Burning Man Live | Episode 78 | 12|22|2023

Preaching to the Playa Choir


Many people are surprised to learn that Black Rock City is home to not just two full orchestras, also a Playa Choir complete with a secular Sunday sermon. Since 2012 Madi has been organizing and arranging the harmonies and happenings, each year with more and more help. 

In this installment, kbot and Stuart talk with Madi (Choir Director), Tory (Director of Dusty Productions), and Leut (Preacher Man). They have stories and more stories of inspiration and elevation. We get to hear many voices resonate with music, recorded live at Burning Man 2023 in the Black Rock Desert. Hallelujah!



TORY: People are really caught up in the moment at the sunrise service. And, Madi is an artist in that she always times it that at some perfect moment in a song, the sun rises right behind us. 

MADI: I got nothing to do with that!

TORY: So when we’re at the height of our most important moving song, the sunrise comes up. We see the light hitting all the people and their faces sort of illuminating. 

STUART: Welcome back, my friends, to another episode of Burning Man Live. This is part two of a miniseries about the magic of playa music. We put together over the course of a lot of 2023 this pair of episodes. By we, I should say, kbot, because she did most of the hard work on production. But we managed to interview members of some of these musical groups, and to get live recordings brought back from Black Rock City.

This one is about the Playa Choir, which is a miracle of many human voices working together with no auto-tuning, no special effects; the good old-fashioned power and glory of singing — and a little bit of preaching thrown in on the side, but we’ll see about that. Let’s go ahead and get started.

Could each of you say what your name is and what your role is?

TORY: Hi, I’m Tory. I am a longtime participant and kind of behind-the-scenes coordinator of the Playa Choir.

LEUT: I am Leut. I am the resident preacher.

STUART: Okay, we have to go a little deeper on that, Leut, actually on two things. Is Leut short for lieutenant, and what’s the preaching all about in Playa Choir?

LEUT: Every year I deliver a secular sermon, usually riffing on one of the Ten Principles and bringing in stuff from my life to illustrate those ideas.

As for Leut, that comes from a couple of women I met in my first or second burn who said that we give playa Names to new Burners, decided my name was Eluthra, which happens out of nowhere to be the island out of 700 islands in the Bahamas that my mother’s whole family is from. And to this day, I don’t know how that happened because playa magic. And I shortened it to Leut.

STUART: Thank you for that. We so often just, like, let playa names fly over our heads and never ask for the story. And the story is so often magical. Thank you. Alright. Kbot. Let’s see…

KBOT: It all goes back to 2018 when my camp was across the street from the choir camp and we heard them rehearse. It really became real for me that year as you went through your rehearsal sequence and I met some of the people in the choir. And that’s where my fascination just grew with all of the groups on playa that play real instruments and perform with real voices. And I wanted to meet you and I wanted to hear your backstories. 

What made you decide to start a Playa Choir?

MADI: I’m a choir director by trade. I’ve been in choirs my whole life and my first year kind of at Burning Man didn’t really count. I was a weekend warrior. This is 1999. And then I came back in 2002 and I did nothing but party because that’s what you do when you’re young and foolish like that.

And I just had, I’m like, I need to do something. Like I can’t just come out here and party. It’s cool for a couple of days, but I need to do something. I’ve always loved gospel music. I had an upbringing in church, even though I’m not a practicing like Christian or anything like that. But I just like that, feeling that element. I’m like, “Man, this would be a great place to have a choir that does a Sunday morning thing.” 

So the next year I started one and it started in a really dank, stinky army tent called the Spirit Room. And I made this little altar and somebody painted a sign. And I think we had maybe seven or eight people in the ensemble and like eight people showed up.

And I had an old Rhodes, and somebody came and played percussion and. That’s how it started. I just thought this place needed it and I was so scared. What if this doesn’t happen? It doesn’t have fire. It doesn’t have pyrotechnics. It’s not electronic music. What if nobody likes this project? What if it fails?

But I just kept doing it. 

KBOT: What year was that when you started the choir on playa?

TORY: It was 2003. 

MADI: 2003. Thank you, Tory. It’s a good thing we’re a community, because if I was leading the whole thing, we’d never get off the ground.

KBOT: Tori, what year did you join the choir?

TORY: I first saw the choir in 2009, and it was a life changing experience.

