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Crowd Arms Raised Jazz Fest 2015
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Crowd Arms Raised Jazz Fest 2015

Wait a minute, kirtan at Jazz Fest? THE Jazz Fest?? The one going on right now in New Orleans, featuring Elton John, the Who, Lady Gaga, Jimmy Cliff, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy and a long list of luminaries from a genre-blending spectrum of rock/jazz/blues/gospel and more?

Yep, that’s the one.  You can add Sean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band to that lineup of musical legends.

So, what’s the big deal about kirtan at a mainstream music festival like Jazz Fest?

The Bhakti Beat asked Sean Johnson this in an interview shortly after the band’s set.  He paused, contemplating the question, then offered this: “I feel like kirtan music gets put into a box by people who are not familiar with it.   People who aren’t into yoga or meditation don’t even really give it a chance; there’s a prejudgement about what it is.”

Sean Johnson Wild Lotus Band TheBhaktiBeat.comEven kirtan artists, Johnson observed, have a hard time describing what they do in words that resonate with someone who doesn’t already relate to the bhakti world. Playing a mainstream music festival, he said, “is an opportunity to put mantra music right in front of a general audience, so they can bypass their own judgments about what it might be — to really be able to experience it in their bodies rather than judging it with their minds.”

“We in this kirtan subculture create these experiences and events where we can get together and be inspired by each other, but I think there’s value in the magic of what we share that can really be a gift to the wider culture,” he continued. “Mantras in and of themselves are really powerful, so if we can create experiences that bypass the boundaries that are put around certain cultural experiences, even certain kinds of art, it becomes an opportunity for the labels to become unimportant, to no longer separate us from each other.”

Any way you look at it, a kirtan band at the epic New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest is, well, epic.  And this little bhakti band from NOLA has been invited back to Jazz Fest three times so far.  We’re tempted to call them a regular.

Sean Johnson Wild Lotus Band Jazz Fest TheBhaktiBeat.com

Parmita Pushman, the founder of White Swan Records and herself a pioneer in bringing mantra music to the mainstream, had this to say about the Wild Lotus Band’s Jazz Fest participation: “Jazz Fest features the colors and creativity of New Orleans; artists like Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band are part of a vital new future for New Orleans. Kirtan music and yoga are bringing peace and music to people, but wherever it happens they also bring along their own musical influences and tastes which are seen in the expression of their song.”

The trio of Johnson (vocals/harmonium), Alvin Young (bass/guitar), and Gwendolyn Colman (vocals/percussion) has become somewhat of a legend in their own right, at least in the bhakti world.  Their brand of funked-up, bluesy, soul-tingling mantra music is a favorite at chant festivals and yoga retreats, where they never fail to whip the crowds into a frenzy of ecstatic free-dance.  But this band consistently delivers much more than rock-out dance mantra.  They will take you deep, lift you up, and crack you open with soulful sprinklings of bhakti poetry and tear-jerker gospel classics like their signature set closer, Fly Away.  Gets us every time.

Apparently we’re not alone.  Even at Jazz Fest — a big, boisterous, outdoor, party-scene festival with a dozen stages plus parades, pow-wows and pavilions — the band moved people to tears, Johnson told us. Performing on the first day of the two-weekend Fest, the band had their biggest crowd yet in their three years at Jazz Fest, with lots of kirtan newbies plus a dedicated group of hard-core fans, friends and family, who held the response.

“Many people were crying at one point or another,” Johnson said of the band’s Friday afternoon set. “I don’t know how often that happens at a big music festival, so I was really grateful that even in that outdoor, larger-scale environment with a lot of people who were not familiar with kirtan, people had such an intimate emotional experience.”

Sean Johnson Wild Lotus Band Jazz Fest ThebhaktiBeat.comWith less than an hour to play, the NOLA native said it was challenging to find a way to make the experience as accessible and comfortable as possible to people new to kirtan.  He told the crowd that the language of bhakti might be a little different than what you’re used to, but what happens in kirtan is really not that different from what happens in the gospel tent across the field or even at the main stage.

Connecting Through Music

“I don’t want people to think that kirtan is this strange esoteric form of music from another place and time,” he said.  It’s just another way of connecting through music, he said. “The most exalted moments of a stadium rock concert are when everybody knows the song; there is this communion between the band and the crowd.  The essence of what happens in that experience is the same thing that happens in kirtan.”

Unity Sean Johnson Wild Lotus Band TheBhaktiBeat.comBased on the reports we heard, there was a whole lot of communion between band and crowd going on at Jazz Fest’s Lagniappe Stage during the Wild Lotus set.  The band led just four songs in their 50-minute set, all from their brilliant 2014 CD, “Unity,” with a little intro to each to offer some context for the mantras. (You’ve got “Unity,” right? If not, get it here.)

They opened with the exotic, rollicking tribute to the Remover of Obstacles, “Ganesha’s Belly Dance,” then moved into the CD’s title song, a mash-up of original lyrics around the theme of oneness fused with Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu, the Hindu prayer of peace for all beings. Next, their powerful, primal Kali chant, “The Way of Love,” had the crowd leaping over hedges to dance in a grassy area near the stage in what Johnson called a “little bit of a Bhakti Fest moment…but with grass.”

Then, with the revelers securely in the palm of their hands, the trio knocked it out of the park with the soulful song of hope that they wrote for the city they love in the wake of the hurricane that nearly destroyed it.  “I Will Rise Again” is a moving tribute to the band’s beloved NOLA rising from the floodwaters of Katrina.  It gives us goosebumps, and we’re pretty far removed from the Big Easy…

We imagine there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd.

