Looking for Soular Power activity is like being on a treasure hunt. Once you get a feel for it, there’s light glittering all over the place. So naturally, a t-shirt worn by the girl working the pizza counter at Whole Foods bearing the words “Soul Ablaze” is going to catch my eye. She tells me that Soul Ablaze is the name of her co-worker’s band, so I look them up on Facebook and the description reads like a Soular Power invitation: “Music changes. Music evolves. We change. We evolve. Soul Ablaze is something true and timeless. The wind will blow us toward different directions but from dust to dust we are where we begin. Beginning and end come together to form one full circle, one complete Soul Ablaze.”
Several days later I’m on my way to see Soul Ablaze first-hand, at Ghallagher’s Tavern in Ocean Beach. Front man Verdell Smith is accompanied by a saucy, bare-footed sax player, a bassist, and a drummer. If I had to settle on a genre, I’d say I am listening to funky rock reggae, with Latin undertones and jazz overtures. But every song has a different ring to it. As Verdell nimbly navigates his guitar, I have visions of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley and Sade. How one person can embody those three is beyond me, but I have a strong inkling of sacred geometry at work here too. There is just something to smooth about the way his voice melts across my mitochondrial membranes—alternately lighting me on fire and melting me into puddles. Every fiber of my body is deeply contented. Even my vision seems to have softened, draping the whole room in a steady glow. This is no ordinary love. Verdell is a prime example of the human instrument, tuned to the key of life. Clearly, here is another high-capacity vehicle for Soular Power.
This is corroborated by the crowd, which displays one of the tell-tale symptoms of Soular Powered engagement: uncontrollable dancing. This is not the self-conscious, look-at-my-ass kind of dancing designed to lure members of the desired sex. This is the dancing that comes from the feet themselves, organic movement that the ego can’t take credit for. Flailing arms and legs, jiggling hips; it makes you feel happy even if it is also strange-looking. The cathartic value of this movement is immense. It clears the pipes, strengthens the core, and increases personal productivity.
Over a steaming cup of Chai, I confirm my suspicions: Verdell is a musical prodigy. Like Jimi, he taught himself the guitar at an early age and displayed a strong independent spirit—breaking any rule that seemed too small for him. He went on to learn the sax, cello, piano, and drums in high school, while volunteering to write the music for a school play. (Lack of previous experience never poses an obstacle to Verdell. Rather, it is an invitation. This “I can do anything” attitude is his modus operandi.) He was fortunate to have several teachers early on that recognized his talent and knew how to cultivate it—namely, by giving him opportunities. The first time he took to the stage, with just his voice and his music under the quiet spotlight, it felt like a different world; one he was destined to inhabit.
Then Verdell joined the army. This shift in tempo appalled his supporters at home, but Verdell wanted to see more of the world, and the military was easy agency. He was assigned to Germany. With his guitar over his shoulder and an eye to the horizon, he set off exploring Europe, eventually spending time in Bosnia. Witnessing extreme poverty and suffering alongside profound grace and generousity made a lasting impact on his world view—and his music. “It made me want to love and understand everything I can possibly love and understand.” Returning Stateside he managed to get himself accepted to an army-wide solider show (the application asked for three songs; Verdell submitted one). He spent the next year on tour, singing and dancing for large crowds.
Back to civilian status, Verdell continued to study his craft. He was disenchanted by the often egotistical and commercial nature of the industry, and the limited scope of traditional music education; classical music was taught as if it were the definitive index of music literacy. From opera to heavy metal, Verdell explored it all—and then, one day, he happened into the World Beat Center, where he encountered a musician that would inspire him to take his own music to the next level: Midnite. This artist wasn’t show-boating, rather he was making a genuine and immediate connection with listeners. His lyrics struck the deepest chords in spirit, culture, science, history, and social consciousness—and affirmed for Verdell what he felt in his heart. The critical mission is to focus on music that makes people feel alive/organic/natural/beautiful, and plug in to a greater creative force—not a personal agenda. “It makes you revolutionary while keeping your Buddhist composure… this is the power that can move the world.”
Of course, this is music to my inner ear. And then it gets even better. Verdell and I start talking about the power of collaboration…and decide it might be fun if I came to band practice sometime, maybe bring some of my stuff…
I show up at practice and the rest made history.
I’m wandering around an art show hosted by ARTS: A Reason To Survive, deeply impressed and moved by the youth talent represented. ARTS is founded on the philosophy that the visual, performing, and literary arts can transform kids’ live; it is dedicated to healing, inspiring, and empowering children facing life challenges by providing innovative arts-based programs, education and employment opportunities.
From therapeutic arts programming for youth in crisis to college and career readiness in the arts and creative industries, this is a giant cauldron of creative juice—and it’s making my mouth water.
I’m admiring rocks wrapped in wire trees, hand-sculpted magnets (Heal! Inspire! Empower!), masks, mugs, and all sorts of other marvels…when my eyes are drawn to the most magnetic mandala I have ever seen. It stops me in my tracks—mouth hanging open.