I had been to Burning Man since 2007. And somebody came into my camp and said they were involved in this and I stopped by one of the rehearsals at this point. It was in the Jazz Cafe. So it had grown a little bit in those years. And I wept. I was so moved and here was this group of people singing together and — oh, I’m getting emotional even now just thinking about it — but I just, I, I broke down and I was like, “Oh, my God, I have to do this. I have to be part of this.” 

2011 was my first year in the choir and I’ve been a part ever since and it’s literally is, my life has changed in, in those intervening years because of Madi. Madi is our driving force. Leut is the voice of the playa, but Madi is our inspiration. 

KBOT: Leut, what year did you start singing with the choir?

LEUT: Well, my first burn was 2011. I happened to see a sandwich sign somewhere in the city saying that there was this choir on Sunday morning, and I was like, “Okay, I’ll go check that out. Whatever.” I sat there and was kind of blown away thinking “Who is this woman leading this choir? And why does this choir sound like the black churches I grew up with in Harlem on the playa? Something’s going on here and I should probably be part of it.” 

So I joined the choir the next year and it’s Now just part of the rhythm of my burn.

KBOT: How would someone go about joining the Playa Choir? Can you just wander up and get involved or do you have to audition?

MADI: We welcome everybody all the time.

I spent a lot of time at the Glide Church in San Francisco. I sang in their choir for quite a while. And one thing that really moved me about that place is just their severe commitment to welcoming everybody, everybody in that church. And this is in the Tenderloin, like the gnarliest, seediest, most drug-infested neighborhood. This church sits right in the center of it. 

And so, you know, it really made a strong impression on me, the kind of welcoming attitude. So when I started the choir, like this is how it has to be like, everybody’s welcome to come sing with the choir. We have a solid core of about 40 singers that return every year.

And then it’s the people that walk by that are like, “Wait, what? What is going on in there?” And they will come by and they’re like, “Oh my God, I sang in choir when I was in high school. I would love to do this.” And they become like Mark, they become like Tori, they become like our people. 

STUART: I’m curious about the musical direction. It sounds like you folks stick fairly closely to traditional gospel-y choir music, is that true?

MADI: Actually, the music is really different this year. I need to step out of my comfort zone and do some different things. And so I don’t think there’s a traditional gospel tune in our set. But the lyrics are always… I think when I’m choosing the music, I have the theme in mind, but I’m going for what I think is really going to touch people, what I think is really going to inspire people.

It always has to do with reminding people that they are works of art. That’s always at my core. There’s always a transformational piece, the kind that gets people crying. There’s always a couple pieces that get people dancing. But the lyric is pretty much what always drives my music choices.

STUART: Okay, so I’m not going to hear anything snarky, like an acapella version of Boots and Cats and Boots and Cats and Boots and Cats? Or, I actually, I know a couple of guys who have an acapella didgeridoo band on playa. Have you heard Didgeridon’t?


KBOT: Didgeridon’t…

STUART: I may connect that with you.

MADI: Oh, that would be so great. Have him come to our service. I always invite other artists to do things like solo. We always have things that augment the service, so have him come see me.

LEUT: It’s interesting you asked about a traditional gospel. When I tell people that we’re non-denominational, the example I give is the year we sang a hymn to the Afro Caribbean ocean goddess Yemọja.

STUART: Yeah. I get it. 

KBOT: Can you hint at what you’re singing this year?

MADI: The first tune is Awake My Soul by Mumford Sons. I have this deep-hearted connection with like Americana roots music. I was seven miles from the closest stoplight when I was raised. I didn’t know what city life is like at all, so I never went to a big gospel church. 

We’re ending with Van Morrison’s Wild Nights, but I changed all the words to Your Wild Life.

Animalia, like wildness. I’m way into that saying by Henry David Thoreau, like, in wildness is the preservation of the world. 

Our tearjerker transformational piece is this piece called Heavy by Birdtalker. And the theme is just leave what’s heavy behind. It’s Sunday. It’s Sunday at Burning Man.

And then I’m doing an original composition called Ona’s Prayer. Ona is my friend David Syre who came to our service in 2009. He is such a special human being. He came to the service, he hated Burning Man. He didn’t want anything to do with it. He was so done. He just wanted to go home. He wound up at my service on Sunday morning and was completely transformed.

And we’ve been really sincere friends ever since. But his whole thing is he started to paint. He’s 70 years old when I met him and he started to paint. You’re talking like business developer, traveled all over the world, owns businesses, companies, all this stuff. And, he just said, I’m going to learn to paint and he’s amazing.