Jazz Fest photos courtesy of Bonnie Gustin Photography.

 

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This is classic Shyamdas, in all his spontaneous wit and wackiness.  The always-unpredictable closing session of Omega Ecstatic Chant had just gotten underway, with Shyamdas at the helm.  It was time to call in the troops — to get all the musicians on stage for the finale  and send the 1,000 or so chanters off with a final Radhe Shyam.

These grand all-wallah finales have become somewhat legendary at Ecstatic Chant, as they now have at Bhakti Fest and other kirtan festivals.  Where else do you get to see Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Deva Premal, Snatam Kaur, Gaura Vani, Radhanath Swami, C.C. White, Sruti Ram and Ishwari, along with a host of world-class supporting musicians like Steve Gorn, Richard Davis and Daniel Paul, all on stage together, sharing mics and cajoling one another on with good-natured giddiness? 

It’s like the Mantra Dream Team, gathering jubilantly for one last blast of bhav — and invariably rousing the crowd to a full-on, dancing, swaying, shake-the-roof-rafters climax.

For over a decade at Omega Chant, Shyamdas has been the undisputed captain of the team, taking his place at the helm and steering his playmates in lila right up and over a tidal wave of bhav.  Every year, he would surprise with some completely unexpected twist on an old classic, effortlessly — and hysterically, at times — weaving his beloved Radhe into anything and everything.  You never knew what Shyamdas was going to come up with next.  (And neither, surely, did the musicians around him — witness the expression on Vishvambhar Sheth’s face when Shyam-ji broke out in a Radhe-fied version of “Working My Way Back to You Babe” at Omega 2011.)  Priceless!

Last fall, Shyamdas had something else up the sleeve of his old-style kurta.  As the session was getting underway and the musicians tuning up, Shyamdas leaned toward Richard Davis and whispered a question unheard by most, Davis recalled recently.  Davis, who has played guitar for Shyamdas for many years in all manner of venues, must have had a pretty good idea what was coming next when Shyam-Ji asked if he knew ‘Yesterday.’

The rest of us, I’d venture to guess, were more than a little perplexed when, moments later, the familiar and famous melody of the Beatles’ 1965 love ballad was rising from Shyam’s harmonium.  But this was no average ‘Yesterday’ cover.  Uh-uh.  This was Shyamdas in his element, his lila of unscripted, whole-hearted devotion on full display as he smiled knowingly and transformed the Fab Four’s words into a sweet improvised-on-the-spot lullaby to Radhe.

Looking out at all of us — who clearly weren’t ready to see this chant lovefest end — he deadpanned in perfect melody: “Why you have to go, I don’t know, Hari wouldn’t say. I said Radhe Shyam, now I long for Sri Radhe.”  The line brought ripples of laughter throughout the packed Main Hall, and the crowd gathered more tightly around the stage to see the master innovator in action, swarming like honeybees to collect the nectar of the lotus.  

That was yesterday. 

Today, the same line resonates differently.  It carries a bittersweet tenderness — a wholly different longing — as the kirtan and Krishna communities try to come to grips with the reality of the bhakti world without Captain Shyam steering the ship. 

*sigh*

“Why’d you have to go, Shyamdas-Ji? Hari didn’t say. Please say Radhe Shyam, one more time, say Radhe Shyam…”

Also see:

Swept Up in A ‘Tidal Wave of Bhav’ with Shyamdas: Epic 45-Minute MahaMantra (VIDEO) 

Remembering Shyamdas Photo Journal on Facebook

Shyamdas Remembered Video Playlist of Kirtans and Teachings on YouTube

 

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In "the pit"

The return of The Hanumen — the testosterone-driven ensemble band created by John de Kadt, Benjy Wertheimer and Gaura Vani — has been one of the most anticipated events in this kirtan addict’s year.  Who could resist this combination of three exquisite musicians, each with a heart as big as Hanuman’s (and humors to match)?

We caught up with the multi-instrumentalist mantra revolutionaries at a true hotbed of revolution, Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., near the end of their short, sweet tour up the East Coast (don’t worry, West Coasters: The Hanumen are coming your way in September).  Afterward, we got to sit down with all four of the current incarnation of this band of bhakti brothers — bassist Purusartha Dasa being the fourth  — for an interview that turned into more of sit-down comedy routine at times:

from thehanumen.com

The Hanumen played in “the pit” at Goddard — fitting, perhaps for revolutionaries whose publicity photos show them covered in mud? — an acoustically correct sound stage from which the college’s community FM station, WGDR, audiocast the concert live to the world.  (A recording of it may be forthcoming, we’re told.)

Their concert covered a lot of sacred ground in mantra music…

delicious drum poetry from John de Kadt, beginning with the dreamily invitational, “Come Dance With Me”…

 

 

 

an Alleluia solo in the 12th century Gregorian Chant tradition from Benjy Wertheimer that took our breath away…

 

 

 

Gaura Vani’s inimitable playfulfulness, sacred story-telling, and powerful call-and-response leadership…

 

 

 

and even a little dance lesson in the “Swami Shuffle” from quiet, dimunitive Purusartha Dasa.

 

The evening was packed with pleasant surprises, beautifully showcasing the master musicianship of each individually and melding them seamlessly into a smooth flow of original compositions, ancient chants, reincarnated gospel songs, and instrumental interludes.  Luscious.

This is one perfect example:

 

Check our YouTube page for the latest uploads from The Hanumen @ Goddard!

See also: 
www.thehanumen.com
www.johndekadt.com
www.benjymusic.com
www.gauravani.com

 

 

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Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe Rock On

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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.

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