A Spiritual Happening on the Lower East Side

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Srila Prabhupada and the first kirtana recording in the West.


The year is 1997, and Brahmananda Dasa, one of Srila Prabhupada's earliest disciples, is driving through a residential area in Miami Beach. He momentarily halts at a stop sign in his big van, which has a "Hare Krishna" sticker on its rear bumper. Conspicuously, a car follows slowly from behind. As it pulls up, the person in the passenger seat, a middle-aged woman, asks, "Brahmananda?" She is Carol Kallman. Driving the car is her husband, Alan. Together, they had produced Srila Prabhupada's first album, "Krishna Consciousness," some thirty years earlier. Before any of Prabhupada's books were available for distribution, there was only this record album, and Brahmananda and the Kallmans were at the heart of it. Now, seemingly by happenstance, they would meet again, brought together by Krishna, as they were in the past.

The Music Business

Neither Srila Prabhupada nor the devotees were trying to procure a record deal. For decades, Srila Prabhupada saw printing books as the mainstay of his mission, a vision bequeathed to him by his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura: "If you get any money, print books!" And further, "Preach in the English language." This was the mandate Prabhupada's teacher had given him as far back as 1922, upon their first meeting.

But during New York's cold November of 1966, Alan Kallman, a longtime record producer, happened to read an article in the hip downtown paper The East Village Other. He learned that the Hare Krishna movement, new to the West, was an age-old tradition in India. The article introduced the world—and Alan—to Srila Prabhupada and the devotees, focusing on the mystical effect of their sacred singing. In fact, Alan was so intrigued by the article that he and his wife went down to see the devotees in Tompkins' Square Park, where they witnessed for the first time kirtana, call-and-response chanting, especially of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

"I heard the chant and I gasped," describes Alan. "It was vibrant, from another realm. It gave me a strange feeling of something magical. This had to be my next record, I thought."

Alan had owned Ribbon Records in the late 50s and early 60s, producing mainly rock and roll material, but the label didn’t have any hits. By the mid 60s, the company morphed into Pixi Records, which faired only slightly better. However, he enjoyed some modicum of success with his third venture: Happening Records. He used the label to produce a few spoken-word records, giving an audible forum to people like Timothy Leary, Malcolm X, and Mark Lane, who at the time was quite vocal in his theories about "the Kennedy assassination." Happening Records was a novel approach in the recording industry, and people were quickly catching on.

Alan carefully considered what he had read about the Hare Krishna devotees, especially about Prabhupada, and concluded that they would be ideal for his new strategy in recording: They would chant and then explain the philosophy behind the chant. This, he knew, would play into his spoken-word technique like a charm.

After a discussion with a few business partners, he decided to drop by 26 Second Avenue in New York City, the first Hare Krishna temple, to propose his idea to Prabhupada. Carol, his wife, called to make an appointment and got Brahmananda on the phone. After she briefly described their plan, Prabhupada's young disciple agreed that it was a good idea and made an appointment for them to meet with Prabhupada the next day.

Meeting Srila Prabhupada

"We went in to meet this guru," says Carol, "and I didn't know what to expect. But Prabhupada was delightful, charming. Alan told him the plan to make a recording of the chant along with explanation, to fit in with the spoken-word concept, and Prabhupada loved it. He got so excited. He explained that the chanting is important but that the philosophy behind the chanting is equally important, so he would be happy to do both on the album. I'll never forget what he said after that: 'The most important thing you can do for Krishna, or God, is to share His name with others.' He told us that Krishna and His name are spiritually equal, the same, and that that's why the chanting is so effective. So he was really into making the album, which made Alan very happy, of course!"

Interestingly, the night before the recording session, scheduled for two weeks after this initial meeting, in December, a guest walks in to 26 Second Avenue with a wooden percussive instrument resembling a mridanga, the two-headed clay drum used in Vaishnava kirtanas. Although common at Hare Krishna temples today, at the time it was unknown among Prabhupada's followers.

As the kirtana is about to begin, Prabhupada notices it from his dais. His eyes open wide, and he gestures to Brahmananda to approach the young man with the drum and bring it to him, which he does. In a few moments, immersed in the kirtana, Prabhupada is playing like a master musician, and the devotees are enthralled—this is a side of their guru they had not seen before.

“We must have this drum for tomorrow’s recording,” says Prabhupada, and Brahmananda convinces the instrument's owner to leave it with them for the recording session.

The next day, the devotees make their way up to Bell Tone Studios, on 51st Street and Broadway, directly across from Colony Records, then a popular retail outlet for record albums.

"Bell Tone was a hot studio," says Alan, "very much in demand at the time."

Rupanuga Dasa remembers going with Prabhupada and the devotees to the studio.

"We took my old Volkswagen camper," he says, "with Prabhupada and some others. There must have been another car, too, or some devotees probably went up there by subway. It was a really cold day, and we couldn't go in right away. We had to wait in the lobby for a long time."