He’s a ridiculously incredible childlike wild painter. So it’s a piece that’s dedicated to him and kind of his philosophy, his life. I wrote this poem for him and then I just said it to music. It’s called Ona’s Prayer. 

TORY: You want to talk about the Finlandia?

MADI: This is the first year we’re collaborating with the Black Rock Philharmonic, which is super exciting.

I’m so excited to do that. That is hush hush, because I think the orchestra doesn’t know that we’re going to sing. It’s a surprise for the orchestra. So Jean Sibelius wrote this beautiful sort of nationalistic piece, Finlandia. It has a choral part at the end. It’s a pretty famous hymn. So, we’re going to collaborate with them.

We may or may not do it for the service. I’m not sure. 

KBOT: I’m curious to hear you explain why you call your performance on playa a service.

MADI: It’s church for people who hate church. It’s church for people who are recovering church folk. There is something about Sunday morning in this world. And also on playa, there’s something that needed to happen on Sunday morning that was cohesive, a special look back on the week, but especially look forward.

So it’s modeled after kind of a traditional church service, but I am so careful. Everybody who speaks and the music we do is non-denominational and non-dogmatic. If church was like this, I would go every Sunday, you know, and that’s so important to me to keep it that way because I don’t want anybody feeling excluded. And the minute you start putting dogma there, people start to get really turned off, including myself.

KBOT: Leut, you give the Sunday sermon at the Temple. Is that correct?

LEUT: A secular sermon. It’s in sermon form in that, you know, I grew up in a church as well, and I’ve seen a lot of great sermons, and I’ve seen a lot of bad ones. I try not to give bad ones. So my topic is never religious, but it’s delivered in a form that’s digestible as a sermon. 

If you think about Sunday on playa, if you think about starting your day with the Playa Choir, and ending your day with the Temple Burn, it is a very spiritual day. After the huge party that is the Man Burn, you have this spiritual day, and then you’re ready to head out.

STUART: You know, Larry Harvey liked to say that Burning Man is exactly like a religion, except with no higher power. 

LEUT: Yes. 

STUART: And I’m wondering if any of you are familiar with the First Church of the Jerk. The Jerk Church?

LEUT: I am very familiar with the Jerks. I’ve done a little bit of singing with the Jerks, but not a lot. And I really loved it when they had their cathedral on playa a few years ago. 

STUART: I think it comes from the same place that you were talking about. People who grew up with church and they love everything about church except the religion part, right? They love the church picnics and they love the choir; they love the service and the fellowship. I think I understand that through that lens.

KBOT: What time and where does the sermon take place?

MADI: We load up at about 4:30 in the morning and drive out to the Temple. We’re right behind the Temple, right between the Temple and the sunrise, and we start it pretty much at sunrise.

Then we roll back to our dome and reset things up, and we do our main service at 11 at our dome. 

TORY: The sunrise service is very different than the dome service in terms of the energy that’s there. The sunrise service, we get a lot of people that have been out all night that are coming from the Temple; They’re very raw.

In general people are at the end of their week. Many have come through a very life changing, you know, I mean, Burning Man is hard, it’s arduous, and people deal with their own inner stuff and relationships and choices. And so we often have a lot of people that we encounter there, their emotions are really on the surface — that energy, people just crying and really caught up in the moment at the sunrise service. 

And, Madi is an artist in that she always times it that at some point, at some perfect moment in a song, the sun rises right behind us, and…

MADI: I got nothing to do with that!

TORY: Oh, but you always start it just exactly at that moment. So when we’re at the height of our, you know, most important moving song, the sunrise comes up right behind us. We see the light hitting all the people and their faces sort of illuminating. 

Then the 11 o’clock service is different. It’s much more family oriented. People are planning on being there. There’s more that goes on, but again, very high energy. That’s where we get really the people up and dancing. And, you know, we have people leaving on exodus, driving right by us and waving goodbye. There’s a lot of people, I mean, Leut talked about staying for the Temple Burn, but a lot of people who leave right after that. Also, we’re often broadcast on BMIR, and so we have people, as part of their exodus, their tradition is to listen to our service on their way out. And that’s our big point, is to get all those feelings from Burning Man to go home with you in the default and to remember that experience.

STUART: Very well said.

MADI: Mmhmm.

KBOT: What does rehearsal look like leading up to Black Rock City when you all are still at home?

