for ISKCON News on Dec. 11, 2010
Venezuela celebrated on November 11th, when one of their most cherished singers and composers, Ilan Chester, won an award for “best folk or traditional album of the year” for his collection “Tesoros de la música Venezolana” ( Treasures of Venezuelan Music) at the Latin Grammys in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Yet Vaishnavas around the world also celebrated, for Chester is also known as Havi Dasa, and is an ISKCON devotee and initiated disciple of Srila Prabhupada.
ISKCON News managed to catch up with him this week for a refreshingly honest chat about the Grammy, his music, and the struggle of being a devotee in the music business.
ISKCON NEWS: Can you tell us about your winning record?
HAVI DAS: It is a collection that includes six CDs, with 12 songs on each CD that are emblematic of Venezuelan tradition. Forty Venezuelan artists sing in a duet with me and each CD is accompanied by a 64-page booklet that includes interviews with personalities and writings about the history of music from the various regions of the country. The music is characterized by being very picturesque and sensitive. Most of the compositions are love songs but there are also nice songs related to the natural beauty of the country.
What does it mean to you to have won this award?
As an artist, it is always nice to know that your work is appreciated. As a devotee, what satisfies me more is to have had the opportunity to make my convictions be heard. In fact, I have written articles and essays that have been published in various newspapers and Internet websites. I have also been able to talk to leading figures about Srila Prabhupada’s legacy.
When did you begin your career in music? Can you tell us how you got started?
My first appearance On TV was at the age of five, and my natural musical tendencies lead me to be part of many music groups in my youth. But it wasn’t until the early '80s that I strongly burst into the Spanish-speaking media, introducing my work as a musician and singer in different South American countries.
When and how did you first discover Krishna consciousness, and how did you join ISKCON?
It was in Israel, in 1971. I had a very wonderful experience with a young man who visited some of us at the university in Tel Aviv. He just came from India and was on his way to Argentina. We spent long hours talking on the roof of one of the buildings about the variety of concepts of reality and truth, and at the end he said he was practicing bhakti yoga. That awoke curiosity in me.
The next day, I was waiting for a bus and I saw a magazine at the newstand with the title: “The Hare Krishnas in Israel.” I read the article and there it was again: “Bhakti Yoga.” I immediately took a taxi, and went to the address written in the magazine.
That is how I met Dinesh Chandra Prabhu and his wife, Krishna Devi, from whom I learned all about Krishna consciousness and Srila Prabhupada. Dinesh Chandra was the person who recorded Srila Prabhupada’s first lectures, before Krishna Kanti Prabhu did, and his wife published the first cookbook in our movement. I was initiated by Srila Prabhupada on December 25th, 1973, together with few devotees among whom was our dear Srila Virabahu Prabhu.
Did kirtan and devotional music play a part in your attraction to Krishna consciousness?
Definitely. I remember that on my first visit to Dinesh Chandra and Krishna Devi's house, I had the opportunity to listen to the Maha mantra chanted by Srila Prabhupada on earphones. At that moment my life changed.
Do you often lead and participate in kirtans at devotee festivals and programs? What does kirtan mean to you?
Curiously, I can sing in front of thousands of people but in temples I feel ashamed when I am invited to sing a kirtan. I feel that kirtan has to come from a sincere soul and in that sense I feel uncomfortable when in the presence of so many sincere devotees. This is not a sign of me being humble—I am not a humble person—but I do feel shame. However, I am very happy participating in bhajans and kirtans. Kirtan is our wealth. A kirtan, sung in a concentrated manner and in an attitude of meditation, is our direct contact with transcendence and the loving atmosphere that eternally exists in the Spiritual World. It is the most treasured gift from Srila Prabhupada as an expression of his compassion and love for all the living entities.
Can you tell us about some of the musical contributions you have made to ISKCON projects?
At the end of the '70s and beginning of the '80s, I served in ISKCON with my music on three productions in London and Los Angeles. At that time, in England and later throughout Europe, these records were sold by the thousands by devotees in the streets who collected for the temples. I understand that some buildings were purchased as a result of our combined efforts.
