year).

SRI Kirtan, the divine duo of Ishwari and Sruti Ram, will be joining Spring Chant for the third year straight, and we’re hoping they will be permanently on the line-up.  Because they rock the bhakti, baby.  They never fail to deliver a set that is pure heart-stirring joy and exploding with devotion, calling upon their diverse musical backgrounds (ranging from Gregorian Chant to punk rock!) to bring down the house.  Or more accurately, bring UP the house?

Spring Chant this year also sees the return of Wah!, Gaura Vani and Donna DeLory — each world-class chant wallahs in their own right who have become Omega mainstays.  Yes, Jai Uttal will be missed — it’s hard to imagine Omega Chant without him.

Nothing left to do but chant, chant, chant…


Get the Bhav: ChantLanta (March 9-10, Atlanta)


This is the first of a new series, “Get the Bhav,” which covers kirtan festivals and retreats.  Please contact bpatoine@aol.com with information about upcoming events.

ChantLanta. Where the Bhav Is

Move over “HotLanta.”  After this weekend, the Big Peach, the City of Peace and of Trees may well have a brand new nickname: ChantLanta.

Now in its third year and bigger than ever, ChantLanta marries three big artists — WAH!, DAVID NEWMAN & MIRA, and SEAN JOHNSON & THE WILD LOTUS BAND — with EIGHT regional bhakti bands for two rockin’ days of call-and-response chanting plus yoga, sound and movement workshops throughout the day Saturday.

The music starts Friday night with three great local bands, BHAKTI MESSENGER, RAHASYA, and DHVANI, all for free.  These three alone would be enough to get us to ChantLanta, even if they may be new names to many.  BHAKTI MESSENGER, formed in 2009 by IAN BOCCIO, PHIL McWILLIAMS, BRIHASPATI and AMANDA FEINSTEIN, are Wallahs to Watch: they have opened for WAH! and SHYAMDAS, have played with other “big names” in kirtan, and have been invited to play at Bhakti Fest in September.  Check out their music and new CD, “Now,” and hear for yourself why they are on the rise.

RAHASYA, based in Athens, Ga., is another band to remember — and hear.  Comprised of SURDAS and VAJRA YOGINI plus keyboardist GERSHON, the group weaves Sanskrit mantras and Hebrew chants infused with southern gospel improv and heart-opening poeticism.  They have been touring throughout the Southeast in celebration of their second CD, “Covered in Song,” which released just last month.

All day Saturday 3/10, bhakti love flows from five more local bands:  FLYING MYSTICS, WOVEN TONGUES, KIRTAN BANDITS, SUNMOON PIE, and CHAITANYA KIRTAN.  In addition to nonstop chanting, workshops throughout the day cover topics such as Sufi meditation, Five Rhythms Dance, mantra chanting, and breathwork.  By the time Saturday night rolls around for the “big acts,” the energy at the Druid Hills Baptist Church, where ChantLanta unfolds, is likely be higher than…Sunday service at a Southern Baptist church??  The Saturday night line-up is the only part of the weekend that costs anything, and at $50 for three top performers, we think it’s a bargain.  UPDATE:  ChantLanta has graciously extended the discount ticket price of $35 to ALL until the day of the event, thanks to our article! 

Putting HotLanta on the Chant Map

Birthing credit for ChantLanta goes to BHAKTI MESSENGER, whose co-founder Ian Boccio said in an email that the band “threw together” the first fest in March 2010 “as a way to increase awareness of kirtan and bhakti practices” and build a kirtan community in greater Atlanta and beyond.  The strategy seems to be working:  Ian says attendance at BHAKTI MESSENGER’s kirtans has “exploded,” new bands (including DHVANI) have formed, other bands (like RAHASYA) now play regularly in Atlanta, and the city is becoming a destination for touring national artists.  “2012 looks to be a banner year for us, with WADE IMRE MORISSETTE, BHAGAVAN DAS, SHYAMDAS, and GIRISH all visiting our city in the first several months,” Ian said.

Omega Institute’s Ecstatic Chant weekends inspired him, Ian says.  “That was the first time I got the idea of what it would be like to do kirtan for days on end.”  He also found inspiration in the “Chant, Chai and Charity” events organized in Philadelphia by Steve Groff (Mira Newman’s father), and has used that as a model.  Last year’s ChantLanta festival raised $6,000 for charity, even without charging attendees a penny!  (The money came through sponsorships.)  This year, the organizers are hoping for 1,000 attendees, and proceeds benefit two local charities: 50 Cents Period and AiJalon.

Ian Boccio (Photo from ChantLanta)

These bhaktas have big plans for ChantLanta, hoping to make it “the largest and most visible kirtan event in the South.”  (They are not without competition: Sarasota, Fla.’s Rock the Bhakti weekend in January brought in SHANTALA and WAH! to join local groups PALMS TOGETHER and others, and in Houston, the Texas Yoga Conference last month hosted SEAN JOHNSON & THE WILD LOTUS BAND, DAVID NEWMAN & MIRA, SUZANNE STERLING, THE DESERT DWELLERS and Texas favorites THE BHAKTI HOUSE BAND.)

Somehow we think the South is big enough to handle all these festivals and more.  As Ian says: “We believe that if more people are chanting, there will be more peace and harmony in the world!”  Hear Hear.

ChantLanta Website Home Page


Reggae Kirtan from Jai Uttal


There was so much incredible kirtan at Omega’s Ecstatic Chant weekend that it’s hard to decide what to post first. We love this Jai Jai Ma from Jai Uttal’s first set Friday night.

Jai’s new CD, Queen of Hearts, dedicated to Radha, is now available. Have you heard it yet?