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Bhakti Without Borders by thebhaktibeat.comThe 2016 Grammy nominations were announced this morning and once again, bhakti represents. “Bhakti Without Borders,” the 2015 debut release by Madi Das and 10 female vocalist collaborators, has nabbed the nomination for Best New Age Album, beating out more than 100 other albums in the New Age category. (Read our report on the full list here.)

Also making the short list of New Age nominations is 10-time Grammy-nominated pianist Peter Kater’s “Love,” produced by bhakti stalwart Trish Bowden of Mysterium Music.  “Love” is the latest in a long line of delightful instrumental CDs showcasing Kater’s maestro-esque chops on the ivory keys. Pure magic.

“Bhakti Without Borders” is pure bhakti in the Krishna tradition.  Every track is steeped in tradition straight from the Vaishnava temples in which Madi Das and every one of the female co-vocalists on this disc grew up. Madi Das’ parents met in a Krishna temple in Germany, and he was schooled in Vrindavan, India — “shaved head and all,” as he says. The female vocalists are all second-generation Krishna devotees as well, who grew up singing these bhajans and chanting the Names every day in and out of temple.

In stark contrast to a lot of kirtan out there today, which — for better or worse, depending on the track and one’s perspective — marries Sanskrit with English lyrics or lays ancient mantras over modern pop-influenced melodies, every track on “Bhakti Without Borders” stays true to its roots by sticking to traditional melodies and the original languages (either Sanskrit or Bengali, in this case).  But that’s not to say that these tracks are without modern Western flourishes. “Bhakti Without Borders” was, after all, produced by Dave Stringer, the veteran kirtan wallah who is known for rocking up his own concerts with anything-but-traditional riffs. Stringer plays guitar on every track, Matt Pszonak adds some country rock flourishes with the pedal steel guitar, and classical violinist Tulsi Devi brings some countrified fiddling to the mix.  Stringer describes the music as “a contagious mix of Indian, Celtic, country and bluegrass elements.”

We’d just call it pure bhakti joy, on every track.  Sweet, mellifluous, vocal nectar with just the right instrumentation to not drown out the potency of the sacred words, all imbued with a loving devotional mood that epitomizes what we mean when we say bhavalicious. It’s the bhava.


Incidentally, this was Stringer’s first gig producing an album other than his own works — and something tells us he’ll be doing more. Reached by facebook chat this morning just as he touched down in Los Angeles after a long flight from Australia, where he just wrapped a month-long tour, Stringer had not yet heard the Grammy news.  “I’m not even through immigration yet, and it’s gonna be a great day,” he said.  “I think I just started a new career as a record producer with a pretty big bang.” We’d have to agree.  Here on in, he shall be dubbed: “Grammy-nominated Dave Stringer…”

It’s a great day indeed, for all of bhakti.


Perhaps the best part about this CD, and the new wave of recognition a Grammy nomination will bring it, is that ALL of the profits from its sale benefit a girls’ school in Vrindavan, the Sandipani Muni School.  The school, a program of Food for Life Vrindavan, provides education, medical care, food and security to some 1,500 young girls who are among the country’s poorest of the poor.  Without the school, these girls would be sold into child labor or worse.  Every sale of “Bhakti Without Borders” benefits these children directly.

On a personal note, it’s taking every ounce of journalistic constraint I can muster to not be screaming this news in ALL CAPS with too many exclamation points.  Yeah, I, Vrinda, am pretty pumped about this one…and not just because this was my dark-horse pick for winning the New Age nomination.  It’s been a favorite go-to CD since the first listen. Because, you know, #ThisisBhakti.


The featured vocalists on “Bhakti Without Borders” include well-known Vaishnavis such as NYC-based powerhouse walli Acyuta Gopi and London-based Jahnavi Harrison (whose 2015 Grammy-deserving album “Like a River to the Sea” is a must-have), along with a host of new-to-us Vaishnavi voices, some of whom have never recorded professionally before. The full list: Chaytanya Nitai, Tulsi Devi, Sudevi Devi Dasi, Carmella Gitanjali Baynie, Amrita Ananda, Nalina Kaufman, Gaura Mani, Mallika Des Fours, and Gaurangi Auman. The tight-knit group of musicians who laid down rhythms in the studio behind Stringer’s L.A. home includes long-time go-tos in the SoCal kirtan world such as Patrick Richey (tabla, cajon, mridangam and every other percussion instrument you can name); Matt Pszonak (pedal steel), and Sheela Bringi, who graces most tracks with her angelic bansuri flute as well as harmonium.  Madi Das’ childhood friend Shree Shyam ‘Elton Bradman’ Das played bass, and Tulsi Devi added some countrified violin riffs. Krishan Khalsa did the mixing and Stefan Heger mastered the disc.

Listen to and purchase “Bhakti Without Borders” here.  Also makes a great gift for your bhakti friends — one that gives back to a worthy charity. What are you waiting for?

The Grammys will be telecast on February 15 on CBS.  (See the full list of nominees in New Age and all categories here.) New Age winners are generally not part of the television broadcast (BOO!) but will be on the webcast earlier the same day.  Krishna Das famously nabbed the New Age nomination in 2012 for “Live Ananda,” and also became the first kirtan artist to play at the Grammys.  Jai Uttal broke the ground a decade earlier with his nomination for “Mondo Rama.

Krishna Das, Jai Uttal…not bad company for the debut CD from a largely unknown wallah like Madi Das. Make that Grammy-nominated Madi Das.


The Bhakti Beat welcomes your support!  We are non-commercial and not-for-profit,  a free service to the bhakti community that is completely self-funded save for the loving contributions of Bhakti Beaters like you.  Your support is critical — please share the Beat with your bhakti peeps, connect with us on social media (links below), and consider a one-time or recurring donation (DONATE HERE) to help us keep this bhav boat afloat.  All contributions are used exclusively to cover the direct expenses of bringing you News, Reviews, Interviews and Videos from the kirtan and mantra-music world.  Thank you from the bottom of our bhav brain, heart and soul. In loving service...

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grammy nominationAnd the winner is….Mantra!

Grammys season is officially underway, and once again, mantra music represents — more than ever before. Nearly two dozen bhakti-flavored releases are among the list of contenders in early voting for the 2016 Grammys Best Album Nominees in the New Age and World categories, for which first-round voting by members of the National Academy of Arts & Sciences (NARAS) ends Nov. 4.

Judging by the breadth and diversity of the bhaktified music releases on the first-round ballots, the “non-genre” of kirtan/mantra/sacred chant is alive and well — from the vantage point of the commercial recording industry, at least. The albums that we would place under a broad umbrella of bhakti or bhakti-related mostly fall into the New Age category in Grammy world, though a few of the bhakti titles are found in the World Music category. (More on the odd categorization of kirtan here.)

I know what some of you are thinking…”Who cares about the Grammys?! This is BHAKTI. It’s not about commercialism, or winning awards, or being “the best” of anything; it’s about devotion and service!” I hear you. Really I do. The way I see it, if the Grammys help bring attention to the sacred practice of chanting and unlatch the gates for even one person, is that a bad thing? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Grammy 2015 contenders by TheBhaktiBeat.comWho Made the List?

