What I knew: my girlfriends went last year, and loved it.
Here’s the website: http://www.kirtanfestmilwaukee.com/
If I type “What is kirtan” into google, here is what appears: “Kirtan is a group singing and music-making experience, involving ancient Sanskrit chants. It blurs the boundaries between performers and audience, and has been called “Sanskrit Karaoke”.“
Why I went? I’ve wanted to make music for yoga classes for nearly as long as I’ve been doing yoga (15 years), but I haven’t been able to figure out how that would work with just a solo violin. So, I decided to go find out. As an end in itself, I could always use a weekend of spiritual solitude among like-minded strangers. It was a good sign when I found Wellspring farm to stay six miles away:
Until this weekend, my only prior experience with kirtan was this group: Wild Lotus Band
Sean Johnson led a kirtan at a Yoga Journal conference in Wisconsin, a few years back. I remember sitting on the floor singing and swaying with a bunch of people, and that he later led a yoga class with live electric bass and irish flute (along with the sanskrit chanting). I loved that the musical style had been so opened up to the New Orleans melting pot where the band is from. So, I figured there must be room in kirtan for me.
Well, I was right!
First of all, that bit up top about “blurring the lines between performers and audience” is absolutely true. The musical style is basically “call and response” – so the leader will sing a few words, and then everyone sings back. And I do mean Everyone. Kirtanfest’s attendees contained a weekend’s worth of musical groups, on average 5 members, so the group of folks sitting and singing along was probably more musically in-tune than your average concertgoers. Add to that the fact that they were all attempting a spiritual connection – and truly acting like a community – and I was already having a pretty stellar Friday night. I especially liked seeing that groups kept borrowing each other’s bassists, drummers, aunts, uncles, what have you. Even before I got into the mix, it was wonderful to witness that friendly collaboration. The organizer’s dad, Fred, saw me sitting by myself Friday night and took it upon himself to introduce me to literally everyone within arm’s reach.
Not that I minded hanging out with my new mat, thanks to a timely gift made by Todd’s mom: behold my flying kirtan carpet!
Then, of course, the fiddle got into the mix. Saturday afternoon an “open mic” was listed — and I had no idea what that might mean. I certainly hadn’t prepared any chants. So, I assumed that everyone would just “jam” together for the time of the open mic. This led me to jump up, as soon as people started setting up, and ask if I could play with them. Turns out this was just the first group, but they were actually looking for a “gypsy violinist” – and the leader Shanti lives close to me. What can I say? Right place, right time.
After this interlude, other groups played the open mic without my interference. On Sunday I was invited to play with the organizer Kaita (front left), and again later with her friend Scott Hestekin and his Aunt Joyce (front right – notice – she was also singing with Shanti):
You may not be able to tell from the photos, but these were completely ecstatic moments for me. Singing, chanting and chatting with a sweet group of people, under a small tent, over a perfect weekend, and then getting to play my violin — it just couldn’t have been any better.
Each morning started with breakfast at the farm, where the ladies of Sacred Waters Kirtan also stayed – we had truly joyful conversation over breakfast with the other farm guests. Once I arrived at the retreat center, I’d attend a physical yoga class accompanied by a truly magical percussionist named Jahmes. On Saturday morning, he played a Native American flute and got a response from a mourning dove (not once not twice but about six times), so it seemed even the birds were doing kirtan-style call and response.
During the three days I spent there, I’d say I spent at least 12 hours singing, with breaks for lovely vegetarian food. Even though I sat with knees crossed most of that time, neither my throat nor my knees were sore! Blue Lotus Farm, the private property hosting the event, is usually used for children and adults with special needs. What a blessing, to be in such a special place with a group of people trying to do good things for each other! I felt uplifted just to be there.
On Sunday, we had only one simple “talk about nothing” from David Newman….as with most things of a spiritual nature, description is probably best left to direct experience. So, I will leave you with his words in musical form, for all my loved ones: