Surya Botofasina as told to Andy Beta
Where were you born?
I was born in Northern California and raised on the Sai Anantam Ashram in Southern California. We first lived at the Vedantic Center in Woodland Hills during the first few years of my young life and then the rest of my formative years were spent at The Ashram in Agoura Hills. I was five years old when The Ashram moved in 1982.
When did your parents move to The Ashram?
When the Vedantic Center was in the Coltrane family homes in Woodlands Hills, that’s where my mom and I started out with our experience. It was just my mom and me. From what she tells me, I was a toddler when we went to The Ashram. I remember I had a bike that my mother bought from Oran Coltrane, Swamini’s youngest child. I rode it there. (Swamini was what we called Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda). I remember being five in kindergarten over at the school in Woodland Hills, which was walking distance from the house. In first grade, I was at another school because The Ashram had opened up, so that is when we moved.
What was the difference between the two places?
One was on a suburban street; one was on 48 acres. That was the big difference. Being on that much land and having that much open space seemed to be a big difference. The residents of The Ashram certainly increased because at the home in Woodland Hills, there were only so many rooms. But at The Ashram, there was more space and more facilities. It’s hard for me as a kid to recall an exact number, but it was about twenty people living there.
How many kids grew up there with you?
The core group of us was about a dozen. Some came a little after it opened. That number increased or decreased depending on different families moving there and moving back out. To this day, we’re all very close and time does not mean anything to us as far as the separation goes. We can go years without seeing each other and pick up instantly. That core of us from my generation in particular, there’s still a good dozen of us.
Who else was there?
We had our parents, people who did not have children, like Perushottma, our favorite uncle we never knew we had. Swamini’s oldest child, John Jr., was not at The Ashram as in 1982 he was in a car accident at the age of 17 and passed away. I was young but I remember Junior quite a bit, he was a special dude. He was the best athlete, the coolest dude; he had a lot of what you would now call swag. Oranyan, Seetha, Rama or as the world knows them, Oren, Michelle and Ravi, I had the most experience growing up with them.
What was a normal day like?
I remember playing outside a lot. The beautiful thing about being on such a large parcel of land is that there’s a lot to do. There’s a lot to explore in a safe environment. We spent a lot of time in the creek. It was a lot of country living aspects that you just don’t get every day and certainly my children won’t be experiencing that. I would go to the creek and try to catch a crawfish or frogs and skip rocks. That was a daily occurrence. Someone put up a basketball hoop and that’s how I learned how to shoot. My best friend and I set up a backyard baseball stadium. People were getting rid of some old doors and my mom let us use them, like our own version of the Green Monster in Boston, so we tried to make a tall fence out of them. There was a lot of that kind of imaginary play. You still see kids play like that. At some point, there was a playground and swing set and it was just us running around.
Did Swamini live in The Ashram as well?
She stayed at the same residence in Woodland Hills for the duration of her life but she came down daily. It was 12 miles away but it only took 15 minutes by car to get to The Ashram. During the latter portion of her life, she was there less, but at least three times a week. Her “presence” was daily. Her physical presence was felt frequently because there were events on Wednesday night and Sunday. Consistently, it all revolved around Sunday. That was it. That was the…(pause) that was the day when time was not able to be calculated by the measures that we use today.
Sunday...I was just talking to another ashram kid about this. For us as kids, we’d get up and know we had to get ready for Sunday school. Or, as they called it Bal Vikas. It was taught by one of the parents. You’d put on your Sunday best, usually white clothes, which we’d usually get dirty by lunch. We’d start in Bal Vikas and then Swamini would arrive after Sunday school.
Can you tell us about Swamini arriving?
When you’re standing in front of the house where I grew up in –where my mother still lives today– you can see the road above her home and standing there, you could see cars coming up and over. It was very distinct when Swamini came. It would be an early afternoon arrival. She had this distinctly maroon Lincoln-Continental and you could hear the music blasting from her car. Inevitably, less than a minute later, her car would pull around and the bhajans would be blasting at a nice volume level. Whether she was driving, her son or sister was driving, she’d get out and she had on her distinct orange robe and that’s when the day really began. That’s when time wasn’t a factor any longer. There would be a moment of pause and then she would turn on the organ and the takeoff would begin!
Did she just play organ? Or did she play piano or harp?
The organ was just there. There wasn’t a set-up. There were a lot of handheld instruments that the congregation would have: percussion, mundung, the two-headed drum from India, and a lot of shakers. I remember the organ, not the OB-8 that you hear on the tapes, just the organ and that Leslie speaker.
Were the bhajans evocative for you immediately? Or did it take awhile for them to sink in?
