Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, California — Bhakti Fest, a high desert festival centered around spirituality of the mind and body, is rebranding itself.
The music, dance and yoga event, now in its 6th year, has emphasiaed kirtan, meditation and workshops in years prior. But this year, they have included a wide range of new lures including performances by Orthodox Jewish reggae-rapper Matisyahu (Matthew Paul Miller).
The addition of Matisyahu and other new events like women’s-only tents, reflect part of the push, said event founder Sridhar Silberfein, to become more welcoming to families and young people.
“The young people are who we’re looking for because they really need the help,” said Silberfein. “It’s a really confused world out there and they don’t know which way to go… We want to create a safer environment for people to come.”
With this rebranding in mind, Silberfein wanted to find a headlining musician who could speak to a variety of people. Through a chance encounter, he was connected to Matisyahu’s manager.
“I didn’t know Matisyahu from a Matisyahu,” laughed Silberfein. “I thought someone was inviting me to an opening of a Japanese restaurant.”
But after Silberfein familiarized himself with the artist, he saw how principles aligned.
“He wanted to actually go deeper in his spiritual path,” Silberfein added, referencing the latest news about Matisyahu abandoning his trademark Hasidic long locks and beard.
Joining Matisyahu on the lineup is Salife Keïta, a Malian singer who fuses primitive and retro sounds with electronic beats.
Including more world music is part of an effort by Silberfein to have Bhakti Fest stand out from other music festivals, like Coachella. Families, he said, don’t often go to Coachella.
“Families don’t go to Coachella because it’s not a safe environment,” Silberfein said. “There’s a lot of rough stuff at these festivals.”
Silberfein prides himself that his festival is free of alcohol and drugs, and they have “the best vegetarian food vendors of any in the country.”
The draw of Bhakti Fest, for many, is its blend of spirituality and yoga with a self-betterment attitude, and with the new changes, they’re trying to make it attainable for all.
“If you want to have a new experience and want to fine-tune yourself and really find out what the real meaning of who you are, and what the meaning of your life’s work is, come to us, because you’ll get it,” Silberfein said.
Michael Baker has seen the festival grow from the beginning. Founder of The Breath Centre and leader of a four-day workshop series, Baker remembers when attendance was slim. Now, he joked, they’re reaching near fire-hazard status with nearly 300 in attendance at a single workshop.
What festival staff is trying to do, said Baker, is to make the topics not as “foreign.”
“I can relate to my first exposure to yoga… I didn’t want anything to do with it,” said Baker. “It didn’t feel comfortable. But, the thing is most of our true openings in our lives come from through be willing to be in some discomfort. That’s how we get outside of the box and how we start to fill ourselves with more light, awareness and playfulness.”
With roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, “Bhakti” is a term which means portion or share, and refers to the devotion and active involvement of a person in their own personal worship. The name was fitting for Silberfein because so many come together to partake in the practices and rituals. They become family, he said.
With the success of the Joshua Tree Festival, Bhakti Fest has expanded to include two sister festivals, one in the Midwest and Shakti Fest, another celebration in the desert that occurs in the spring.
Workshops for the September festival include deepening the connection of love, joy and compassion within the heart, guided meditations, increasing self-confidence and lessons in spiritual health and wellness. There will also be a variety of yoga classes taught by some of the leading teachers in the discipline.
For teenage girls there are workshops teaching them “how to deal with life,” including lessons on yoga, meditation and “the real values of life,” said Silberfein.
There will also be dedicated yurts for women, allowing them for deeper exploration.
“I wanted to devote so much more to the female persuasion because I love that,” said Silberfein. “I bow to the female goddess… It’s the women that hold everything together and that’s gotten lost in this patriarchal society that we live in.”
The festival was kept “specific” for a number of years, said participating yoga instructor Kia Miller, but now the core community that it has developed is broadening.
“The idea is that anyone can do these practices and it doesn’t matter what religious or cultural background you come from,” said Miller. “It’s an inclusive experience.”