Sridhar Silberfein: Well, it actually started on the stage of Woodstock 1969, when I was hanging out with Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, who were the producers of Woodstock. I was a young buck and smoking a lot of pot at the time and hangin’ out with those guys. They said, “Sridhar, what do you think is missing from Woodstock?” and I said, “I don’t know. You got the greatest acts, or soon to be the greatest acts of musical industry ever coming out” and I said, “The spiritual aspect is missing.”
Well, I was practicing yoga. I was a yoga teacher by that time and my teacher was Swami Satchidananda. I said we should bring a guru here to do the invocation, and they said, “Okay, go ahead. You produce that part of it.” I said, “Alright.” I went back to my teacher Satchidananda and I said, “Swami, let’s go up to Woodstock and do the invocation” and he said, “Fine.” So we arranged to fly him in a helicopter. You see this in the movie of Woodstock. We land, and I brought him up on the stage. And the first act that was supposed to go on at Woodstock, got up on the stage and saw the crowd and jumped off the stage and ran away into the bushes. Nobody ever knew who that was.
So they were looking for another act to start off the program and they grab Richie Havens, a very nervous guy. It was the first time he ever appeared in front of more than like ten people. And he was on the back of the stage strumming up and trying to tune up his guitar, and we saunter up all in white, a couple of us guys—young yogi buck kinda types. And Swami Satchidananda and his flowing gray hair and his big long gray beard and this very strong positive force. I said, “Oh, we don’t have anyone to introduce Swami Satchidananda.” So I see Richie Havens over there strumming his guitar and I went up to Richie Havens and I said, “Richie, I know you don’t know me, but do you mind introducing Swami Satchidananda?” And he looked at me like Get the f*ck out of here. He was like sweating and he was dying from nerves over there and he says, “Get out of here kid. What are you bothering me for?” It was hilarious. I finally got Chip Monck to make the announcement. Swami Satchidananda did a beautiful invocation to five-hundred-thousand people that came to Woodstock. He set the intention. And at that point I set the intention of having a spiritual musical kirtan festival, and forty years later we launched it in 2009—Bhakti Fest.
MP: Forty years?
SS: Good things take a long time. The first year we had around fifteen hundred people, held in September down here in Joshua Tree. We have a beautiful retreat center here, four hundred and twenty acres designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s been here eighty years. We actually built a village here. We put in a stage. We put in a second yoga hall. We put in a lot of infrastructure even though we don’t own the place. Built a pool this year. It’s a great location and we actually built a city. We put shade cloth all over the center stage area so people are protected by the shade. We laid rugs down for their comfort. We have the best vendors. The best food. It’s an all-vegetarian festival. If you’re just coming here to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and eat meat, then you should stay home because this is not your festival. You wanna dive deeper into your path, dive deeper into your sadana, your spiritual path?
All modalities of yoga are represented here. All modalities of chanting. You know, people say “Well, what is kirtan?” But if you go into a church, they’re doing kirtan. They’re doing chanting. If you go into a mosque, they’re doing kirtan, they’re doing chanting. If you go into a synagogue, they’re doing kirtan and chanting. It’s all the same. You take out your beads, your malas that we use from India to do mantra work and it’s the same thing as a rosary bead that they’re using in Greece and all these countries in Europe. They’re the same purpose. Still the mind. And that’s what yoga does. The practice of yoga stills the mind and at the same time creates this beautiful body form that remains peaceful and healthy and happy.
People start with yoga. That’s why I said it’s a thirty-billion dollar industry now. Everybody’s doing yoga. In fact, if you ask everybody what they’re doing in life, they say, “I’m a massage therapist. I’m a yoga teacher.” Now the latest buzz is I’m a kirtan artist as well, so it’s funny how everybody jumps on the bandwagon. But the kirtan artist, they’ve been going for thirty, forty years. All the big name people, Krishna Das of course, Jai Uttal, David Stringer—these are very hardworking people. They travel the world three hundred and sixty days a year, singing their hearts out. I look at kirtan artists as two forms of kirtan, or two forms of chanters. One that chants for the ego, and one that chants to God. So if you’re sending us any submissions, make sure you’re chanting to God otherwise you’re not coming to Bhakti Fest. We still get five to ten submissions a week—every week. And I actually sit and listen to each and every one of them. That’s why we created the second stage.
We have a main stage at Bhakti Fest, which starts at eight o’clock in the morning on Thursday morning and ends at midnight on Sunday night. The only place in the world that’s twenty-four-hour kirtan for four days long. Talk about scheduling. It’s a nightmare, but we schedule til two, three, four, five o’clock in the morning. Still fifty, a hundred people plus out there in the middle of the night. Then we also have a second stage where we introduce a lot of new kirtan, some up-and-coming stars from around the world. A very international eclectic place. And that starts around eight in the morning and goes til eight at night. We had DJ Drez, and Joey Lugassy, and Kirtaniyas and Arjun Baba. And we were dancing out there for like four hours. It was fantastic. And I was there.
That’s why you can’t get to me early in the morning. I’m not a viable candidate, ‘cause I’m just rolling in and rolling out. And I hardly even eat here. I just drink, eat very little, so I’m just in a zone. It takes one year for each festival that we do. And we’re doing three festivals this year. Two in southern California. One in May, which we’re at now. And this weekend was dedicated to the divine mother, so it’s called Shakti Fest. Shakti is the female aspect of the divine mother. So it’s the Shakti Fest, which is three days designed to dive deeper into your feminine aspect. For me, most relationships between men and women, their failures are because men are afraid to dive into their feminine self. So women seem more able to dive into their masculine side and absorb their feminine, but men hold back. So every time a woman meets a guy there’s always gonna be a pull in a torn area there because they’re not able to dive deep into that aspect.
MP: At the heart of it, what does BhaktiFest mean to you? This festival, you created it, what does it mean?
SS: I don’t have to do Bhakti Fest, I really don’t. I’m pretty well off in my own way. I’ve been working hard for many many years. I can go live in Maui or India; I can go sit in my caves and just take it easy, but I want to be able to bring something to the community to raise up people and help them deepen their path, deepen their love, and compassion for one another. So it’s a service for me. It’s called seva. Who knows how much longer we have to be here. And while we’re here, why not put out the highest efforts for the greater good for mankind, and do what we can to serve everybody?
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