As kids we would either play outside or be told to go to join our parents inside the mandir. That’s where I got my first exposure to the bhajans. I remember it very clearly. Over the years, as we got older, from a 7 year-old to a 13-year-old and beyond, that’s when we didn’t go to Sunday School so much, but down to where the adults were and listen to what she had to say and be a part of the music. It was a big deal.
At first the music just felt good, it felt unique –I never heard anything quite like this—I didn’t hear much that sounded like this and my mom was also a musician. My mom started me on piano lessons when I was in the second grade and years later when I was trying to play jazz as a teenager. For me, the music of the bhajans really began to take form and shape as I grew older. In one sense, I would hear it in this healing, uplifting aspect. And then later on, as my musical ear became more of my bag, I started to hear the technical prowess and that was another level of “wow.” I can’t believe she’s playing a melody with her left hand, chords with the right hand, bass and volume pedals with her feet and leading a choir all at once.
I’m under the impression that even if you were familiar with these psalms from India, her versions of these bhajans are different.
There are differences and there are similarities. An African-American woman from Detroit brought something unique and musically rich that’s clearly brought to these bhajans. But, there are still a lot of things that are very traditional. In its simplest form, bhajans are call-and-response, as were the bhajans that we sang on a weekly basis. The gentlemen would start or the ladies would start. The tempo would increase at the second go-round, which happens with them in India. You hear that a lot also in gospel, the tempo goes up after a little bit and the energy changes.
Were bhajans all you could listen to at The Ashram? Or did you grow up on other stuff as well?
I’m a child of hip-hop! I grew up in California when NWA was becoming highly popular, Public Enemy, I listened to LL Cool J almost every night trying to learn all the words to Bigger and Deffer. I had to listen secretly. There used to be dance contests at the school and if you won, you got a tape. That was the best way to get music.
You were home-schooled there or you went to public school?
We went to public school the whole time.
When did you become aware that you were having a very different experience from your classmates?
First grade. From the very first minute I walked into another school. I don’t have a name that I saw every other kid had. Growing up in Agoura, California as an African-American young man, I knew that that was also a different experience. The Ashram was very diverse and it had a lot of African-American individuals and a lot of other folks. It was not uncommon for me to look at The Ashram and see people that shared a heritage with myself. But when I went to school, it was very clear that I was amongst a different set of numbers when it came to those who shared my heritage. That’s from day one that I realized that this experience was different. We weren’t raised to react in certain ways that some of our peers did. We didn’t have the liberty to speak to our parents in the way that our peers were able to; It probably was a good thing. In that regard, it was very obvious early on that we’re different.
It was actually very challenging times. Kids would make fun of us all the time. I got made fun of for my name, for my skin, for the food that I ate since I was vegetarian, the things I did or did not have –also recognizing that the neighborhood was at an affluent level above what we had— it was different. Never did we feel that we were lacking. For us, as the youngest generation there at the time, we had this huge playground, the lay of the land. We got to do so many things that you just don’t get to do everyday. Making a bow and arrow is awesome and being able to shoot it at a tree was great!
Did friends come over to The Ashram?
Not a lot. My best friends growing up loved to come to The Ashram and they loved it, too. One of my friends from middle school would come over all the time and he fit right in. Our friends were not always over, but we also had built-in friends with each other. That was a different thing that maybe other kids didn’t necessarily have.
Were the kids in The Ashram encouraged to play music?
Just like in any neighborhood, kids gravitate towards what their interests are. I had a musical parent so it was natural for me.
Did you ever have lessons with Swamini?
I never had formal lessons with Swamini. Where I got my most personal instruction from her was when I was learning the text of the Bhagavad Gita, there are melodies that run along with the text. It’s a story about self-realization, where the god Krishna is speaking to Arjuna and showing the way of enlightenment. It’s about how to live your life to achieve that ultimate bliss. There are melodies that go along with these verses from the book. There would be a keyboard set up in our small classroom and she would teach us the book. And as the only person in our class who played, she would literally lean out of the way and she would play something and I had to learn it that way. It comes by once, try to get it or jot it down.
I got a chance to play the bhajans in The Ashram. One time, she was kind enough to come and allow me to play right next to her as she played the bhajan. She was kind enough to adjust the key to how I had learned to play. I’ll never forget an experience where she showed me as we were playing and she would just call out the chords: “A-flat, G, E-flat” and then at one point she said: “Just play.” Music is a very aural thing that we learn with our ears. It’s a primary version of learning music; very rarely do you learn to play music by learning a score. That’s how she was teaching me. Then when there were different things I was trying to learn and figure out on my own, I would try to play it for her and she’d give me different pointers. Overall it was just encouragement. She also gave me the chance to experience the biggest stage when I was still young, playing at the John Coltrane Festival.
Did you have a sense of her as a person?