First things first. One of the biggest surprises on the list — and perhaps the best news for bhakti purists — is second-generation Krishna kid Madi Das, whose charity album “Bhakti Without Borders,” produced by Dave Stringer, features duets with a host of female Vaisnava vocalists singing traditional Krishna bhajans. If we had to pick a favorite among all of these contenders, “Bhakti Without Borders” would be it.  We love everything about this album, and P.S., ALL of the profits benefit a school for girls in India (which is most of the proceeds, because ALL of the musicians on this record offered their time as seva). Now THAT is bhakti.

Also up for consideration are widely known artists like Deva Premal & Miten with Manose (“Songs for the Sangha“) and Russill Paul (“Mantra Magic“) alongside up-and-comers like vocalist Tina Malia (“Bridge to Vallabha“) and folkish singer/songwriter Brenda McMorrow (“My Heart Bows Down to You“). The many flavors of Sufism are nicely represented with “Sufi Kirtan,” from newlywed folk/world/rocker duo HuDost — marked by the otherworldly vocal magic of Moksha Sommer — and a new-to-us band called Rocqawali for “Sufi Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which seamlessly blends powerful Pakistani qawali music with 70’s-style rock. Representing the Jewish tradition of sacred chant is the Kirtan Rabbi Andrew Hahn’s “Nondual,” where ancient Hebrew prayers meet modern rock and reggae. Bhaktified dance music — yet another subcategory in the chant world (is that a sub-non-genre?) — is there too, with Marti Nikko and Dj Drez’s chant-dance fantasy “Dreaming in Sanskrit” and Desert Dwellers’ electronicized house mix, “The Great Mystery.”

In the Kundalini corner, Simrit’s “From the Ancient Storm,” White Sun‘s self-titled debut album, and Sirgun Kaur’s “Dayaal” are in the running along with the ever-popular duo Mirabai Ceiba (for “Sevati“). On the instrumental end, Bansuri flute master Manose, who has played for a decade with Deva Premal & Miten, is on the ballot for “Call Within,” and Hans Christian, master of too many instruments to name here, made the list for “Nanda Devi.” An Indian classical flutist known simply as Flute Raman is found on the World ballot for an album of traditional bhajans called “Krishna Lila.”

But wait there’s more. While we can’t in any stretch of the word consider them “kirtan,” a few others on the ballots are worth noting for their inclusion of mantras in some tracks or their ties to the bhakti world, including: Peter Kater, who has three — yes three! — albums in the running for the nomination in New Age (“Heart of Silence,” “Etheria,” and “Love;” Daniela De Mari & Breath of Life for “Awakening;” David Vito Gregoli for the ambient “Om Land,” and a Classical Indian instrumental disc featuring Saraswathi Ranganathan on veena called “Refreshing Raga Blues.”

All told, the bhakti-ish contenders represent roughly 15 percent of the total New Age list of 116 titles and only a few of the 122 entries on the World ballot. The full lists cover a lot of musical ground, everything from spoken-word meditations to ethereal shamanic ritual music to ambient instrumentalism to synthesized electronica. Among the broadly defined kirtan-related releases are some real gems that deserve a closer look, and The Bhakti Beat will be doing that on a weekly basis between now and Dec. 7, when the Grammy nominations are announced.

We’ll also give one Grammy-contending CD away each week, so stay tuned to our facebook and other social media pages to enter the contests. (Links below.)

With so many bhaktified releases in the running for a nomination, this year marks a new high for mantra music in Grammy world. But it’s certainly not the first time the chant community has gotten Grammy fever. Krishna Das quite famously snagged one of the coveted Grammy nominations in 2012 for “Live Ananda,” and made history by being the first kirtan artist to perform at the Grammys (aired on the webcast). You saw that, right? A decade earlier, Jai Uttal was the first in the kirtan “non-genre” to be nominated for a Grammy, for his pioneering record, “Mondo Rama.”

Last year, more than a dozen bhakti albums made the first ballot, and a record called “Bhakti” by Paul Avgerinos — a new-agey fusion of Christianized chants and ambient electronica that was about as far from traditional kirtan as you can get — made the cut to be nominated but did not win the Grammy.

What It Means

What does it mean to be on the first-round ballot? Essentially, it means that you met the eligibility qualifications and got your entry in on time. Ballots were sent out Oct. 14 to NARAS members, who have until Nov. 4 to cast their ballot for the album they’d like to see nominated for the Grammy in each category. There are about 30 Grammy categories altogether, including the biggies, Album of the Year and Best New Artist. In the New Age and World categories, only one Grammy is given: Best Album.

Let’s state that again so there is no confusion: the first-round ballot voting is to decide who among the contenders will be NOMINATED for a Grammy in their respective categories. It’s the first step. The nominations will be announced Dec. 7, then NARAS members vote for one nominee in each category to receive the Grammy — the music industry’s highest award. The Grammys telecast this year will be on Feb. 15.

So tell us Bhakti Beaters: Who would be YOUR pick for a Kirtan Grammy?


The Bhakti Beat welcomes your support!  We are non-commercial and not-for-profit,  a free service to the bhakti community that is completely self-funded save for the loving contributions of Bhakti Beaters like you.  Your support is critical — please share the Beat with your bhakti peeps, connect with us on social media (links below), and consider a one-time or recurring donation (DONATE HERE) to help us keep this bhav boat afloat.  All contributions are used exclusively to cover the direct expenses of bringing you News, Reviews, Interviews and Videos from the kirtan and mantra-music world.  Thank you from the bottom of our bhav brain, heart and soul. In loving service...

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
Dear Lord, kindly engage me in your service.
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Kirtan Wallah Krishna Das announced today that he will take a lengthy pause from touring in 2016 to rest and “chill.”

“This body has got to stop,” KD said in a video message published on his YouTube channel May 16, noting that he has been touring the world for 20 years nonstop, since he was 47. (See the video below.)

“Starting in 2016, I have to find a way to take some time off — maybe 6 months, maybe a year, I don’t know —  to really quiet down, because it’s not just the body but the mind,” he told fans. “It’s really time to slow down for a while.”

Rumors have been flying for months in the bhakti world about KD’s health, as bits and pieces leaked out about his plans not to tour in 2016.  In February, KD told participants at his annual retreat at Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas that he was going to take some time off (but indicated that he would be back in Sivananda in 2016).  The Bhakti Beat has also heard from event producers who have tried to schedule Krishna Das kirtans for 2016 and were told that he will not be touring, which has fueled the rumor mill.

‘Healthful Recharging’

The announcement does little to quell rumors about the health of Western kirtan’s biggest “star,” as there was no specific information about his overall wellness in either the video message or the email newsletter in which the sabbatical was announced. The email stated that KD will take a break from touring and traveling for the purpose of “healthful recharging.”

Krishna Das spokesperson Nina Rao confirmed to The Bhakti Beat in an initial email response that KD’s “Vitals are in order, just needs rest.” (We will update this article as soon as more information is available.) In the meantime, KD’s choice of words in the video message indicated the sabbatical was not an optional choice.

“I have to take some time off, to try to rejuvenate, rest and try to get some juice back in my system,” he said, while noting that chanting with other people is “the greatest seva I can do for myself, for others and for my guru.”  The sabbatical, he said, will allow him to “have time to be quiet, take care of my body, eat good, and just breathe. I forgot what it’s like to not be planning to go somewhere, like, in a week.”

