In-A-Bhagavad-Gita, Baby
Krishna rock for GeneratioNext

They're a little bit Krishna, a little bit rock and roll. With their poppy, tight, upbeat mix of rock, reggae, and raga rhythms, the new top Europop artists Undrop have blended their Swedish skatepunk roots with Spanish orientalism to create a new generation of the Hindu hipsway.

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... by Brett Allan King
... in the Scope section
... from September 28, 1999

Hare Krishna rockers have brought down the ashram for years, and drums and electric guitars have long been an integral part of Krishna fests. But save a few major stars co-opting their mantra, this musical underground has stayed close to the temple circuit, cloaked in saffron-tinged anonymity -- until a cross-promotional Pepsi campaign brought this skinhead Sanskrit subculture into the spotlight.

The GeneratioNext Music program warms over Pepsi's aura of rebellion by giving instant stardom to little-known local bands -- like Undrop. After years of touring Europe, the U.S., and Central America, Swedish brothers Tomas and Steffan Runqvist, along with Spanish bass player and fellow Hare Krishna Antonio Crespo, were happy to curry favor with the second-choice soft drink. Upon releasing their English-language debut album The Crossing (Subterfuge Records) last year, Undrop graced the Pepsi spot that launched them to fame.

In the commercial, as the band plays "Train," the crowd starts picking apart the lyrics, until the lead singer chugs down a Pepsi and finally gets to play it his own way. This song, complete with mantra and praises to Lord Krsna Caitanya Mahaprabhu, lyricizes a cleansed chakra choo-choo "to a higher destination." A higher destination indeed. Undrop's dharma sprang out from the obscurity of Spanish bars and into the Top 40.

Spain's rama rama rockers are stellar examples of stars rising from the Krishna milieu. Undrop's trio forgoes the priestly saffron robes of temple full-timers, but all are friends of the Spanish Krishna spiritual retreat, Nueva Vraja Mandala. There, in Brihuega, Spain, devotees shake their hare groove things amidst Hindu idols and tethered cows. While pop pagans seek nymphs and nose candy, these plain clothes Krishnas prefer skateboards (Steffan Runqvist was 1985 European Skate Champ), yoga, and the vegetarian clean living of ancient India.

Undrop's current hit "Boomerang" (Columbia Records) maintains the thread with thinly veiled karmic references: "If you throw a boomerang (yeah) it will surely come back to you." This surely harks back to the biggest Krishna pop star of them all, ex-Beatle George Harrison. In his ode to His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, "The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)," Harrison sang "And the law says whatever you do/Is going to come right back on you..."

The story of Krishna rock began in 1965 when Prabhupada ("India's greatest modern saint") reached America with nothing but eight bucks and a Bhagavad-Gita, and showed acid-drenched hippies a new high in the 16th century teachings of Lord Krishna Caitanya (God). Apparently, by chanting the 16-word maha-mantra, one taps "the supreme pleasure principle" to reach God-consciousness.

"Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare is not a material sound vibration, but comes directly from the spiritual world," preached Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). "His Divine Grace" left this material world in 1977, but rock and roll never dies. ISKCON festivals have long featured clay-faced rockers in Deep Saffron.

The founding of the 1967 San Francisco temple begat the Avalon Ballroom's "Mantra-Rock Dance," with Swami Prabhupada, Allen Ginsberg, and The Grateful Dead. As Bob Dylan chanted at the Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago temples, Harrison topped charts with "My Sweet Lord" and "The Hare Krishna Mantra." In the book Chant and be Happy ... The Story of the Hare Krishna Mantra, Harrison says: "Once I chanted the Hare Krsna mantra all the way from France to Portugal, nonstop. I drove about twenty-three hours and chanted all the way. We sang it for days, John and I, with ukulele banjos, sailing through the Greek Islands."

While multinational corporate sponsorship of The Holy Names brings no apparent bad karma, "chanting from the lips of nondevotees should be avoided," warns ISKCON. "Milk touched by the lips of a serpent has poisonous effects." Even so, Undrop has a gold record and continues to chart hits. Soft drink touched by the lips of Nirvana-seeking Swedes and Spaniards clearly brings financial bliss, but the implications for eternal enlightenment remain cloudy.

His Divine Grace's current incarnation could not be reached for comment.

Brett Allan King is an American-born writer based in Madrid.