Swamini was the most generous, the kindest person I’ve ever known. I’m very much a mama’s boy in the first place, but if I had to step outside of that bubble for a moment, the most super-human person on earth was Swamini. She was very approachable. A lot of people are kind to kids, but you really saw a lot of kindness from her when interacting with these intense “I love John Coltrane so much I have to be around you” fans. Her grace in handling each person, whether they be as young and as small and clueless as a kid that’s never listened to a John Coltrane record versus someone who has every single Coltrane record memorized and they’re star-struck and there’s not a lot of smoothness coming from them, it didn’t matter, she exuded the same amount of grace. She was so approachable and so truly graceful. The dignified level of interacting with people on a much deeper level than just surface conversations was remarkable.
When did you become aware of her legacy in jazz and importance of John Coltrane in the jazz tradition?
It was the John Coltrane Festival she started, the first one that I think she staged in Griffith Park. All these people showed up and I was like, “People know who John Coltrane is?” I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12. I’d see people come up to her with such reverence and when I started studying jazz for myself, I kept seeing his name pop up on the Mt. Rushmore of influential jazz musicians. And not just jazz musicians, but American musicians in general. That’s when I started to see that John Coltrane wasn’t just the husband of my guru, he was the godfather of the avant-garde movement of jazz that to this day, people are still chasing. You can’t learn jazz and avoid John Coltrane. No matter how someone feels, you still have to learn “Giant Steps.” To see that she was not only the wife but also holding a chair in the group was astonishing. McCoy Tyner is a hard act to follow. I know, as I had to go on after him at one of the festivals and play the same piano he played.
That’s when I became aware of the level of her musicianship and where she fits into our modern day musical conversation. I’m probably maybe more in awe of her now, now that her time on the earth has finished and now that I have children of my own now. During the time, the only thing that mattered to me was to be around her. That’s all that mattered. I just wanted to be around her and hear her speak and hear her play and ask her questions about music. She was the equivalent of the loving grandmother, that matriarch of a whole family that everybody looks to. We all have that family member that we stand up a little straighter around, you watch your tone a bit more and you make sure you come correct. She was that person, but in a way that made us feel like we could be better people.
How does growing up in The Ashram still inform your daily life?
I have children of my own now and it informs my daily life and the values that I want to bring to them. For lack of a better way of putting it, I just want to be a good person. I want to be able to put my best foot forward and I want to leave something for the next generation that will hopefully inspire them to be a better person themselves and be kind and generous, to be all the qualities that I admire most about her.
The music itself I find to be very therapeutic. Living here in New York City can be a very noisy experience. When I start my job in the mornings, I put on my headphones and listen to bhajans and I’m transported right back to home. I can see the water going through the stream. I can see the brightness of the sunlight on the steps. I can see the blue carpet on the floor in the mandir. I can see her sitting at the organ and smiling as she’s directing us to sing. That kind of inner peace is something I feel in the bhajans and I’d like to pass that onto my children, because I want them to be happy and I want them to feel at peace in this very interesting time that we’re living in.
What is the importance of making sure that more people can hear the ashram tapes?
The importance of preserving the music is just simply for one reason and one reason only: I think it can make the world a better place. I think it can make people see the best part of themselves and offer that best part of themselves to others, not just to people they know but to complete strangers, to open our heart to the generosity of our own limitless possibilities that our kindness can bring. To find a strength and humility. That’s why I feel the bhajans are so important to me. Not to mention it’s really good music. On a basic level, it’s good, interesting, wonderful and accessible music. I find music that’s very high level that sometimes you have to listen to it a bunch of times just to understand it. You have the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Georgia on my Mind” and it’s just there and so palatable. Although the bhajans are in a different language, there’s a nice meditative aspect. And nowadays people are hip to yoga and meditation and you can say “ashtanga” and people will know what you’re talking about. In that regard, I’m very happy that it can be even more a part of the modern day conversation.
Can you talk about what the songs are about?
By definition, the bhajans are called devotional songs that are typically found in Hindu lore. There are bhajans that also reference the beauty of Islam and Allah and the purest form of Christianity and Christ and the aspects of Hindu lore: Krishna, Ram, Vishnu, and Shiva. These songs, they are a praise of a higher energy, a divine energy and some of them would be recounting a particular story, like about Rama and his life when he was young.
There are various uses for bhajans. People use them as ways to put the “good juju” out there before starting a good-sized task. Say you’re moving into a new house with a brand new baby, so you go in there to your home and sing this bhajan or say this prayer and that’s to put the good vibes out there. Almost akin to the Native American tradition of smudging a home, walking around with the sage and whatnot. There’s a correlation that seems to be there. At the end of the day, I feel like they are there to remind ourselves of the devotion that those of us who are looking to find something deeper than gratifying our five senses to hear and eat and walk that we are looking to really get to know the deepest parts of ourselves in order to offer it to a higher purpose.
How often do you go back?