MADI: I teach full time, but right when I’m done teaching in June, I take a tiny, tiny break, and then I’m like, “Alright, I gotta get to work.” And then I spend a few weeks choosing, writing and arranging, and then making sheet music, making the music and then putting basically practice tracks online, so that it’s out hopefully by the middle of June — or July, excuse me — so people can get familiar with it ahead of time. 

And then we rehearse Tuesday through Saturday. So sopranos will get together, altos get together, tenors and basses all get together separately. And then the band also, it’s like five different mini rehearsals about the same time.

TORY: ish…

MADI: ish… It’s a huge amount of work to make sure everything works together, to arrange it and/or write it and get it ready for the choir. 

KBOT: What does it feel like when you all arrive on playa at Choir Camp and rehearse together for the first time?

LEUT: First of all, there’s a lot of us who have been singing together for a long time. So there’s a whole lot of welcoming. “Oh my God, you’re back. It’s so great to see you.” Some of us camp together at Playa Choir Camp, but some of us see each other only at rehearsals and the service, and then we don’t see each other for another year. So there’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of getting organized.

I’m kind of the bass section lead and so for the new people there’s a lot of telling them how this thing is going to go, and what they need to pay attention to, and “Get your nose out of the music because you need to watch Madi.” And then I tell them that again, and then I tell them that again.

MADI: Squirrel! Art car! Aerialist! 

TORY: Aerialist! I was just gonna say…

LEUT: And then we get down to work. And you know, there’s a lot of distractions on the playa. There are people wandering in to watch us, there’s an art car booming music going by, and we’ll just stop and dance along for a minute as it passes, and then go back to it. And then as the week goes on, we start to get into the rhythm of it, and we start to feel like a cohesive unit.

TORY: There’s been a big change in our community since the pandemic. It used to always be, just as Leut described, that we would see each other only just once a year. Maybe we would get some emails over the summer about the music, but we would come together on playa and it would be this big reunion. But in 2020, when the world shut down, our choir started zooming. We decided, “Okay, we’re going to get together and we’re going to share creativity.” And we had speakers and music and it very quickly transformed into just a meeting where a group of friends, where we just get together every week and visit and talk and catch up. And we still do it to this day every Sunday. 

And we put on three virtual performances during the pandemic. In 2020 and in 2021, we did a virtual Sunday service on what would have been Burn Sunday. And in 2020 we also did a solstice service in December because we just felt like people needed that inspiration and that connection. There’s members of our group who, we wouldn’t have made it without, without that community. 

KBOT: So many people speak about the pandemic as a very isolating time. And it was! But there were also so many ways that people connected in new and creative ways, and built community that is not always recognized. So I’m fascinated by that.

STUART: I was going to ask Leut if he knows what his sermon is going to be about this year.

LEUT: I do…

TORY: Are you gonna share it?

STUART: Would you care to share it with us, or..?

LEUT: I’d like to save it!

Madi gives me the freedom and the trust to step up their sight unseen and deliver a sermon that’s going to move people. It’s something I really value. It’s a place where I have found a voice that I wasn’t completely sure I had. And so I really enjoy putting that together and surprising and delighting. The choir and the gathered crowd with what I come up with. I try to keep it interesting.

MADI: He’s a great orator. He always has a really talented way of spinning a story and then all of a sudden it comes back and you’re just like, ahhhhh.

STUART: That is also just a classic American style of oratory, right? The Sunday sermon, the preacher’s voice.

KBOT: I feel like we’ve really just scratched the surface of all the incredible experiences and stories. Are there any stories that stand out to you? 

MADI: Stories? Oh, lord. There are so many. 

TORY: Madi, you should talk about our elders.

MADI: We’ve lost a couple of our elders this year. They were the oldest women in the choir, we love them so much. We called them the Mojo. They were so lovely. They rode around in this little cart, a little golf cart, and they came every year. They were in their 80s, and I think by the time Mo was done, she was in her 90s.

TORY: Or 91, I think, at our last Burn, yeah.

MADI: They were exceptional women. Mo was one of the first female physicians. She was a doctor. And Jo, she just had a snap to her. She was so smart and so saucy. She was a whip. She was a preacher’s wife who sang in the choir. Actually, they both knew each other from singing in church in Reno. And they came out every year. Their son and grandson would help them get their RV there and unload the cart, and Jo used to — somebody’s got to do this now — Um, Jo used to bring these cards and when people would come in to sit and listen to rehearsal, Jo would greet them and say, “If you’re interested in singing with us, here’s the music. But if you want to come back next year and you want to stay in touch with us, give us your email and we’ll keep in touch with you.” She had these little cards. 

