There are regional chant fests, and then there are Regional Chant Fests. Chantlanta proved once again how to “do” a Regional Chant Fest in the best possible way that we’ve seen. Anywhere. So far.
How’d they do it? Well, perhaps not how you might have thought…
‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands Take the Spotlight
For starters, there were no “big names” at all. There was no Krishna Das headlining, in contrast to last year. Nor were David Newman or Wah, or even the South’s favorite bhakta, Sean Johnson, on the bill, as they were two years ago. In fact, if you didn’t live in the Southeast, you probably wouldn’t recognize any of the 7 bands who played this festival. All home-grown, all from the region, all up-and-coming and deserving to be more widely known. The Unknown Bhakti Bands of the South, you might say.
Secondly, it wasn’t held in a typical chant fest location (if there is such a thing). It was held at a big ole Baptist church, one built early in the last century in a traditional style: big soaring sanctuary, tall stained-glass windows, wooden pews fanning out from the altar, balcony full of benches hovering overhead. It must be said that little else about this congregation, the Druid Hills Baptist Church, is traditional — the church was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention a few years ago for having a woman as a co-pastor. There’s an experimental theatre in the basement. Oh yeah, and kirtan. They host kirtans regularly. That’s kind of unconventional for a Baptist church in the South.
Then there’s the cost. Nothing. As in, zero, zip, zed. FREE. That’s right, one full day plus two half-days of mantra music and sound-healing magic for free. We’re talking non-stop kirtan on a main stage, plus ongoing workshops and classes in two other rooms. Plus a Friday night kirtan jam and drum circle. Plus a Sunday afternoon mantra marathon and pot-luck. All for free. How often can you say that?
Did we mention the seva? Chantlanta raised more than $7,000 for two locally based charities. Seven thousand dollars. That’s no small potatoes, and can make a real difference if channeled to the right charity — in this case two that will make that money go a long way to helping 1) impoverished girls in India (through The Learning Tea) and 2) rescued cows outside Atlanta (through the Sacred Cows Sanctuary).
A Leap of Faith
So, let’s review. A group of local bhaktas in a city that’s not exactly known as a kirtan hot spot puts on a 3-day chant fest with no “headliner” — just a bunch of unknown local bhakti bands, charges NOTHING to get in, and walks away with seven thousand bucks for good local charities. How’d they do that again?
Ian Boccio, who co-founded the first Chantlanta five years ago and continues to be the lead organizer (he also co-leads the mantra band Blue Spirit Wheel, with Stephanie Kohler), readily admits that they took a Hanuman-sized leap this year. They let go of having a “big name” after having the big name to end all big names (Krishna Das) front and center last year. The approach caused more than a little hand-wringing, Boccio said, but the Chantlanta organizing committee members were all in agreement. Boccio is convinced the leap of faith paid off: the event raised more than twice the money for charity that last year’s event did. He figures it’s because people didn’t have to shell out 35 bucks for KD, so they were more generous at the donation box. Makes sense to us.
The other key to this event’s success was the Program Guide. A simple, black and white booklet that Boccio had copied at Kinko’s. It included not only a schedule of events and descriptions of the workshops and bands (complete with Sanskrit words for novices to follow along), but — and this is key — advertisements from a slew of local businesses interested in reaching a sharply targeted, conscious-living, yoga-oriented community. The ads are primarily for local yoga studios, upcoming kirtan events, and healers like Jaguar Healing Arts and Louise Northcutt Hypnotherapy. Between the ad sales in the program and table fees for vendors exhibiting in the Conscious Living Marketplace, Chantlanta could meet its expenses and devote all donations to its charity partners.
Building a Kirtan Nation
But really, what we love more than anything about this festival is that its primary goal is simple: expand the local kirtan community. It gives local chantaholics a fest of their own to gather at; it gives local bhakti bands a much bigger audience for their practice than they would ever have at a one-band show, AND it gives kirtan newbies no excuse not to come check out the scene — it’s free! The strategy is working — Chantlanta is attracting more people each year, more national kirtan bands are putting Atlanta and the Southeast on their tour schedules, and local bands are getting bigger crowds at their regular jams throughout the year. What’s not to love?
The event officially started Friday night, with a community kirtan jam where everyone was in the band and anyone who wanted to lead a chant did — there had to be 200 people there! The jam was followed by a full-on drum circle that had the natives dancing and grooving. Saturday’s kirtan line-up included Mantra Ma, LoveShine, Cat Matlock & Japa (from Asheville, N.C.), Kirtan Bandits, and a three-band “headline” evening that featured Phil McWilliams, Blue Spirit Wheel and Rahasya, three of the best regional bhakti bands we’ve experienced anywhere. Workshops went on throughout the day, everything from Sufi chanting to sacred harp singing to an hour-long gong bath that pretty much sent us straight to the moon after a day of chanting the names. But wait, there’s more. On Sunday, Ian Boccio closed out the festival with 1,008 (no, that’s not a typo, it’s 1,008, not 108) repetitions of the Hanuman Mula Mantra. More on all that and each of these bands in a follow-up post with videos, so stay tuned to this space!
Do it Yourself
Can anyone adopt this formula for their own festival?
Well sure, why not? With caveats. Atlanta is a big city, 5 million or so strong. That’s a big population to draw upon. The Chantlanta organizing committee of 11 people, along with a cast of dozens more or so, were all unpaid volunteers offering their time as seva to the cause of building the local kirtan community. The Druid Hills Baptist Church offered their space — a labyrinthine layout with places for a main stage, two workshop rooms, a vendor’s hall and a kitchen where food was served — at a cut rate, because the event was a charity fundraiser. Dozens of local businesses also donated wares or services to a Silent Auction, which boosted the money raised for charity. Expenses were kept to a minimum, but important corners were NOT cut. For example, an expert sound guy (Matthew Hufschmidt) made sure the bands sounded just right and the lighting was favorable for video and photos. This is important stuff.
So, what do you think of the Chantlanta formula? Could this work for a kirtan fest in your home town? How might you change things up? We’d love to hear about other regional fests: what works, what doesn’t, what’s needed…? Please share your thoughts in the comments!Please visit The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page for the full Chantlanta Photo Journals. Stay tuned to The Bhakti Beat’s YouTube page for new videos posting from Chantlanta. Read about last year’s Chantlanta and its ‘Unknown’ Bhakti Bands. Follow The Bhakti Beat on twitter, facebook, Google+ and YouTube.
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