Little Anthony and the Imperials, a major rock and roll group at the time, is recording and given precedence because of their celebrity. Since they will exceed their expected time limit by over an hour, Prabhupada decides to go for a walk with the devotees while they wait. The entire troupe journeys to nearby Times Square, in the 42nd Street area. Brahmananda reminisces:

Prabhupada would point to various things in the Times Square area and make philosophical comments, noting the sophistication with which technology could be used for degradation and darkness. Finally, we came upon a huge Camel cigarette billboard, with real smoke blowing from a man's mouth. He said that this particular area was the world's center for sense gratification.

At one point, a matronly lady, who seemed drunk, bumped into him, and she turned around and said, "Who are you?" He just answered, "I'm a Hindu monk." He smiled at her and we walked on. She wouldn't have understood that he was a Vaishnava, coming from a nonsectarian spiritual tradition, so he just said something she could understand, something within her radar.

Recording Spiritual Sound

They return to the studio ready to record. Prabhupada sits on a mat in the center, accommodating the engineers who arrange the microphones and assign each devotee a place to set up according to his or her particular instrument. They want only two pairs of karatalas but approve the pair of rhythm sticks and several other instruments the devotees have brought. They also want some devotees to clap, to give the recording a live sound.

"We started recording immediately," says Alan, "and Prabhupada burst into the Hare Krishna chant—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. His tone was exotic, deep, and mesmerizing. I had recorded a lot of people in my time, professional singers and so on. But Prabhupada was especially captivating, infectious. He was born to do this.

"Prabhupada did about six different songs, traditional stuff from his lineage, but most of it didn't make it on the album. The tapes are lying around in a studio archives somewhere. Great stuff. We were mainly interested in the Hare Krishna chant, though, which was becoming popular at the time."

Rupanuga Dasa shares some further details of the recording session:

A man came around to check the instruments, to see how the microphones would pick them up and what the sound quality was like. I played two bells that sort of sounded like karatalas; Hayagriva was playing tambura; Rayarama played those South American wooden sticks; Kirtanananda played the harmonium, loaned to us by Allen Ginsberg, but he just pumped the bellows—he really didn't know how to play; and Prabhupada played that two-headed Indian drum, so incredibly. There were some others too. I remember Brahmananda was clapping too loud, so an engineer came in to adjust the volume.

We just kept playing, following Prabhupada's lead. When we went overtime, Kallman, from the engineer booth, waved his hand to indicate that we should start wrapping it up. So Prabhupada saw that and started going faster.

Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami gives further details in his Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita:

Alan came out of the studio: “It was great, Swami. Great. Would you like to just go right ahead and read the address now? Or are you too tired?” With polite concern, pale, befreckled Alan Kallman peered through his thick glasses at Prabhupada, who appeared tired, but he replied, “No, I am not tired.” Then the devotees sat back in the studio to watch and listen as Prabhupada read his prepared statement. After reading it, the producer tells Srila Prabhupada that they have about ten more minutes on side two to fill. He again asks Srila Prabhupada if he is tired. Prabhupada says that he isn’t and they start to chant again. This time he sang what was titled on the album as “Chant to the Mercy of the Spiritual Master.” We know it as “The Samsara Prayers.”

After the song, which was done in one take, Srila Prabhupada said, “Now we are tired.” The night was over. However, as the studio engineer replayed the take, Srila Prabhupada stood up and started to dance to the song the devotees and he had just recorded.

“Now you have made your best record,” Prabhupada told Mr. Kallman as he left the studio for the freezing Manhattan evening. Prabhupada got into the front seat of the Volkswagen bus while “The Hare Krsna Chanters” climbed into the back with their instruments, and Rupanuga drove them back home, back to the Lower East Side.

Launching Book Distribution

This record was in fact the beginning of widespread book distribution in the West. Although Prabhupada had brought a trunkload of his initial copies of the Srimad-Bhagavatam from India, he sold them early on when the movement was just starting out. He had also brought copies of a small book (Easy Journey to Other Planets) and several pamphlets, but not enough for wide-scale distribution, which is what he wanted.

It was this album that was sent to Macmillan Publishing Company (see BTG, May/June 2008), leading to a publishing deal that resulted in Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Further, George Harrison procured a copy early on and contacted Alan to find out about the copyright, so he could use the maha-mantra on Apple's Radha-Krishna Temple album and eventually in his own song "My Sweet Lord." George later met the devotees and Prabhupada in London, and he wrote the Preface to Prabhupada's book Krishna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead, one of Prabhupada's first four books—all released after the Happening album. (The other three: Ishopanishad, The Nectar of Devotion, and Teachings of Lord Chaitanya.) Indeed, because of the work of Alan and Carol Kallman—spurred on by the grace of Srila Prabhupada—the Hare Krishna maha-mantra was heard on radio stations and TV shows and read in popular media around the world before massive book distribution engulfed ISKCON and everyone else.

For this article the author is indebted to Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami's Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita; Hayagriva Dasa's Hare Krishna Explosion; and personal interviews with Brahmananda Dasa, Rupanuga Dasa, and Alan and Carol Kallman.

About the Author: 

Satyaraja Dasa

Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine.