North Carolina, USA -- About two hundred people, mostly first-time visitors to a Hare Krishna temple, attended “GeorgeFest” at the Prabhupada Village rural community on Saturday November 7, paying twenty bucks a pop.
The event was designed as an innovative way to introduce the local public to Krishna consciousness, through their appreciation for George Harrison’s persona and music. Most guests, including ISKCON devotees, were from nearby towns such as Greensboro and Raleigh—although some arrived from as far afield as Floyd and Christiansburg in Virginia, and Gainesville in Florida.
Organizer Mitrasena Dasa, who has recently reached out to the public in various ways including several sustainable living events, says he was concerned about the weather on the day—as a bad forecast can discourage people from visiting the rural temple. But luckily GeorgeFest turned out to be as clear, blue and sunny a day as one could wish for in November.
In answer, visitors flowed in, and an hour after the festival’s 11am start time, the parking lot had filled up and a crowd had gathered in the temple in anticipation of a performance by North Carolina-based sitar maestro Viswas Chitnis—unsurprisingly, the first Sitar Concert to be held in Stokes County.
Accompanied by Chris Johnson on tabla, Viswas began with the traditional introductory Alaap, presenting each of the piece’s notes, and gently unfolding the raga, or melodic theme. As speed, intensity, and complexity began to build, audience members exchanged glances, smiling and pointing incredulously as if to say, “Do you see what I see?”
The performers played faster and faster, until at last the sitar and tabla hit the final note together with expert, artistic unity. “The audience was silent for a moment, making sure it was really over,” recalls Mitrasena with his customary cheerful enthusiasm. “Then the pent-up applause burst forth, filling the room with the praise and exclamation everyone had been holding along with their breath.”
Hot vegetarian food was served at the event throughout the day, and as some visitors lined up in a rolling green North Carolina field for lunch, others attended a talk inside the temple by special guest Gurudas, one of Srila Prabhupada’s earliest disciples and a pioneer of ISKCON in America and England. The talk, entitled My Friend George Harrison, could also be heard by the outside diners over a sound system, as Gurudas recounted his experiences and close lifelong friendship with the former Beatle.
“He really brought the legend to life in a personal, friendly way, especially George’s spiritual side,” one guest commented. The crowd found Gurudas’ question and answer session especially appealing, saying he was at his most heartfelt and spontaneous when speaking “off the script.”
A major draw of GeorgeFest was the promise of the cream of local talent singing Harrison’s songs. Local Greensboro singer-songwriter Kristen Leigh was first up, taking to the Festival of India stage along with violinist Ueli Schweizer to deliver an achingly beautiful set of George’s songs.
“I’ve never been here before, but this place is wonderful—I love it!” Kristen remarked to the audience during in-between song banter. “How many of you are here for the first time?”
“When I saw about three quarters of the audience raise their hands, that was the first time I knew that all the hard work I’d put into organizing the festival was worthwile,” Mitrasena says.
Headliner of his own one-man show “Clang Quartet,” Scotty Irving was up next, performing two tracks from George Harrison’s unusual album “Electronic Sounds,” made using only a Moog synthesizer.
“Many of the audience seemed unaware that George had even made such an album,” Mitrasena, a lover of all things quirky, says, grinning. “I think George would have had a laugh seeing the puzzled looks on their faces.”
Eclectic singer-songwriter Jonny Colley, once described as “a Zen hillbilly with something to say” followed Irving’s performance with a set of Harrison’s more familiar songs. He did venture beyond the typical with Across the Universe, however, a song including the phrase, “Jaya Gurudeva Om.”
Joining Colley on “Something” and “For You Blue” and following with his own solo set was Bret Hart, a man evocative of GeorgeFest’s varied and talented guests. Hailing from Eden, North Carolina, he’s a multi-talented composer, educator, instrument builder, sculptor and published writer who plays guitar and sings in his Methodist church’s praise band “The Monkey Puppets.”
“Bret was not only a performer, but also dedicated weeks of his spare time helping me to organize the event,” Mitrasena says. “He designed the festival poster, and recorded the whole of GeorgeFest using his professional equipment.”
A second talk by Gurudas about his interactions with George Harrison was next on the schedule, this time focusing on the practice of chanting Hare Krishna. The audience were fascinated, hurling question after question at him. “What meditation and chanting practices did George do?” they asked. “How do you do them?” “How seriously did George take them?”
Speaking on making 1971’s Radha Krishna Temple album, Gurudas talked about how Paul McCartney had helped in the studio and George had added embellishments. “The single from it, Hare Krishna Mantra, became one of the fastest selling records in Apple history,” he remarked. “And we were simply chanting Hare Krishna!”
This was a perfect segue for Gurudas and Mitrasena to introduce their audience to kirtan, Vaishnavism’s ancient style of call and response singing. Demonstrating the melody from Hare Krishna Mantra on his guitar, Mitra sang the track, while the audience sang along and some even picked up their guitars to join in.
Inspired by the happy, relaxed atmosphere, Mitra told the crowd, “I come here, to this temple, almost every morning to sing Hare Krishna and play my guitar. This is like my living room, and I'm so happy to see all of you here, as my friends, singing with me. You are very welcome here. I'll always cherish this moment.”
One visitor later agreed with him, saying she had felt “at her core being” in that moment, while chanting Hare Krishna: “That happy place where you feel balanced and completely comfortable, at peace with yourself and the world.”
The final event of GeorgeFest was a sing-along to George Harrison’s 1970 hit My Sweet Lord. “We had wanted to have one hundred guitars playing simultaneously, but we didn’t quite get there,” says Mitra. “All the same, the guitars we did have provided 100% satisfaction.”
The extended version of the song was punctuated by a violin solo from Ueli Schweizer, and emulated the original recording by fading out as the crowd of musicians played and sang more and more softly: “I really want to see you, really want to be with you....” while others harmonized, “Hare Krishna”¦”
The overall mood was one of sharing with new friends that already felt like family, and Mitrasena noticed a few moistened eyes, and a few voices trembling with emotion. No one wanted it to end. But All Things Must Pass, and finally so did George Fest 2009.
As they got ready for the drive home, many visitors expressed their appreciation and enjoyment of the event. “I love music festivals, but don’t attend many as I am a recovering addict, and drugs and alcohol usually play a big part,” one said. “Thank you for making a space for my partner and I to enjoy ourselves in a drug-free environment.”
“What a great way to celebrate George Harrison’s life,” another said. “We love the atmosphere of the community and all the people in it. The food was, as usual, very good. I was looking forward to the meal so much—it makes me feel so good when I eat it!”
A comment from one visitor, Jaimee, was especially moving: “I felt very welcomed although I attended alone and for the first time. I felt like I was at home. My favorite part was the chanting, I really felt connected with everyone and can’t wait to return! I feel that your ministry is serving a great purpose and although I did not grow up in a Krishna community, I feel that you are serving a higher good. Please let me know how I may be of service to you, your organization, and God.”
Echoing Jaimee’s sentiment, Jyoti, a young devotee from Baltimore who grew up in ISKCON, said she felt comfortable and at ease with all the guests although they had never even been to a Hare Krishna temple before. Likewise, visitors said they felt just as at ease with the Hare Krishnas.
“We didn’t feel like we were different from them, and they didn’t feel different from us,” Jyoti said.
Mitrasena added that the interaction between devotees and newcomers was beneficial on both sides.
“Sometimes we can just get caught up in what needs to be done day-to-day, and loose that feeling of love and inspiration that Krishna consciousness brings,” he says. “That’s why here in Prabhupada Village, we’re trying to do more innovative things, and stir up interest from other devotees who think outside the box.”
One of these devotees, of course, was GeorgeFest’s special guest Gurudas. One of ISKCON’s first innovators, he organized the famous Mantra Rock Dance in San Francisco in 1967, which had Srila Prabhupada headlining a line-up that included The Grateful Dead and Allen Ginsberg. He also got the Beatles interested in Prabhupada’s movement in London.
So little could be as inspiring to Mitrasena as when Gurudas turned to him just before leaving for England and said, “So.. are you ready for your next Krishna conscious adventure?”
He certainly is. Next, Mitra plans to hold a replica of Kumbha Mela—India’s famous gathering of holy people—with mass bathing in the river on the Prabhupada Village temple property to substitute the traditional dip in the Ganges.
“I think ISKCON youth would be really into the idea, as well as local people and the Indian community,” Mitrasena says. “We want to bring all communities together in Krishna consciousness, because we all have things to offer, and we can all benefit from each other’s association.”
A full recording of GeorgeFest will be available through Bret Hart’s company, Hipworks at hartsongs.tripod.com.