“Bonna-what?” my father asked. “How do you spell it?” I spelled the name of the festival, already certain he still wouldn’t recognize it. My mother was equally unaware.
Fortunately for all of us, my brother arrived soon after that. His response: “Whaaaat?!?!?! That’s sick!” His reaction, along with the lineup and Wikipedia, helped contextualize one of the world’s largest music festivals in a way my parents could understand.
“Oh, wow,” my mother said. “This is a big deal.” I nodded. She asked, “How do you say the band’s name again?” [Rah-hahs-sya]
Until spring, I would have scoffed at the prediction that I’d attend Bonnaroo. But in mid-April, I was crammed in the backseat of a Civic Hybrid nearly bursting with instruments, amps, and sleeping pads, for a weekend in Winston-Salem with Rahasya. While on the road, Surdas shocked me with the likelihood of kirtan at Bonnaroo. And within a few weeks, the three performances were confirmed.
The surreality lingered far longer, even after writing a press release. I pondered who would be in the audience, what reactions we’d hear. I certainly expected intoxicated people stumbling around to say, “Curtain? Is that how you say it?”
En route to Bonnaroo, the Rahasya kirtan-wallahs stopped in Atlanta for a sitar string.
Hours later, when Surdas navigated the heavy vehicle and foot traffic on the festival grounds, volunteers didn’t know the location of our camping area. While turning around in a vehicle search area, a security guard, weapons visible, approached the van suspiciously. Before he reached it, Mason said calmly, “These aren’t the kirtan-wallahs you’re looking for.” The yogi mind trick worked—the guard’s wariness disappeared by the time he talked to Surdas. (Or perhaps not so remarkable, given that the van had a special parking sticker on the windshield.)
Eventually we reached our relatively peaceful camping area, where we pitched tents before dark. Then we visited the Solar Stage (so called because it is actually solar-powered) and met the festival staff there. James, the manager of the stage, was one of the most Buddhalike people I encountered the whole weekend. He was always smiling, never worried.
The Solar Stage’s schedule was the same every morning: a restorative class by teachers from Nashville, Rahasya’s vinyasa class with live (acoustic) music, Rahasya’s kirtan (electric). As we neared the Solar Stage Friday morning, we walked past dozens of people on yoga mats. I was amazed to see so many people before 8:30am. By the time the first yoga class started, hundreds of people had assembled—exponentially larger than any yoga event I’ve ever seen.
The small shade structure near the Solar Stage only covered a few dozen people, who were far outnumbered by people covering the ground in every direction, literally as far as I could see. Most were in full sun. By the time the classes started, some of the vendors barely visible from the stage had difficulty entering and exiting their booths due to the crowd.
I’m now ashamed to admit that beforehand I didn’t think watching the class would be that interesting, even though I teach yoga. Apparently I’m jaded, though, because the class was incredibly inspiring. So I was grateful to have the easiest job during the class: drone notes on harmonium while Mason played sitar. I had my own meditation, relaxing into my left hand (which was moving the harmonium bellows), listening to Mason, and watching the class. The hundreds of people at Bonnaroo—of all shapes and sizes, of all degrees of yoga experience, in varying states of sobriety—moved me more than I ever anticipated. Some people didn’t have mats and ended up covered in grass and dirt, yet still smiled throughout. Others struggled with some of the poses, yet remained focused on their own space. Surdas repeatedly encouraged people to connect to the sound, to send energy out to the rest of the festival.
The first chant after the class was a Rahasya version of the Mahamantra. After nearly two hours of classes, many people were ready to eat and hydrate. The remaining audience, however, was ecstatic. Those familiar with kirtan were easy to spot–often they already knew the mantras. One guy sat cross-legged in the sunshine, a small bundle of burning sage stuck in the ground in front of him. He chanted throughout the set, eyes closed the entire time.
And even those new to kirtan embraced it completely. Many looked like incarnations of Shiva, with arms waving as they danced around. Though some people walked by with puzzled looks on their faces, far more gathered to listen and watch (and usually participate). The only downside to being onstage was that I couldn’t join the frolicking audience. Shiva Nataraj dances upon the demon of ignorance, and I appreciated what was trampled during the kirtan.
Before the final song (3 chants filled the hour-long set), an audience member requested that we bless the recent marriage of two of his friends. Surdas announced the blessing on his microphone, and I felt blessed to share in something so meaningful to the couple. After the kirtan, Varja and I met some people from the nearby Isha ashram. Other yogis from New York and Tennessee expressed gratitude that Bonnaroo had kirtan for the first time. And as we imagined, many people’s first experience of kirtan was that morning. We were bombarded with questions: This is yoga? You wrote this music? What other kirtan artists do you recommend?
Then Surdas, Vajra, and Mason facilitated a chanting workshop at The Academy. I took a break to practice asana–I spread a thin sarong under the same tree that had recently shaded 50 people during class. Then I barely heard myself breathe as the Bonnaroo crowds, moving like people in a subway station, milled around me. Many people were curious, some oblivious, and others passed out.
Practice finished, I went to The Academy, wondering how the workshop could happen amidst thundering bass and drums coming from nearby stages. Yet the 30 closely-packed people chanting immediately muffled all other noise. Towards the end, Surdas brought the microphone to different people, amplifying many voices with each repetition of the Mahamantra. Then he told the participants to face out, towards the festival, and send the sound to everyone else. Though I’ve chanted the Mahamantra many, many times, I was humbled by the force of this group.