Never enough. Everyday I dream of going to JFK and flying to LAX. Nowadays if I’m lucky, I can get there once or twice a year with my kids. I definitely want to give them as much time there as possible. They love it for the same reasons why I loved it as a kid. It’s not “we’re going to Daddy’s ashram,” they just like it as a beautiful place, a beautiful open space. They’re city kids, so for them to have the ability to run around and get dirty and play and see deer and animals running around. It’s cool for them, they think they’re at the zoo. They have no idea about certain things. They’ve been in the mandir and they’ve heard the songs, the bhajans are familiar to them as they’ve grown up with them. A big part of me wishes I had raised them there or sent them there for an extended time. They just look at it like they’re going to the country to play, which is how they should.
So Sunday you had school in the morning and then Swamini showed up?
We’d go to Sunday school and have assignments like meditate for five minutes or read this story, or question and answer. Or maybe we’d do activities or some sort of play that would exemplify human values. And then Swamini would arrive and eventually we’d make our way from Sunday School to the mandir where we’d join our parents. When we got there, the bhajans would have already started. It seemed like the bhajans would go on forever, though apparently there was no exact time. It’d be a half-hour, maybe an hour, though it felt like it went on for hours upon hours. One song could last twenty minutes, easy.
What would happen after the bhajans?
After that we would eat. We’d gather for a meal. It had a potluck family meal aspect. Maybe a couple people would do all the cooking or maybe everyone would provide something. For me, I got lucky. We happened upon the ashram at a time when people knew how to make some wonderful vegetarian food. So of course it was only natural that I go around and sample each home’s dish. There were a lot of paper plates and we’d gather around this general area. People would talk or the adults would have meetings about what was going on, as maintaining the 48 acres takes a lot of effort and a lot of work. There are a lot of leaves to rake. There were different structures to modify so they’d discuss that. As a community, we had to be sure to put our best foot forward. For us as kids we had to sweep the bridge and road. If you could find a broom or rake or wheelbarrow, there was work for you. As kids, you can’t really avoid those chores.
You touched on this earlier, this tradition of the African-American churches, was it singular to have an African-American commune like this?
I think it’s one of the most unique experiences in the world that can be offered, you just don’t hear about it. I’ve sung bhajans in different places here in America; it’s just not the same as The Ashram. You can say it’s due to geographical, scientific, musically technical reasons, or I can just look at it like some things are unique unto themselves. There’s only one New York City, only one Los Angeles. There’s only one Ashram.
It was set in a community that was very much African-American, which if you know anything about Agoura, California, is very rare. That part of California was originally indigenous Indian land. That was acknowledged at the Ashram, the chief’s grandfather came to the land and we showed love and paid homage. There’s history there, it runs deep and it needs to be respected.
Going to school, I always knew how different we were: We didn’t look like everybody, looked different, our names didn’t sound like everybody else’s. I remember going to the gas stations where you look for your name on a keychain and going “Oh, I’m not on this and I never will be.” Then I went to India and saw my name everywhere, even on a light bulb shop!
As a youngster, I had no context in realizing how unprecedented it was to have an African-American woman leading a spiritual community that was based in global consciousness but that sure had a lot of eastern influence, that equation alone is quite unique. For me, it was normal. It’s just how I grew up. As time has gone on, as an adult there’s more of a wow factor, how unprecedented a scenario it was, to have this community develop. To have a lady who was such a force and so dedicated in putting together this kind of environment is rare. Then it became quite clear as time went on, not only from a musical giant, but just from the fact that this country still hasn’t had a woman elected as president, there’s still a lot of road to travel as far as everybody being represented in different aspects of leadership. This one was ahead of her time. A lot of the things she did were ahead of her time surrounding The Ashram and the bhajans. The way they were recorded, the instrumentation that was used, that was very high level.
Are you sad about the idea of The Ashram being sold?
Personally, yeah. No person ever wants to see their childhood home sold, they want to see it up forever, regardless where you’re from. If The Ashram doesn’t move on to a different chapter, it’s my hope that the music is still preserved in a way that can last for very very long for the next generation. I would love for The Ashram to stay there forever, sure, I would love it. I believe that’s the way it was intended to be.
But plans change. Things happen that might force us to look at things in a way that we didn’t anticipate. I don’t think anyone was prepared for what happened on January 12th, 2007, whether you were a family member or not. No one said yes, I’m ready for this. There was no six-month diagnosis, no time to plan for what may occur. Due to that fact, here we are nine years later, almost ten years later, and we’re still looking to put together some of the pieces. If a decade goes by and you still haven’t figured it out, then obviously there are reasons. And there’s potential. And clearly the story is not finished yet, as far as being told. We shall see. Whether The Ashram stays --or if it has to move on-- the spirit of the place, the music from The Ashram, will always be there.