Krishna Das, photo by TheBhaktiBeat.comIt’s unclear as of yet whether Krishna Das will attend bigger retreats and festivals such as Omega’s Ecstatic Chant, where he has headlined since its inception 12 years ago, or Bhakti Fest, though he did say he “might do a couple local things around New York,” where his home is, and possibly some online programs that can be done from his home.  KD’s annual Memorial Day weekend retreat at Yogaville Ashram in Virginia will continue as planned, as will his summer tour in the Northeast United States and Southeast Canada (see full tour schedule here).  He also is making appearances this month at benefits for Nepal earthquake victims (May 16 in Princeton, NJ, in concert with GuruGanesha, with other dates to be announced) and at a benefit for tigers produced by longtime KD manager/assistant Nina Rao (May 19 in New York City).

Beginning in February or March of 2016, all dates are off.  “I’m going to kind of just chill,” KD said.

The news was accompanied by the announcement of a new 501(c)3 nonprofit foundation, the Kirtan Wallah Foundation, which is dedicated to spreading the teachings of Krishna Das’ guru, the late Neem Karoli Baba.

Clearly addressing the rumors and questions, the “Rock Star of Yoga” ended his video message with typical understatedness: “That’s the story for now. Take good care. Bye.”

The Bhakti Beat welcomes your support!  We are non-commercial and not-for-profit,  a free service to the bhakti community that is completely self-funded save for the loving contributions of Bhakti Beaters like you.  Your support is critical — please share the Beat with your bhakti peeps, connect with us on social media (links below), and consider a one-time or recurring donation (DONATE HERE) to help us keep this bhav boat afloat.  All contributions are used exclusively to cover the direct expenses of bringing you News, Reviews, Interviews and Videos from the kirtan and mantra-music world.  Thank you from the bottom of our bhav brain, heart and soul. In loving service...

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
Dear Lord, kindly engage me in your service.
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Capture logoKrishna Das will be there. Jai Uttal will be there. Deva & Miten too.  Even Shyamdas, the bhakti world’s most beloved Ambassador of Bhava, will be there, in all his bhavalicious glory.  Journey OM: Into the Heart of India, the cinematic masterpiece in the works from veteran filmmaker and original bhakti bhaiya John Bush, promises to be the bhakti movie of the year.

Right now, you can be a part of this film’s development by pre-ordering the DVD and soundtrack featuring Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Deva Premal & Miten and more.  ACT FAST! The campaign ends at 1:19 a.m EST on Friday, April 24.


There’s a certain mystique about India that can be hard to define.  For many in the bhakti world, the pull is strong, like that of a mother beckoning her children home.  There’s an almost inexplicable longing that cuts straight to the soul, not unlike what we imagine the Gopi cowherds felt for their sweet Govinda.

Journey OM aims to capture that elusive quality that makes India unlike any other place in the world.  But don’t mistake this upcoming film for some ordinary travelogue cataloging must-see pit stops on a well-trodden tourist path. Journey OM, according to filmmaker John Bush, takes you off the beaten track.  Way off.

Focused on ‘Places of Passage’

Bush focuses his camera on so-called tirthas, holy “places of passage” that are believed to be sacred sites where the veil between worlds is thin, where it is possible for even ordinary humans to cross over from worldly materialism to spiritual nirvana with relative ease.  (Tirtha is a Sanskrit word that translates to “ford,” or a shallow part of a body of water that can be easily crossed.)

Mother India is rife with tirthas — legendary places with thousands-years-old histories in Hindu scripture and mythology. For example, at the very Southern tip of India is the island of Rameswaren, said to be the place from which Hanuman and Rama’s army built the bridge to Lanka to rescue Sita from the evil king Ravana, as is written in the Hindu epic, “The Ramayana.”  In the holy land of Braj there is Govardhan Hill, the mountain that Krishna, as a young boy, lifted high to protect the people of Vrindavan from the torrential rains that the god Indra had let loose in his anger.  And the list goes on…

“These are power spots,” says Bush. “They’ve been identified over thousands of years as places of transcendence, where one can go from earthly consciousness to celestial consciousness.”  Journey OM will take the viewer on a magical mystery tour of a dozen or so of these sites, with the intent of conveying a feeling of the sacredness of these places.

Bush at RanakpurJain Temple in Rajasthan“Each place has its own story, its own flavor,” Bush told The Bhakti Beat. “The revelations along the way are really geared to have a transformative effect for the viewer, to impart that ‘inner-journey’ experience of a sacred pilgrimage.”

Bush, the inspiration and perspiration behind Journey OM, is the real deal. He didn’t jump on the mantra bandwagon yesterday; his bhakti roots are deep — more than 40 years deep to be exact.  He was with Ram Dass back in the days of “psychedelic evangelism” of 1960’s America.  Like Ram Dass, he traveled to the Far East in search of that same feeling of transcendence, of divine consciousness, sans LSD.  He met Shyamdas when Shyamji was just 19, and developed a deeper friendship with him in the weeks before he died. The night Shyamdas left his body, they had been in satsang together, and Bush was in the car that, mere minutes after it happened, came across the scene of the motorcycle accident that claimed Shyamdas’ life.  They had planned for weeks to shoot footage around Shyamdas’ home in Braj for Journey OM, which is dedicated to Shyamdas.

On the Bus with Maharaji

John Bush 1971Along with  Ram Dass, Krishna Das, Daniel Goleman and a host of others, John Bush was on “the bus” — the one that Krishna Das has told the story of countless times — that arrived at its destination at precisely the same moment that the elusive Maharaji, Neem Karoli Baba stepped into the street, leaving the bewildered Westerners on board scratching their heads with mouths agape.

That moment — the first time Bush met the Indian Saint — was a turning point for the long-haired hippy from America.  “My life changed dramatically at that point,” Bush says.  He had been on his way back home after a series of meditation retreats in a remote Burmese monastery.  Instead, he spent the next couple of years following Maharaji in a kind of ongoing pilgrimage.  It was when the young Bush first connected with the age-old tradition of spiritual pilgrimage, and became fascinated by it.  It was also the period where Bush connected with kirtan, taking his turn as one of the Western wallahs in Baba’s entourage.

Later, back in the States, Bush roomed with Jai Uttal in Berkely for a period, and joined with Uttal, Krishna Das and Bhagavan Das in a bhakti band called “Amazing Grace.” They made a kirtan album, played at festivals and toured the Pacific Northwest, essentially launching the careers of three of the bhakti world’s best-known wallahs.  But unlike his bandmates, Bush — a new father at the time — decided the life of a professional musician was not for him.  He moved to Cambridge, Mass., and settled into a more traditional lifestyle, albeit one where kirtan and satsang continued to have a strong presence.

Fast-forward to the year 2000 or so.  Career finished, Bush returns to his “long-deferred dream” of sharing with the world, through film, the sacred cultures he fell in love with as a youth.  He filmed and produced an award-winning trilogy of pilgrimage films to Southeast Asia and Tibet, which were aired on PBS and around the world.  His documentary feature film, “Vajra Sky Over Tibet,” is endorsed by the Dalai Lama and has been screened as part of the official program of His Holiness in more than a dozen cities.

Bush describes Journey OM as “wall-to-wall bhakti.”  Not only does the soundtrack feature Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, and Deva Premal & Miten, but the entire film is steeped in the bhava of the devotional journey.

