CHANTLANTA AT TEN YEARS
Atlanta’s annual festival of music, chant, community and funby Noah Chen
The words music festival often evoke a long, rowdy, tent-filled weekend in a muddy field. But the people behind Atlanta’s annual ChantLanta Sacred Music Festival, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, do things a little differently.
Not surprisingly, the moment that inspired the launch of ChantLanta occurred in a crowded music festival. “I went to see the Grateful Dead,” says Ian Boccio, one of three founders of ChantLanta. “Being a part of that crowd, I felt like I was deeply involved in what was happening.” Moved by this moment of musical unity, Boccio began playing bass and singing. He jumped from band to band for several years and then on a whim decided to take a yoga class. From there he discovered kirtan music.
The first sound was love.Kirtan is an ancient style of Indian music in which dreamy instrumental melodies are blended with repetitive, rhythmic chanting. Kirtan also involves audience participation, which makes kirtan concerts different from many other music experiences. Kirtan audiences frequently join in the rhythmic chanting, and in doing so, many report a feeling of oneness and unity not only with those in the band but also with their fellow audience members.
“I felt the same thing I felt at the concert years before: that organic connection between people and that we were all engaged in this project of transformation together,” says Boccio, describing his first kirtan experience.
One night, while playing in the Atlanta kirtan band Bhakti Messenger, he announced after a show that he was looking for volunteers to help organize an all-day chant.
It has become a sacred music festival complete with vendors, food trucks, silent auction and workshops."It was all pretty new to me. I felt excited about getting more involved so I signed up!"says Karen Dorfman, who became a co-founder of ChantLanta. “That was January 2010, and we had our festival in March. Now it takes us an entire year to put the festival together because it’s grown so much!”
Stephanie Kohler, another musician and co-founder of ChantLanta, also was inspired by kirtan and wished that Atlanta had more outlets for chanting. She happened to be at the Bhakti Messenger show and thought to herself how much she’d like an all-day chant.
“Not 20 minutes later—I’m not kidding—Ian made an announcement saying, ‘Some of us would like to organize a chant event,’ ” says Kohler.
“It was like this lightning bolt through the universe. I guess this is what I asked for, I thought. I should do it!” Since then, Kohler has been involved every year, and she recently stepped into the role of director.
ChantLanta’s first festival took place at the First Existentialist Church in Candler Park. Compared to more recent productions, it was fairly small. It was a single day of chanting attended by “maybe 200 people,” according to Boccio. Dorfman says the venue was “packed to the seams” and fondly recalls a “mountain of shoes” in the entryway; attendees took off their shoes as they entered.
It became clear to the founders that they would need a larger venue, so they moved it to The Church at Ponce & Highland.
ChantLanta has grown in other ways too. The event now takes place over three days and is not only about chanting; it has become a sacred music festival complete with vendors, food trucks, silent auction and special workshops.
“We wanted to offer an event where people can enjoy a lot for free so they would have no excuse for not coming,” says Boccio. “This is the biggest thing that will happen to you all year!” Of the dozens of people contributing each year, no one gets paid, not even the founders. “The fact that everyone donates their time to help makes the connection that much deeper,” says Boccio.
At this year’s event, seven local kirtan bands will perform over two days, including Boccio and Kohler’s popular band, Blue Spirit Wheel. A variety of vendors will offer their wares. All of the workshop offerings will include a “spiritual music component,” according to Dorfman. Workshops include Sufi trance drumming, 5Rhythms dancing, yoga life music classes, sound healing workshops and sound baths. Admission to each workshop does require advance registration and a $10 contribution, 100% of which goes to the event’s charity partner.
As a special treat honoring the festival’s tenth anniversary, Grammy Award-winning chant artist Krishna Das will lead a kirtan concert on Saturday night in the large sanctuary at The Church at Ponce & Highland as well as a 3-hour workshop on Sunday. Tickets to both Krishna Das events are available at KrishnaDas.com and Eventbrite.com.
This year’s festival attendance is expected to top a thousand.
Inspired by the numerous people “pressing money into my hand” after shows, Boccio decided to set up a charity donation component at the event so that impulse could serve a purpose.
“We generally focus on charities that are fairly local or related to India,” says Kohler. “And we try to focus on organizations where what we donate makes a big impact,” she adds. For several years, they partnered with The Learning Tea, each year raising enough to fund an entire college education, books and all, for impoverished women in India. Other organizations they’ve partnered with work to improve lives of people suffering from Alzheimer's, abuse and poverty. In the 10 years since launching ChantLanta, they have raised over $44,000 dollars in donations for nonprofits around the world.
ChantLanta’s 2019 charity partner is Camp Cali, a summer camp for girls traumatized by sexual abuse.
We see an amazing interweaving of communities in Atlanta that maybe would not have crossed paths otherwiseIt goes without saying that the founders are excited about this year’s festival. “There’s been a really amazing crossover of people getting to experience what they don’t get to normally experience,” says Dorfman. “What we see is an amazing interweaving of communities in Atlanta that maybe would not have crossed paths otherwise.”
One of Dorfman’s favorite stories happened in 2013: “It’s Saturday night, and we’re in the sanctuary [of The Church at Ponce & Highland]. The doors were open and in walks a man off the street. We don’t know his story. Maybe he’s homeless or has an addiction of some kind. But he stumbles in and walks down the center aisle, and someone comes out and helps him to walk because clearly he has something to say.”
The man was helped up to the front of the stage, where the band had stopped playing. “All eyes were on this man,” recalls Dorfman. He stood quietly for a second and then spoke. ‘The first sound was love.’ That’s all he said! Then he turned around and walked back out,” says Dorfman. “And that’s what ChantLanta does to people.”
The 2019 ChantLanta Sacred Music Festival will run March 8 to 10 at The Church at Ponce & Highland, 1085 Ponce De Leon Ave NE. It is open to everyone and has no dress code. “You can just walk in and be yourself,” says Kohler. For more information, visit ChantLanta.org.