Though Bonnaroo has more big-name acts than anyone could see in a long weekend, I really appreciated the diversity of the Solar Stage. In addition to yoga, kirtan, and African drumming, one of my favorite groups was Fresh Trix, a breakdancing group (later I was schooled to say b-boying). The dancers were amazing, as well as DJ Brett Rock, who actually used turntables. If he spun in Atlanta, I’d go clubbing every weekend. Seriously. One guy jumped from standing into headstand (not handstand), then immediately popped both legs into full lotus. As my brother would say, “Whaaaat?!?!” Plenty of yogis (myself included) struggle with that move.
On Saturday afternoon, I randomly encountered a glassblowing demonstration. The piece in progress: a purple dildo. I wasn’t that curious, but one of the people watching recognized me from the yoga classes. He had limited experience with kirtan and asked the questions I heard most often:
“What’s that instrument?” A harmonium—basically a miniature organ that functions like an accordion (acoustic, with bellows to create sound).
“Is that a real sitar?” Yep.
After we started talking, another man asked me about yoga, which he’d never tried before. So we three discussed meditation, music, and music as meditation, while the glassblower hammered at the dildo–quite a surreal juxtaposition! I didn’t stay for the finished phallus, but I did give both of the men Rahasya stickers.
My favorite performance began Saturday night with the following introduction: “We’re Buffalo Springfield. We’re from the past.” Fair enough, given their 43-year hiatus. The first few songs were acoustic, pretty chill. I figured the set would be fairly mellow. Wrong. Neil Young played guitar with a passion I’ve rarely witnessed in anyone. He truly defies description—all I can say is he’s got a lot of shakti. And he made other Bonnaroo performers look like amateurs. I include myself in the humbling—I thought I’d put a lot of heart into the Rahasya sets, but Neil Young made me feel like a slacker.
I awoke about 4:45am on Sunday, and music was still audible in the morning twilight. Impulsively, I decided to return to Centeroo. I caught STS9’s last few songs, while several thousands of people were still dancing. A kind festival-goer let me use her LED hula hoop, so I grooved in circles til 5:30am. “We love you guys so much,” one of the band members said at the conclusion of the set. He continued, “Thanks for loving us back.”
Too wired to sleep, I decided to practice asana. From the Solar Stage I procured a burlap sack and spread it under the same tree to practice. A few people walked by, though it was still too early for the meditation group:
Because I love my bandmates, I showered (meaning a 90-second rinse) before sleeping briefly. I had anticipated prodigious amounts of sweat, but not all the dust in the air.
A small crowd on Sunday wouldn’t have surprised me; I figured by the final day people would be too exhausted to do anything before noon. But back again, still in full sun, the hundreds of Bonnaroo yogis. I was just as wrong as I’d been about Buffalo Springfield. I felt a mix of emotions, from nervousness to bliss. But mostly boundless gratitude—for Rahasya, the people who arranged our participation at Bonnaroo, my teachers, and of course the enthuasiastic people creating and sharing the practice with us.
After the final kirtan, a guy approached the table where Vajra and I stood. Very quietly he said, “I’ve needed this all weekend.” With tears in his eyes he asked, “What is this practice?” I could never explain fully, but I told him that kirtan is one of the ways in which I connect to the divine and work towards my own consciousness, my own highest good. Soon after, Vajra and I talked to an friendly couple about their Bonnaroo experience. Before leaving, the guy shyly said, “We met at the first kirtan.”
Backstage, I ended up talking to one of the b-boys (the corrected label for breakdancers) for a long time. He shared some crazy family history, said he was really drawn to yoga and appreciated what was said in the Rahasya classes. Until Saturday, he didn’t know that guru can translate as “remover of darkness.” Inadvertently, he reminded me that I often take yoga knowledge as universal, when in fact it’s often not.
Then he remarked, “I really liked the idea that the point of yoga is being present. But I can’t remember verbatim how he [Surdas] explained the next part in the class.” I also didn’t remember anything verbatim, but I offered him my sentiment: “Perhaps something like you’re a manifestation of the divine, that you already have everything you need inside of you.” At that statement, tears slid down his cheeks. Equally powerful as his experience was his willingness to share it with me, someone he’d just met.
What I appreciated most at Bonnaroo was the diversity. My highlights: Bela Fleck and the (original) Flecktones, Ray Lamontagne, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Loretta Lynn, The Meters, STS9, Mavis Staples, and of course aforementioned Buffalo Springfield. (I skipped all headlining acts on the main stage—I love music, but not so much crowds of 80,000+.)
Though Bonnaroo’s lineup is international, musical diversity from the South was also well-represented: Widespread Panic, Big Boi, STS9, and Rahasya are all from Atlanta/Athens (not to mention other acts from the rest of the region). Similarly, kirtan at Bonnaroo aptly parallels yoga in the Southeast (and the premise of this blog): prevalent, yet still not fully mainstream. But despite yoga’s ubiquity in some areas (i.e. the West Coast), its rarity elsewhere (such as the South) balances out that domination.
Last year I attended Bhakti Fest, where I felt perfectly at home among vegetarian-only food vendors, no alcohol, no smoking. Not surprisingly, I never encountered anyone blowing dildos (out of glass, sorry for that one). Bonnaroo, if you couldn’t already imagine, does not resemble yoga festivals. Yet that contrast made so much of the experience meaningful. Initially, I worried that Rahasya would be out of place. But we were welcomed, both by the festival and the audience.
So kudos to the festival’s organizers for being even more inclusive than they already are. Rahasya at Bonnaroo truly validated the fact that kirtan is not just for yogis. In that sense, we were all in exactly the right place.
SK © 2011