“Pilgrimage is part of the yoga of devotion,” he says. “My hope is that through the cultural immersiveness of this film, the viewer has their own transformative experience, their own inner journey.”

Journey Om cover shot



Contribute Now to JOURNEY OM’s kickstarter campaign.


The Bhakti Beat needs your support!  We are non-commercial and not-for-profit,  a free service to the bhakti community that is completely self-funded save for the loving contributions of Bhakti Beaters like you.  Your support is critical — please share the Beat with your bhakti peeps, connect with us on social media (links below), and consider a one-time or recurring donation (DONATE HERE) to help us keep this bhav boat afloat.  Thank you from the bottom of our bhav brain, heart and soul. In loving service...

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
Dear Lord, kindly engage me in your service.
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Krishna Das by TheBhaktiBeat.comVideo interview at the bottom.

Yes, it’s true.  Krishna Das went to prison for Call and Response. The Call and Response Foundation, that is.

For the least few years, the nonprofit foundation has been arranging for kirtan wallahs to chant in prisons, psychiatric facilities, children’s hospitals, and other places where people might benefit from the healing power of mantra music.  This time, it was the Chant Master himself serving a little time in prison.

(You can support this important seva by contributing now to the Call and Response Foundation’s Prison Outreach Program.)

It was a gray, frigid Monday afternoon in northern Vermont, vexed by a drizzling rain that threatened to turn to snow. Krishna Das and his drummer, Arjun Bruggeman, arrived at the Chittenden County Regional Correctional Facility for Women early, after a double-header weekend of kirtan+ workshop that were partial benefits for Call and Response.

They were at the medium-security prison in South Burlington to fulfill the pie-in-the-sky request of an inmate named Lucinda.  Six months earlier, Lucinda had picked up a Krishna Das CD in the prison library.  Apparently, she couldn’t get enough of it, and she wondered aloud to her counselor, Philip Pezeshki, if Krishna Das would come chant with them.  Long story short, here he was.

Krishna Das Arjun Bruggeman prison VT Call and Response Foundation by TheBhaktiBeat.comThey brought nothing but a harmonium and a Naal drum.

Bruggeman’s usual tablas were left behind because  the little metal hammer that he uses to tune them was a security risk. The six of us — including C&RF director Jen Canfield and local wallahs Patrick (Yogi P) McAndrew and Jeanette Bacevius — dutifully stashed wallets and cell phones and jackets and scarves that could present a choking hazard into the lockers in the waiting room, then traded our driver’s licenses for visitor’s passes.  Krishna Das and Arjun opened up their instruments for a thorough search by a serious but pleasant enough security guard. I presented my Nikon to the guard, hoping for a miracle, but it was not to be,  so I reluctantly stuffed it into the locker with everything else.  At least he let me keep my little reporter’s notebook (after leafing through it thoroughly) and a pen to take notes. Then we all took off our shoes and filed through a metal detector, their instruments and my notebook set to the side.

We were led through a series of security doors to a windowless, concrete-block room off a main corridor.  There was a whiteboard with a hand-written list of stress-relief strategies on one wall, and on another wall, a single poster exhorting viewers to “end the silence” about sexual abuse.  A few rows of yoga mats, folded in thirds, were set up in a semi-circle, with a row of mismatched chairs at the back.

KD and Arjun set up their instruments underneath the “End the Silence” poster.  Then KD wrote out the words to five chants on an easel.  Shree Ram Jay Ram Jay Jay Ram.  Om Na-moh Bhag a vah tay Na ma ha. Om Na-mah Shee vy ah. Jay a Jagat Ambay. Om Ay-eem Shreem Sara swa ty yay Na ma ha. 

Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.comLucinda, the inmate responsible for all of us being there, came in and sat with KD for several minutes to interview him for the prison newsletter.  Soon enough, about a dozen or so inmates — most appearing to be under 30 — began filtering into the room.  They looked somewhat bewildered, even gruff, like they didn’t know what they were getting into.  Several prison staff members also came in, with serious faces.  Honestly it was hard to tell who the inmates were, until I realized they each had on a dark blue scrub shirt over their street clothes.  The chairs in the back filled up quickly, and the seats in the front, closest to where KD and Arjun were now seated cross-legged on yoga blocks, remained empty.

No, this was not going to be your average Krishna Das kirtan.

KD started by telling the group what kirtan was not.  “This is not a religious practice.  There is no blind faith required,” he said. “This is not a missionary trip.  I’m here because I was invited.”

Arjun Bruggeman at Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.com(In the waiting room, KD had told me that the last time he chanted in a prison, it was with a group of 100 or so men in a maximum-security facility in the South.  “Everything was going along great,” he recalled, “until I started singing the Maha Mantra.” As soon as the prisoners heard Hare Krishna, they started scowling and fidgeting, looking at one another and shaking their heads.  Every one of them got up and walked out.  Every. Single. One. He hadn’t been back to a prison since.)

Kirtan, Krishna Das told those gathered in the cold cement room, was “a way to quiet the mind, to kind of short-circuit the stories we tell ourselves.”

“We mostly don’t get a vote about our thoughts,” he said.  “Chanting is a means of winding down the mind and training ourselves to let go of thoughts.”

He initiated the singing as he always does, with an opening prayer, which he described as “a prayer to that place within us that is looking for true love.”  After the prayer, he paused in the silence of the room, a silence that was routinely interrupted by a loud slam of the security doors in the hallway outside.  Looking out at the women prisoners in the back, he said quietly: “These mantras are sounds that have a magnetism to them.  By repeating these mantras, we bring the mind to a quiet place.  When the mind is quiet and the heart is at peace, your life can take a different course.”

Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram…

And so it went. Not unlike a typical Krishna Das workshop.  Talk a little. Chant a little. Talk a little more. Chant a little more.  Yet this one was verrrrry different.  We were reminded of that about halfway into the session.  KD had just finished saying something about how to “find some peace no matter what the outside world was throwing at us” when a beefy security guard pushed through the door loudly, with a list in his hand.  KD stopped talking and simply said: “Come on in.” The guard peered around the room, unsmiling, checking people off his list.  He called out a few names — not the Names that had been ringing in the room a few moments before, needless to say.  Then with a slam of the door, he was gone.

“We’re all still here,” KD joked self-consciously, with an awkward chuckle.  Then he picked up the thread, saying there were all kinds of practices — chanting among them — that one could use to “find a way to chill yourself out no matter what’s going on.”  It was an appropriate lesson for the moment, and you could feel it resonating with the folks seated in the room.

Arjun Bruggeman at Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.comA couple times during the session, Krishna Das asked if anyone had questions.  It wasn’t until the end that one woman spoke up, asking him if he had always known that this is what he would do.  He told a story he has told many times — of how devastated he was when his guru Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaji) told him to go back home to America; how he had asked Maharaji: “How can I serve you in America?” and Maharaji laughed at him with a look “like he had just bitten a sour pickle;” how he, Krishna Das, was walking across the ashram’s courtyard later on and was suddenly struck by the answer: “I’ll sing for you.”  That was 1973, KD said.  It took him 21 years, until 1994, to finally start singing.

