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