Barack-O-Rama: Chanting-4-Change In the Nation’s Capital
By Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa)
What do yoga, spiritual music, and Hare Krishna have to do with Barack Obama? At first blush, not a whole lot. Sure, Obama carried around a Hanuman trinket for some time, as indicated by Time Magazine. But there’s no direct evidence — as far as we know — that our new president has a penchant for boogying down with eastern rhythms.
There is, however, a connection. If Obama’s relationship to Martin Luther King is self-evident, and King’s relationship to Gandhi is a matter of public record, it should now be announced in no uncertain terms: Gandhi was a Vaishnava, born into a tradition that dances to the tune of Krishna’s holy name.
Indeed, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533), whom many see as the very embodiment of the Vaishnava tradition, was one of the earliest proponents of civil disobedience, making him an ideological forerunner for both King and Gandhi — and thus, in a sense, for Barack Obama. What’s more: Sri Chaitanya established kirtan — call and response singing of God’s names — as a yogic science meant for the modern age.
It is because of these rather obscure but undeniable connections that Chant-4-Change took birth. Gaura Vani, a veteran kirtan-wallah in his own right, saw the inauguration as a blessing, as the dawn of a new age — an age that is now ready for the power-packed spiritual potency of kirtan. Accordingly, he decided to produce a kirtan festival unlike any other. Well, he didn’t really decide – the event, as he says, sort of took on a life of its own.
Still, Gaura snapped into action, securing an elegant church — Church of the Holy City, within view of the White House and the Washington Monument – along with the talents of Jai Uttal, Dave Stringer and others, to usher in Obama’s new epoch of hope and change.
To choose this day for a special kirtan festival was inspired: It was January 19th, 2009 – Martin Luther King Day and the day before Obama’s inauguration as our 44th president. As people sauntered into the now transformed church — a sold-out event — they witnessed a merging of cultures and ideologies. They saw a Christian place of worship overtaken with the sounds of India – here was a spiritually active crowd engaging political interests and an appreciation for the promise of Obama. The desire for harmony was palpable, a sense of pluralism on people’s faces. Hope was high. Change was in the air, along with the exotic smell of incense and the aromas of age-old Vaishnava recipes.
Most flavorful was the holy name – it began with OM, as it always does. Cosmic creation commences with this sacred mantra, a primordial syllable embodying a big, positive “Yes” — the ultimate spiritual affirmation. In Obama’s words: “Yes we can!”
Saul David Raye, popular sacred chant musician, had the honors of opening the show with the OM mantra, exchanging key moments with internationally renowned yoga instructor Shiva Rea, who served as a vivacious MC for the rest of the evening. Establishing a mood of spirituality and change, Rea proceeded to introduce a delightfully soothing acoustic set by Daphne Tse, whose mellow, calming compositions concluded the brief, first part of the event.
That’s when Gaura Vani and his band, As Kindred Spirits, appeared on stage. In stark contrast to the gentleness of Tse’s acoustic work, Gaura’s band electrified the house, transforming the atmosphere into a spiritually uplifting rock extravaganza. Mouths dropped open, cheers shook the room, and everyone went wild.
Accompanied by half-a-dozen exotic Indian-styled dancers and a dynamic, acrobatic mridanga drum troupe, Gaura stole the show. The visual thrill of the dancers, counterbalanced by the virile percussionists and Gaura’s own considerable talents, lifted all attendees to another realm altogether. As Kindred Spirits not only took the stage but also the hearts of everyone there – some 400 chanting, dancing yoga enthusiasts, spiritual seekers, and other disparate, lucky souls walked away as transformed individuals. More than 800 others tuned in through a live webcast. “Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits,” claimed Jai Uttal, kirtan leader extraordinaire, “are simply the most wonderful kirtan band in the western world! Listen, sing and be transported.”
But things were just getting started. Dave Stringer and his kirtan troupe picked up where Gaura left off. His powerful voice and East-West music mixed with traditional Vedic mantras and invocations for peace. Stringer’s reputation in the kirtan world was clearly well earned – he deftly brought the audience to heightened levels of ecstasy by engaging his expertise in sacred chant.
And even before anyone could catch their breath (a must for yogis who practice pranayama!), Jai Uttal and his band, complete with flute virtuoso Steve Gorn, started up in their own inimitable way. Uttal had had the virtue of music training with Ali Akbar Khan and had learned kirtan and bhajan with the likes of the Bauls of Bengal. He was now a master, with numerous CDs to his credit as well as a Grammy nomination. His voice has been called a gift from Krishna; and anyone who has heard him knows why. At Chant-4Change, his version of the maha-mantra (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare) was clearly a highlight, leading into a spiritual jam session that brought both lightness and light to a festival that was now out of control.
To keep it going just a little longer, a surprise performance by Grammy-nominated artist Toni Childs left onlookers in awe. Her hip and bluesy rendition of “America the Beautiful,” equal parts Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, appropriately ended the evening.
But no one wanted the show to end, and for those trained in yoga, or who have kirtan in their heart, it doesn’t have to. It becomes part of who you are.
Chant-4-Change represented a new dawn, made all the more poignant for taking place in D.C. just prior to Obama being sworn in as our 44th president. The presence of Dave Stringer, Jai Uttal and others — including nearly 400 ecstatic chanters — confirmed for many that something is definitely brewing. The world needs change, as Obama has said numerous times. But what he doesn’t say is that real change starts on the spiritual platform. It comes about by getting back to basics — by watering the root of the tree of life. You can water branches and twigs and leaves — but until you get to the root, your endeavors are virtually useless. Chant-4-Change watered that root by addressing the spiritual bonding at the very core of our existence. The chanting touched our soul, and those who attended will never be the same.
I recently wrote a book called The Yoga of Kirtan, in which I interviewed numerous artists of sacred chant – people representing various traditions and points of view. The idea was that kirtan breaks down barriers, and all religious and political differences melt away in the presence of the holy name, the chanting of which has been described as the religion of the current world age.
Chant-4-Change was The Yoga of Kirtan made flesh. It was an outward expression of the vision expressed in my book, where I tried to theologically and ideologically express the importance of nonsectarianism and universality in our spiritual pursuits. Especially in kirtan — all differences should be set aside as one basks in the nectar of the holy name. But a book can only take you so far. What Chant-4-Change achieved, then, was the realization of the book’s ideal. It provided an outer experience that viscerally manifested the core of the book’s inner meaning.
Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor for Back to Godhead. He has published twenty-one books in numerous languages, including the recent Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and the Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008).