Then he told the inmates a story I had never heard.  He said he didn’t think they were even going to let him into the jail for today’s session because he was a convicted felon.  Say what?   Yep, Krishna Das told us he had been charged with money laundering after a criminal investigation involving the IRS and the FBI.  He told the group that it was an “insane story” that they would never believe.  One woman replied, “Oh yes we will,” and they all laughed.  So he related how he thought he was going to end up in prison, but instead — due to a somewhat remarkable series of graces involving the judge, prosecutor and parole officer in the case — was sentenced to six months of house arrest.  He spoke of the period as a blessing, a relief, a much-needed opportunity for rest after a grueling tour schedule.

More importantly, he said, “Being convicted freed me from the secrets of my past. Now everybody knew.  I didn’t have to hide it anymore.”

Arjun Bruggeman at Krishna Das prison VT by TheBhaktiBeat.comWhen there was only time for one more chant, Lucinda, the inmate responsible for KD being there, requested ‘Amazing Grace’ with the Maha Mantra. I held my breath, remembering KD’s story about all the men walking out when he started singing Hare Krishna.  “We cooooould,” KD replied hesitantly… “Let’s sing the third one,” he deflected, pointing to the whiteboard where the chants were written out phonetically.

Om Namah Shivayah. 

A long silence — blessedly uninterrupted by doors slamming — followed.  Then KD looked out at the women and said simply: “Take good care of yourselves, okay?”

Afterward, many of the inmates lined up to thank him, to shake his hand or receive a hug.  Most were new to chanting.  One woman, Chelsea, said she found the session to be “really inspiring and cleansing.” She told us she felt energized, and definitely wanted to chant again.  Another, Sarah, confessed that at first she thought it was “a little weird,” but by the end, felt that “it really worked. I absolutely loved it.”  Adrienne said she felt relieved:  “The stress is gone. I’m more relaxed. I hope he comes back.” A group of them milled around, smiling, chatting, not wanting to leave.  Somehow, the cold concrete room was warmer, softer…

“Come back every week!” a young blond inmate named Suzi exhorted KD.

When all the staff and inmates were gone, our little group walked back down the hallway and through the double security doors .  We gathered our belongings, traded our visitor’s passes back for licenses, and bundled up to face the frigid Vermont evening.  Outside, a cold rain was still falling, and darkness had descended.  None of us seemed to notice.

Before we disbursed, Krishna Das agreed to a short video interview outside the prison door.  I dare you to not be moved by what happens midway through it…

“Everybody’s a prisoner, sweetheart. Prisoners of our own minds.”

Support the Call and Response Foundation’s Prison Outreach Program here.

View the Photo Journals of Krishna Das’ prison visit  in Vermont 2014, and his kirtan and workshop, on The Bhakti Beat facebook page.

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Ram Dass, Jai Uttal, Shyamdas at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Ram Dass, Jai Uttal, Shyamdas at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.comOmega’s annual Ecstatic Chant weekend would not exist without Ram Dass.  The legendary Labor Day retreat for chantaholics in the heart of New York’s Bhajan Belt has its roots in Ram Dass’ own epic gatherings at Omega dating back to the mid-1990’s.  In those days, Omega co-founder Stephan Rechtschaffen recounted to The Bhakti Beat, Ram Dass would invite Krishna Das and others to come and chant with retreatants during evening concerts as kind of an entertainment extra.  Over time, the chanting became an integral part of the weekend, occupying more and more of the retreat schedule.

When Ram Dass suffered a stroke and chose to discontinue most of his travel, the retreats continued…eventually morphing into Ecstatic Chant: The Yoga of Voice, now one of Omega’s most popular programs (among a catalog of hundreds).

In recent years, Ram Dass has joined the program live via Skype from Hawaii, his face projected onto a huge screen in Omega’s darkened, packed-to-capacity Main Hall.  Krishna Das, Radhanath Swami, Shyamdas, Jai Uttal and Rechtschaffen have taken turns leading the chat with the man many credit with jump-starting the Western fascination with India generally and the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba (“Maharaji”) in particular.

Ram Dass Shyamdas Jai Uttal at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.comThis is an excerpt from the Skype chat with Ram Dass that was jointly led by Shyamdas and Jai Uttal at last fall’s Ecstatic Chant.  (Shyamdas did most of the asking…)

Shyamdas:  What’s it like to be loved by so many thousands of people?

Ram Dass: It’s like being with Maharaji.  He gave unconditional love.  No matter how rotten you were he gave unconditional love.  YumYumYumYumYum.

SD:  What should we be doing with our lives?

RD: Remember Maharaji.  People come to me for advice, but they’re not really coming to me.  They’re coming to Maharaji…When they experience that love, they flower.  That gives me great happiness and fills my heart.  YumYumYumYumYum.

Ram Dass Shyamdas Jai Uttal at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.comSD:  Great job you have.

RD:  Yes, yes it is.  I am a gardener.

SD:  How did you get that job?

RD:  I didn’t ask for it.  He [Maharaji] laid it on me.  The first time I was in India, he said: “Arshivad (blessings) for your book.” I said, “What’s Arshivad, and what book?”

SD:  Thank you for your seva and your priceless gifts.  We can only bow; we cannot repay you, but we can try…

RD:  We are all the same.  We’ve all found it; we’ve seen what it is.  Now it’s up to us…

Shyamdas wouldn’t let his friend say goodbye without a proper send-off, and he and Uttal were promptly leading the capacity crowd in a sweet little transcontinental kirtan. A thousand voices harmonized in an exuberant Radhe Govinda, flowing from the packed room in New York’s Hudson Valley straight to the heart of Ram Dass in his bungelow in Hawaii.  Short and sweet:


More on Shyamdas
Live at Ananda:  Shyamdas Tribute in Bhajan Belt Celebrates the Lila of Bhakti’s Favorite Uncle
Swept Up in a ‘Tidal Wave of Bhav’ with Shyamdas: Epic 45-Minute Maha Mantra
Storytime in the Bhav with Shyamdas & Friends at Bhakti Fest Midwest
Feels Like ‘Yesterday:’ Classic Shyamdas in Wacky Spontaneous Improv at Omega Chant
Bhajan Boat’ Charity Cruise Circles Manhattan with a Boatful of Bhaktas
Ananda Ashram Shyamdas Tribute Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Remembering Shyamdas Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Shyamdas Remembered, Video Playlist on YouTube
Also see:

The Southern Bhav rose again on Day 2 of Chantlanta on the altar-cum-stage of the Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta, the backdrop for a line-up of regional bands that showed the depth and diversity of the “unknown” bhakti bands in the Southeast.  (We use the quotes on “unknown” because they’re only unknown to those not in the know, you know what we mean?)  And we want all y’all to be in the know, because these bhaktas really deserve to be known…you know?  

So here’s Part 2 of our series on Chantlanta’s “Unknown” Bhakti Bands.  Read Part 1 here.  (More Chantlanta coverage linked at the bottom.) 

Chris Korb, sitar for Kirtan Bandits at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Chris Korb on sitar, Kirtan Bandits

Kirtan Bandits

This was an unexpected treat. First up on Day 2 of Chantlanta, the Kirtan Bandits stole hearts with a mix of Sufi prayers and Sanskrit mantras set to trancey tabla-driven rhythms. The Bandits were new to us, but the Chantlanta crowd sure seemed to know this sextet of multi-instrumentalists from Rome, Ga.  Jeffrey Lidke, a go-to tablist for the region who gets the prize for most stage time at Chantlanta, led the troupe, with Jen Corry sharing lead vocals.  

Jeffrey Lidke, Kirtan Bandits, at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Jeffrey Lidke

Even against the vocal finesse and seasoned musicality of Lidke (tabla and harmonium) and Corry (flute and keyboarding) — both of whom are professors at Rome’s Berry College — young bassist Chris Korb shone on the 25-stringed sitar in a Maha Devi chant punctuated by scat-like call-and-response vocal exchanges between Lidke and Corry (watch it here). With John Graham and Jesse Burnette on guitar, and Hari Siddhadas on clarinet and cymbals.

Kirtan Bandits just released five songs recorded at Chantlanta 2013; check ’em out here.

 Sunmoon Pie

Sunmoon Pie at Chantlanta day 2, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Bonnie Puckett & Michael Levine, Sunmoon Pie

Soon-to-be-newlyweds Michael Levine and Bonnie Puckett, aka Sunmoon Pie, have been bringing Hebrew chants into the Chantlanta mix since the the first fest in 2010. (At one point Levine cheekily pointed out the irony of singing Jewish prayers at a kirtan festival in a Baptist Church.) 

Victor Johnson for Sunmoon Pie at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Victor Johnson

He on guitar and she on the keys, they led us through a stirring sequence of chants based loosely on the prayers recited in a traditional Jewish Shabbath celebration. Each was layered over the band’s own original melodies…or in the case of the last prayer, borrowed melodies: Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” provided the musical score. (Video coming soon.) Larry Blewitt laid the drum beat, and Victor Johnson wailed on the electric fiddle.

Sunmoon Pie has a 5-track digital EP out, recorded at Chantlanta 2012. Personal favorite: Modim Anachnu.

Phil McWilliams

Phil McWilliams at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Phil McWilliams

Phil McWilliams brought us back to India on the wings of a bluesy/folksy singer/songwriter and the guitar that never left his lap. We’re already on record as loving everything we’ve heard from McWilliams and his Journey of Sound, so you might know where this is going. And we can’t seem to stop ourselves from using the warm-blanket metaphor to describe the feeeel of this music. But we’ll try, for your sake, dear reader.

The vibe was soft, deep and warm (oops) — but not in a way that made you want to lie down and go to sleep. You wanted to capture every word, every chord, and wrap yourself up in the rhythms (sorry!). There’s an authenticity to McWilliams’ music, a yearning in the voice that borders on melancholy yet feels soothing, not sad. And just when you thought you might drift away on a prayer of a melody, McWilliams & Co. kicked it up a notch, punctuating the set with a sublime, slow-build Mahamantra whose ecstatic peak seemed to shake the rafters in the soaring Druid Hills sanctuary. It was all holy.

Phil McWilliams Band at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Journey of Sound

The Journey of Sound featured Amanda Feinstein on vocals; Susan Stephan and Nakini Groom sang back-up.  With Rob Kuhlman on bass, Michael Levine on electric guitar, Larry Blewitt on drum kit and Brihaspati Ishaya on percussion.  Phil McWilliams’ first solo album is Signs of Peace, and yes, we’re in love with it. (Personal favorite song: “Holy Now”) Okay I give up: it’s like goose-down for the soul. Snuggle in.

See www.philmcwilliamsmusic.com for music and events (he’s opening for Dave Stringer and Donna DeLory for their SE mini-tour), and www.bhaktimessenger.com for Universal Prayer, the CD by McWilliams’ previous band project (with Ian Boccio), Bhakti Messenger Kirtan.

Blue Spirit Wheel

Blue Spirit Wheel at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Stephanie Kohler & Ian Boccio, Blue Spirit Wheel

More than any other, this was the band we wanted to experience live at Chantlanta. By the time Blue Spirit Wheel came on to close out the afternoon, the crowd was primed. Ian Boccio (vocals and bass) and Stephanie Kohler (vocals and harmonium) are kind of the hometown heroes, and have each been instrumental in making Chantlanta happen. The Atlanta kirtan community was out in force — and they were pumped. The forestage was packed, dancers weaved at the edge of the altar, children played limbo under saris…

My notes on the scene read: “Rockin’ it! Joyful chaos. Dancing at edges. Kids everywhere.”

Stephanie Kohler, Blue Spirit Wheel, Chantlanta day2 by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Stephanie Kohler

Chaos in the church be damned, this pair of mantra mavens took us deep, orchestrating a trance-inducing mash-up of overlayered mantras drawn from their debut CD, adi.  They “wanted to do something different” for their hometown followers, Kohler told us afterward, so she devised this long thread interweaving the individual chants they’ve been leading for the last year or so.  The mantra mash-up.  Judging from the response they got, we’d say the homeys liked it.  The post-chant silence was eventually broken by a single “Wow,” giving us all the permission we needed to applaud.  Loudly.  And that was just the first chant.

They finished out the set like they started, mixing mantras.  This time, Kohler sang a lilting old Christian hymnal she learned from her grandmother.  It was layered in between and over a low, deep chorus of “So Hum” led by Boccio’s gravelly baritone.  Her hymn over his Hum.  (Couldn’t resist.)  Without the pun, it was enchanting. (Watch it here.)
Jeffrey Lidke for Blue Spirit Wheel at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Jeffrey Lidke, tapped again

Grounded by Jeffrey Lidke and Brihaspati Ishaya on percussion and Lindsey Mann on back-up vocals, Blue Spirit Wheel proved why they’ve become one of metro Atlanta’s favorite mantra bands.  But you don’t have to be in Atlanta to experience their bhav live; the duo starts a six-week most-of-the-US tour May 30, including Bhakti Fest Midwest in Madison, Wisc. July 5-7. If they’re coming anywhere near you, check ’em out.  And don’t miss the magical mantra trip that is adi.

www.bhaktimessenger.com (Boccio’s previous project, with Phil McWilliams.)

Whew! And that was all just a warm-up to Krishna Das…

Krishna Das at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com
Krishna Das packed them in…
Also see:
Pt 1: Chantlanta’s ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Show Depth & Diversity of Southern Bhav (Video)
Fresh from The Grammys, Krishna Das Shines At Chantlanta, With Band of One (Video)
Southern Bhav Rising: Chantlanta Demonstrates How To Do a Regional Chant Fest (Video)
Photo Journal of Chantlanta, on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Photo Journal: Krishna Das at Chantlanta, on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Chantlanta Playlist on The Bhakti Beat’s YouTube Channel (building daily!)
www.swahaproductions.com (co-organizer of Chantlanta; produces kirtan events in the South)

Jeffrey Lidke, tabla, at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.comWatch these Wallahs…

One of the things we love about this “mantra revolution” is how many largely unsung local bands are out there doing their thing, bringing the bhav to their communities, just waiting for people to wake up to this thing called kirtan. The Unknown Bhakti Band. Of course, they’re not unknown to those in the know…but there must be thousands of them, right? Under-the-radar ensembles and Monday night quartets, each with their own unique expression of bhakti, quietly offering music and mantras for anyone who will come out and chant with them?

Chantlanta grew out of this kind of community in Atlanta and beyond.  Seven local and regional bands ended up on the “free” part of Chantlanta’s two-day line-up in the sanctuary of the Druid Hills Baptist Church, representing kirtan in a broad range of incarnations. From traditional Sufi chants to Hebrew Shabbath prayers, from Hindu scripture to contemporary Gospel, and from Paul Simon to the Beatles, Chantlanta embraced it all. 