The first release was “Night and day dream,” produced with Hari Krishna Dasa, one of the leaders in ISKCON England at the time, who contributed with his musicality and lyrics. The second one was titled “Songs From the Future.” This project, written by Sakshi Gopal Prabhu, was a great inspiration to me due to its profound content. The third one was a work shared with Prahrad das (Patrick Bernard) and with the talented Bhumadeva Prabhu, among other loving devotees and professionals from the BBC radio channel. It was titled: “Adventures of the Great King Ram,” based of course on the Ramayana.
Did you already have an established professional musical career when you became a devotee?
I was actively preaching during the '70s. Then I started my period as a married man. It was at this time, living in England, that I devoted myself to composition and eventually to the production of music and live shows.
What influence, direct or indirect, does Krishna consciousness have on your music?
Krishna consciousness is and has always been my true source of inspiration. It is the love found in the hearts of the devotees for Krishna that has motivated me to write songs. Few know my songs to have an internal and complex undertone. I have avoided being direct when writing lyrics to avoid being misunderstood or generate offenses.
How do Krishna and Srila Prabhupada inspire you in your life?
Well, “in my life” is quite a big question for a struggling devotee like me. I have gone through different periods, from the most obscure to the most exciting. However, perhaps due to the fact that I soon will be sixty years old, every day that passes I meditate on the day when I will be able to exclusively and fully engage myself in the chanting of the Holy Name in association with devotees. Anybody who has studied Srila Prabhupada’s books and associated with devotees, can’t see himself in any other place.
You seem to be quite open to the media and to your fans about the fact that you are a practitioner of Vaishnavism. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, I am proud of my connection with Srila Prabhupada, with Krishna consciousness and ISKCON and I am very open about this with the public and the media. Inevitably, with the third eye Srila Prabhupada gave us, I can sometimes see the misery that is present when we take Krishna out of the equation of our lives—especially in an insane environment such as the world of show business.
Yes, there is the Grammy award, but there is also vanity and superficiality. You will find, of course, that some of the business executives are also behind casinos—and let’s not forget to mention that this award is granted thanks to the good will of corporations like Budweiser and Burger King, its sponsors.
If I have an opportunity, my proposal, either in making music, in my writings or through my website, is to convey what Srila Prabhupada gave us: We are spiritual souls who will be in this world for a short period of time, and we have to take seriously the options we have considering life continuity. The spiritual world exists—it is our reality, it’s our home. My profession has given me the chance to say this openly.
How do you balance having a public life as a popular musician and a private life as a devotee of Krishna?
Being a regulated disciple has been a challenge. As [ISKCON sannyasi] Mahanidhi Swami says, “The chanting on beads (japa) starts the night before.” The term ‘disciple’ is related to the term ‘discipline’ and in this profession it becomes very difficult to be strict. It is a solace for me that my family—my sons and daughters—are sincere devotees, and they love kirtan and bhajans as I do. They have made Krishna consciousness their life and soul. I have had, and still have to be, much more careful.
After the Grammy, what's up next for you? And how will you continue to infuse spirituality into your music and career?
For the moment, I am going to Mayapur for a month to hear and chant with my son who is in the ashrama there. Then, I will go to Jagannath Puri for fifteen days. During seven of these days, I am lucky that I will be associating with Dhanurdhara Swami and Gunagrahi Maharaja, among other devotees. This is the immediate future. Then I have performances in Australia and Canada.
Regarding spirituality in my music, I understand that my work is within the format of the three modes of the material energy, and I know that it cannot awake me or anyone else from the dream of the false identity with this body, but I am doing what is my calling and my nature.
Aside from the profession, I am working on the composition of melodies and making musical arrangements to be performed by an orchestra and an 85-piece choir of the songs and poems written by our Acharyas. The idea is to bring them to a symphonic level, combining the classic musical heritage from the West with India’s classical music. So far I have been working with the “Brahma Samhita” and I have to admit that I am very excited with the outcome.