The colors are so vibrant, the detail so intricate, that I am lifted out of myself. I am suspended in its gaze. The mandala penetrates me, reminds me that nothing real can be threatened (A Course in Miracles), that all is love. Then I see another mandala, clearly by the same artist. It, too, radiates the essence of the natural world with unabashed passion, makes me feel like I am swimming in pure oxygen…
My next step is to photograph the name of the artist—Kyle Bowen—with my smart phone so I can look him up later. But Kyle is smarter. He has a table with business cards, postcards, coloring books. Brilliance leaps from each. I am sold.
A month later, Kyle and I are having tea. He tells me about his life and how he started painting mandalas.
A San Diego native, Kyle still lives in the home he was born in 22 years ago. In fact, he was born in the living room in a feeding trough filled with water. This is a young man with some earthy roots—hand-fed and home-schooled by his naturopathic mom, he was given full access to art from the start.
Then, at the age of 18, skate-boarding home from a party with a friend, Kyle got the speed wobbles and crashed into a car. Stunned, he made it home and went to bed—without a word to his mother or anyone else that might have chastised him for skateboarding at night, no helmet.
Becoming an adult in this world is tricky enough, but the next year presented Kyle with a challenge nothing could have prepared him for. Life seemed impossible, confusing, and downright frightening. He thought he must be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, or a nervous breakdown, or some other technical difficulty. Finally, one day, the friend ran into Kyle’s mom and asked how Kyle was doing, since the accident. It was the missing link. A neurologist took a thermal image of Kyle’s brain, revealing extensive damage.
Armed with an explanation for his mental malfunctioning, Kyle’s healing journey began. And, as if orchestrated ahead of time, the right elements arrived: positive people, homeopathic remedies, and from his grandmother, two amazing books (Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung and Divine Forces by Paul Heusenstamm). Kyle was inspired to make his own mandalas, which he painted on rocks. Hundreds of them.
He could feel there was something to it—a deep, soothing power that softened the edges of his mind and opened his heart. As the mandalas moved from rock to canvas, spreading into the world, Kyle was further bolstered by the responses evoked when people saw his work. Their smiles, the light in their eyes, and their warm words encouraged him to keep going.
Regarding his work, Kyle says: “There is always something new, an endless possibility. It seems like I’m repeating myself but that’s what nature does. Like with flowers…they’re the same thing but different. I don’t make the same mandala every time, but they’re all mandalas.” Indeed each piece is bright, beautiful, and affirming—and totally unique.
Kyle’s goal for the upcoming year is to be happy, healthy, and balanced. He wants to expand his work, moving to larger platforms (such as murals on buildings!) He is also interested in organic gardening, surfing, learning to play drums, and helping others to fulfill their creative calling.
Kyle continues to be influenced by the Huichol Indians, Alex Grey, Chris Dyer, and Max Moses. “I hope my story inspires people to do what they love. Enjoy what you’re doing. It’s the most important thing.”
It has been over a week and I am barely sitting down to write about The New Year Soular Flare. I’ve been processing, digesting, and integrating the experience (I’m still not finished). It’s hard to fit the colossal magnitude of the energy of a Soular Flare into words, or pictures, or any other recording device. So here is the disclaimer: I do not attempt, in this log, to describe how a Soular Flare might feel to you. I can only tell you what it felt like to me…and a few other objective details.
People arrived and got settled, bringing food, instruments, paints & brushes, or anything else that tickles their creative fancy. There were dozens of drums and shakers available to anybody who had a mind or hand to try them, and a house DJ to boot—so the music started simply. It felt mellow, relaxing, and cozy—an open invitation. There were waves of people, waves of instrumentation. It was like sitting at a beach. As more people came the tide of energy began to rise, it got warmer, and happy excitement floated in the air. The collaborative concert was underway.
At midnight we made a large circle, filling the room perfectly. Tea lights went to each person and soon the room flickered with little flames and shining eyes. Each person said three words (give or take) of intention for the new year. It was a beautiful, palpable experience of individual and collective power. After that I felt everything shift—and the rest of the night was like a bright burst. We moved away from the circle and reunited fluidly into the most incredible jam and dance session I have witnessed. We were one multi-dimensional organism, breathing and pulsing.…and it lasted without pause until 7 am.
Here’s what it looked like at any given moment: some of San Diego’s most compelling contact dance improvisers waltz in; suddenly people are flying into the air. Memphis Taylor on the mike, lyrics flying out of his mouth. Radsab, Hiruy, and Dragon on the drums with hands and sticks of fury (where did Radsab get those light-up drum sticks?). Marissa Oliver on violin shredding bows to the bone. Kyle Bowen painting mandalas. There are people painting each other’s faces and large canvas on the walls. People toasting, cheersing, eating, laughing, hugging, talking…this is a space where you can pull up a blankie or dance your face off. Either one is totally appropriate.
The youngest person in attendance was still in utero, while the oldest was hard to identify; there were many age-less beings whisking about the dance floor or dangling from the aerial swing that could have been anywhere from 60 to 100 in biological time.
No two Soular Flares are alike. They are born, organically, of the people who plug in. It is an entity that exists only once. And for once, saying Happy New Year did not feel automatic. It was authentic. I was restored and renewed by all of the Soular connection, savoring the feast of people truly feeling good—genuinely, with every cell, PLEASED to BE PRESENT.