We’re putting each one of these bands on our “Wallahs to Watch” list.  You might want to too.  Just sayin’.

This is Part 1 of 2, because…well, there were seven of them, and they each deserve attention.  And blogs aren’t supposed to be 1,600 words long. 

First up, Friday night’s line-up of Mantra Ma, Wynne Paris and Chaitanya.  Don’t miss Part 2, with Kirtan Bandits, Sunmoon Pie, Phil McWilliams and Blue Spirit Wheel. Video highlights from each artist, some still uploading…(hello, wifi?)

Mantra Ma at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Mantra Ma

Mantra Ma

Mantra Ma, aka singing moms Jocelyn Rose and Shonali Banerjee from Atlanta, opened us up softly with a long, layered Ganesha chant, then graced us with Gayatri, the mother of all mantras. With Crystal Stafford on acoustic guitar and Rose on harmonium, the mood was meditative, soft and earthy, reverent and reassuring…

Chantlanta Day 1 by TheBhaktiBeat.comAt one point Banerjee invited everyone to open their palms to the sky and repeat “I am open to receive all of life’s blessings.” Communal abundance prayer…we swear it sent a ripple of energy right down our collective spine.

Chaitanya at Chantlanta Day 1 by TheBhaktiBeat.com

They closed with Asato Ma Sadgamaya in a slow build (watch it here).  This is a Sanskrit prayer from the Upanishads (Hindu scriptures) which translates to: “Lead me from the unreal to the real/Lead from the darkness to the light/Lead me from death to immortality/Let there be peace peace and peacefulness.”  It was the perfect punctuation mark to a powerful set of mantras, delivered with vocal finesse and a mother’s grace. (And we loved how Banerjee’s two young children raced to the stage at the end to give their mom a group hug.)

Wynne Paris

Wynne Paris at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Wynne Paris

Worldbeat troubadour Wynne Paris from Florida can hardly be considered unknown — more like a musician’s musician.  He’s played with, well just about everybody (quite a few of them made it onto Groovananda, his latest CD).  He had his own set on the main stage at Bhakti Fest last year.  (What? You missed that 4 a.m. set?) We were there, and it was worth staying up for the sarod serenade alone. 

He brought his sarod to Chantlanta, thankfully, playing a couple of songs on it before switching to harmonium, then guitar.  The set started traditionally with an invocation to Ganesh, then rollicked right into He Ma Durga with the crowd clapping along.  A detour to the 1960’s with a Beatles-inspired Krishna love medley was followed by a full-on gospel jam-dance in the contemporary “sacred steel” tradition popularized by the Lee Brothers and Florida’s House of God church.  This little roof-raiser had everyone jumping and hollering like…well, like we were at a Baptist church in the South…  Even Druid Hills Pastor Mimi Walker joined the joy parade on the altar-turned-stage.  Watch it here.

Wynne Paris gospel jam at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Everyone joined the jam, including the pastor!

In the end, Paris went back to his sarod to close the set with a hypnotic Om Namah Shivaya he learned from Bhagavan Das. Lori Michele Love and Dorianne Aillery sang back-up; Jeffrey Lidke and Rishi Waterman on percussion.

See www.wynneparis.com, and do check out Groovananda, a personal favorite driving CD.  But be careful…


Chaitanya at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Silvia Riverwind & Koriander of Chaitanya, with Laurie Fisher on fiddle.

Chaitanya took the Friday night bhav to the next level with a high-energy set of traditional mantras swept along on a jam-band medley of rhythm and strings.  It was clear these Asheville, N.C. bhaktas weren’t going to let the night end without a shaktified dance jam.  Jai Jagadambe fit the bill nicely. Watch the video here

This band has been a perennial favorite at Chantlanta for four years running, so we’ve heard.  Now we know why.

Rishi Waterman of Chaitanya, at Chantlanta Day 1 by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Rishi Waterman of Chaitanya

Sylvia Riverwind shared lead vocals with Koriander, whose harmonium was the bloodline of the band (though she switched it up for an acoustic guitar occasionally).  Overlayed with some serious fiddling by Laurie Fisher, Rishi Waterman on percussion and Tom Aldrich on bass, it was hard NOT to move. 

Chaitanya’s debut album, Ark of Love, is available now on CD Baby; a CD release party is set for June 1 in Asheville.  www.chaitanyakirtan.com

Chaitanya at Chantlanta Day 1 by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Last-jam dance party with Chaitanya & the Chantlanta chanters

Don’t miss Part 2 for the rest of the Chantlanta line-up — Kirtan Bandits, Sunmoon Pie, Phil McWilliams and Blue Spirit Wheel

See also:
Part 2: Chantlanta’s ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Reveal Depth & Diversity of Southern Bhav (Videos)
Fresh from The Grammys, Krishna Das Shines at Chantlanta, With Band of One
Southern Bhav Rising: Chantlanta Demonstrates How To Do a Regional Chant Fest
Chantlanta Photo Journal (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Krishna Das at Chantlanta Photo Journal (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Chantlanta Playlist on The Bhakti Beat YouTube Channel (new videos being added)
www.swahaproductions.com (produces kirtan events in the South)

Chantlanta at Druid Hills Baptist Church, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Ahhh Chantlanta. How we love thee.  Let us count the ways…

  1. Your goal is to spread the bhav.
  2. You put on a two-day festival with seven great regional bands, all for FREE.
  3. You topped it off with KRISHNA DAS on the schedule, concert + workshop.  Nice.
  4. You raised more than $3,000 to send an impoverished young woman in India to college.
  5. You brought the community together and opened up kirtan to people who would otherwise be clueless.
  6. You did it all in a Baptist Church that practically donated its space.
  7. You came up with a killer name to boot.

Thank you.

We finally got to Chantlanta this year, its fourth year running.  It was worth the trip.  In fact, we’d say it’s officially a “destination kirtan” — can we use that term?  As in, not just for the locals.  Maybe you won’t fly in from California — yet — but if you’re East Coast or Midwest, hey, Atlanta’s a hub airport…

Kirtan Bandits at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Kirtan Bandits, “unknowns” from Rome, Ga., stole hearts.

This year, Krishna Das was the headliner at Chantlanta, and he showed up fully. (Read that story here.) That said, it was Chantlanta’s line-up of regional bands that really got us excited.  That, and the Chantlanta organizers’ formula for eking out success from a notoriously unprofitable venture like a regional chant fest.  Did we mention that there were 12 hours of great kirtan from seven regional bands, all for free?  Topped off by Krishna Das, in concert and workshop?  And that Chantlanta still managed to raise over 3 grand for a small charity in India (The Learning Tea)?

Chantlanta proved that you can have your bhav and serve too.

Chantlanta at Druid Hills Baptist Church, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Stan Holt (L) and Ian Boccio, Chantlanta co-organizers

Not that it came easy.  Chantlanta founder Ian Boccio, who started the fest in 2010 to “raise the profile of kirtan in Atlanta,” freely admits that he and the all-volunteer team that pull this thing together are learning as they go.  The first two years were all local bands, all offering their music to the community for free.  About 250 people showed up the first time — more than they dreamed — and the numbers have grown consistently. Last year, Chantlanta brought in three “national” kirtan artists — David Newman, Wah!, and Sean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band — to sweeten the pot and boost attendance.  This year, Boccio aimed even higher, successfully bringing Krishna Das back to Atlanta for the first time in at least four years.

