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Natural Awakenings Milwaukee

Open the Heart at 
Midwest Yoga and Kirtan Fest

Sep 04, 2018 03:57PM ● By Sheila Julson

Kirtan—call-and-response chants set to music—began in India centuries ago as a spiritual practice and a layman’s way to connect with the divine. Over the last decade, kirtan has grown in the United States, with its multi-generational and spiritual appeal serving as respite from our fast-paced and sometimes volatile society. This month, people can enjoy a variety of kirtan musical styles, along with yoga practices, local food and more at the Midwest Yoga and Kirtan Fest, September 20 through 22, at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.

“I thought I’d start this because there are a lot of people in the Midwest who would appreciate a yoga and kirtan festival,” relates festival organizer Gary Brachmann of Divine Mother Productions, in Sheboygan. From 2013 to 2015, he served as production manager for the yoga and kirtan festival Bhakti Fest Midwest, which had its final run as a Midwest event in Chicago in 2015, and is now only held in its original location of Joshua Tree, California.

Midwest Yoga and Kirtan Fest is also a tribute to Brachmann’s mother, Annetta Brachmann, who died in 2016. “She left a little legacy, and I thought it was the best thing I could do to honor my mom and know she’s still out there. The people we know and love might leave their bodies, but they never leave us. Their energy is still here. We’re eternal energy, and it can never be destroyed.”

The very first time Brachmann saw a kirtan performance, he was immediately gripped by its powerful energy. “The chants are in Hindi, Sanskrit and English, but you don’t even need to know what the words mean, because these words have energy,” he says. “Kirtan is moving and just blows your heart open.”

Kirtan performers appearing at the inaugural Midwest Yoga and Kirtan Fest include Kaita Bliffert, based in Milwaukee; Kirtan Path, from Minneapolis-St. Paul; and Sitara & Kalyani with Pavan Kumar, all playing Thursday, September 20. Performers appearing Friday, September 21 include Ragani, also from Milwaukee, and Hans Christian, a world-class cellist and the owner of Studio 330, a recording studio in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. “He loops his cello and plays another melody over the top of that, and it sounds like a whole symphony,” Brachmann notes about Christian.

Other performers include Blue Spirit Wheel, from Georgia; Brenda McMorrow, from Canada; Dave Stringer, a native Midwesterner; Samuel Salsbury, who plays the sarangi, a stringed instrument that dates back over 300 years; singer Johanna Beekman, from Oregon; and HuDost, from Montreal. Sean Johnson & The Wild Lotus Band, from New Orleans, will perform throughout the festival, as well as at a separate-ticket pre-festival event from noon to 5 p.m. on Thursday, September 20, which will include songs and storytelling. Midwest Yoga and Kirtan Fest will also feature an open mic stage, and some gong and singing bowl performers.

Yoga practitioners of all levels of experience will find almost any type of yoga at the festival. Brachmann’s son-in-law, August Ristow, from Yoga on the Lake, in Kohler, will lead vinyasa and high-energy yoga sessions. Other yoga practitioners appearing include Daren Friesen, Karen Weber, Amy Beth Treciokas, Sean Johnson, Missy Balsam and Claire Stillman. Also featured is national speaker Chaitanya Charan Das, from ISKCON. Das is known for engaging talks that incorporate spirituality and humor.

In addition to music and yoga, the festival offers a healing center where various practitioners will provide healing services for separate fees. The festival wraps up with a separate-ticket event on Sunday, September 23, with Michael Brian Baker and The Breath Center’s five-hour introduction to breathwork training.

Swagat Indian restaurant, near Madison, will offer food for purchase, and Brachmann is lining up some food trucks with mostly vegetarian fare. The festival is alcohol- and drug-free. “If people want to feel love and leave with an open heart, this is the place to be,” Brachmann says.

Cost: varies; see website for details and senior discounts. Location: 503 N. Jackson Ave., Jefferson. For more information or to view schedules and purchase tickets, visit

Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.