The results, Boccio said, “exceeded my expectations in every way.”  We don’t think he was just blowing smoke.

The catch 22 of any chant festival, large or small, is that the “big names” that bring in more people also increase the expenses, making it more challenging to break even, never mind have some left over for charity, or (gasp!) a little profit for the folks who are making these things happen.  The key for Chantlanta, Boccio said, has been to line up sponsors — local yoga studios, merchants, artists, and natural-living businesses — who buy space in the festival program and in the “merch hall” at the festival.  This year, sponsorships effectively covered the overhead for the event.

Chantlanta volunteers, byt TheBhaktiBeat.com

Volunteer Team

Volunteers do the bulk of the work, people like yogi-musician Stephanie Kohler (co-leader, with Boccio, of Blue Spirit Wheel) and yoga teacher Karen Dorfman — both of whom have taken lead organizational roles since the first Chantlanta.  And like Stan Holt of Swaha Productions, a co-sponsor of the weekend fest and host of the post-fest workshop with Krishna Das.

This formula enables organizers to offer the bulk of the festival at no charge (this year, everything but the KD events were free), and donate any at-the-door donations to the chosen charity.  It builds the community and turns new people on to chanting by not giving anyone an excuse NOT to come — it’s free!  The “Big Headliner” draws the crowd (Krishna Das packed the place), and everyone else — all those “unknown” local bands who are putting out great kirtan regularly for those in the know — tags along on the coattails of the Rock Star, playing for bigger crowds than they might normally get and opening up new audiences to their devotional art.  What’s not to love?

Chaitanya at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Chaitanya, from Asheville, NC, whips up the bhav.

More than anything else, Chantlanta proved just how many great local bhakti bands are out there doing their thing and spreading the bhav in their own little (or not-so-little) communities, just kinda’ waiting for people to wake up to this thing called kirtan.

Stay tuned to this site for more about Chantlanta’s “unknown” bands.

Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.comNo doubt there’s a Chantlanta waiting to happen in every nook of the nation, drawing together all the locals, maybe bringing in a big name or two, and growing the bhakti community in their little — or not-so-little — corner of the world.  It’s already happening, of course, in Denver, in Houston, in Minneapolis and Montreal, in Oregon and Ojai…hell, even in Vermont.  We can only hope it continues.

Bravo, Chantlanta, for showing how it’s done.

 See also:
Fresh from The Grammys, Krishna Das Shines at Chantlanta, With Band of One
Chantlanta’s ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Reveal Depth & Diversity of Southern Bhav
Chantlanta Photo Journal (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Krishna Das at Chantlanta Photo Journal (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Chantlanta Playlist on The Bhakti Beat YouTube Channel (new videos being added)
www.swahaproductions.com (produces kirtan events in the South)


Krishna Das, Chantmaster, at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Krishna Das, Chantmaster, at Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.comBarely a month after his 15 minutes of fame in the Grammy spotlight and fresh from a tropics tour of Costa Rica, Sivananda, Bahamas, and Florida, Krishna Das showed up fully for the headline show at Chantlanta last month — even after fighting a spring snowstorm in the Northeast to get there. Tablist Arjun Bruggeman was his sole bandmate. No Nina Rao. No Genevieve Walker on violin. No Mark Gorman on bass or David Nichtern on guitar. The band was stripped down to KD and Arjun, harmonium and tabla, the newly Grammy-nominated Yoga Rock Star and “his partner in crime,” as KD has called Bruggeman.

It was like we were in Russia or something…

Just before the kirtan started, I said as much to Bruggeman, and he offered that he actually preferred it that way — that it allowed him to be more attuned to KD’s chanting, to get deeper into the rhythms of the bhav. (These are my words, paraphrasing him.) As the night unfolded, you could feel the difference, subtly, in their interactions between and during the songs.

Krishna Das and Arjun Bruggement, Chantlanta, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

He even had Arjun Bruggeman cracking up.

Krishna Das was in a good mood.

He came onto stage to resounding applause, settled himself before his harmonium, adjusted his ear piece, squinted out at the full-house crowd jammed into the soaring sanctuary of the Druid Hills Baptist Church, and waved. “Hey y’all,” he said in his best Southern drawl (for a New Yorker). 

After his traditional invocation to grace, he looked out at us and deadpanned: “Please open your hymnals to page 108.” The crowd cracked up.

Krishna Das at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

"My priest won't steal."

The pared-down duo went on to deliver the Best of Krishna Das Live, commencing with Sita Ram (what else?), flowing into Om Namo Bhagavate, then to our favorite tear-jerker, My Foolish Heart /Bhaja Govinda, complete with the story of its writing (you’ve heard that one, right? The old man who was told by the traveling guru to stop wasting time and just “Bhaja Govinda” — glorify God…?). Then it was time for Durga Ma, and his classic story of when Neem Karoli Baba made him, KD, the pujari of the Durga Temple at Maharaji’s ashram after all the “real” priests were caught stealing from the donation box. Jesus was there too, Mainlining to a mass of writhing dancers, built up to with the story of the unusual statue in the secret temple high in the Himalayas where they chanted in a very esoteric language…English! The crowd cracked up.

The next day at the workshop, KD joked about how happy he was that there were so many newcomers at the concert, the kind who still laughed heartily at all of his old stories. The crowd cracked up…

Krishna Das was Still the Same. Grammy fame hadn’t gone to his head, as far as we could tell. In the Sunday workshop he was playful but prescient, wise and wise-cracking all at once, dispensing timeless bits of insight in between the notes of Hare Krishna and Hanuman’s Chalisa.  Like this one on “bringing the light” through spiritual practice: 

The audience was in love with him, including a sweet little girl in the front who kept trying to give him pictures of Neem Karoli Baba.  He answered questions till there weren’t any more, way past the allotted time, and ended the love affair with a long, sweet Chalisa, fulfilling a special request from a participant. 

KD shone like the sun, and we all sunbathed.

Krishna Das at Chantlanta by TheBhaktiBeat.com

See also:
Photo Journal: Krishna Das at Chantlanta (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Southern Bhav Rising: Chantlanta Demonstrates How To Do a Regional Chant Fest (Video/Photos)
Chantlanta’s ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Reveal Depth & Diversity of Southern Bhav (Part 1)
Chantlanta’s ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Reveal Depth & Diversity of Southern Bhav (Part 2)
Photo Journal: Chantlanta (on The Bhakti Beat facebook page)
Chantlanta Video Playlist (on The Bhakti Beat YouTube Channel)
And don’t miss these classics on Krishna Das from our archives:
Krishna Das, Bhakti Rock Star, Keeping It Real
Kirtan First: Krishna Das Invokes Narayana & Yardbirds at 55th Grammy Awards
Krishna Das’ ‘Live Ananda’ Earns Grammy Nomination; Kirtan Grammy Would Be a First
With Deva’s Miten, Krishna Das Does Dylan & Shyamdas Does the Blues
Bhakti Fest First: Krishna Das in the Spotlight, Reluctantly, at Midwest All-Wallah Finale
Amazing Grace by Krishna Das After Bhakti Fest Rain-Out