And I’ll share just a quick story about Mo. So we build a dome. It’s a super gnarly, very dangerous task. We don’t have any assist except for our camp infrastructure lead, Guthrie, created and designed and built these dome jacks. Dome jacks that lift it up as we go. We’re talking about a big, huge dome, like the Thunderdome kind of dome. Heavy, dangerous, intense. 

This was in our first year of building the dome. And so we’re all there early and we got a dome team. They’ve spent all day. They’ve got the first two rungs done. Part of what we do is that once we get to that, we start putting the top on, our canvas shade slats. 

And at one point Tim, the Rev, he’s on the team, he’s sort of leading the team, he walks over to me, and this is probably three in the clock in the afternoon, the heat of the day, and I can see he is not happy. I see the steam coming out of his ears. I see his face just blazing red, and I can just feel his energy and I’m like, “Oh God, what’s happening?”

He comes over to me and he’s almost in tears and he’s like, “We have to start over.” And I’m like, “What, what do you mean you have to start over?” He’s like, “We have to tear it all down and start over.” Almost nine hours of work. He said, “We put the bolts the wrong way! The bolts are heading out. And so there’s absolutely no way that the canvas slats will survive five minutes!” And we’re all just like, “Okay, well, there’s nothing you can do about it. May as well just get started taking it down!” 

So anyway, Mo comes over to me later. She’s shorter than me. She’s 5’2”, 90 years old, the sweetest, loveliest human. She comes over to me, she’s like, “You know, Madi, I was watching them do that, and I was wondering about those bolts, but I didn’t say anything because: what does a little old woman like me know?”

I’m like, “You’re a physician! Of course you know!

KBOT: I remember those ladies. They were adorable passing by in their little golf cart. 

MADI: The Mojo Cart!

Yeah, they passed away. We’ve had a number of our members pass in the time that we’ve been together. 

LEUT: Can I leave you with a somewhat different story? 

KBOT: Mmmhmm.

LEUT: So, a couple of burns ago, after we were finished the sunrise service, this couple came up to me and said, “Hey, can you marry us?”

And I said, “Well, I’m not legally qualified to do that.” 

They said, “That’s okay. We want to get married. We met on playa this weekend. We want to get married.”

I’m like, “Alright, okay. I’ll just pull a ceremony out of my ass. Sure, let’s do this.” 

And so, I said some traditional things, and then he pulled out a ring. I don’t know where he got a ring. He pulled out a ring, and put it on her finger, and she pulled out a wristband from the Orgy Dome to put on him, because apparently that’s where they had met. And that’s why I love the playa.

KBOT: That is beautiful. One more happy ending thanks to the Orgy Dome.

MADI: If I had known when I started this choir, how beautiful the community would be, and how beautiful this experience would be, I’m not sure I ever would have doubted it. We’ve had some growing pains. We’ve had all sorts of crazy things happen, but I am so proud of this community. I’m proud of this project. I am deeply humbled by this community. Deeply humbled.

It’s the longest ensemble I’ve worked with and it’s been so cool to watch it grow and change. playa magic has just carried us every single year. There’s been such miracles, such miracles that have happened to this choir. So yeah, I feel really spoiled fucking rotten and really blessed beyond measure to have this history.

LEUT: Can I add something? 

TORY: I’d like to add something too.

LEUT: You go, Tory.

TORY: One of the things that’s special about the choir is that it really does embrace radical inclusion. Anybody can come and participate. I think that is especially provided by the soloists every year. There are a number of songs where there are opportunities for people to have a solo.

Sometimes it’s a big solo. Sometimes it’s just a line or two here. And Madi has the amazing talent of finding who needs that opportunity and picking that person, not necessarily who’s the best singer or the greatest performer, but who’s the person who’s going to benefit and grow the most. You talked about growth and change from that opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and sing in front of an audience and try something on.

We don’t pick the soloists until Saturday. Just the day before the performance. So all week long, everyone is practicing and learning. And then we do sort of tryouts on Saturday. Madi always tries to get everyone involved so that people have the opportunity, but I have seen her nurture and help people grow into those roles and then just blossom and shine.

It’s really inspiring to witness. It’s a very special part of the choir.

LEUT: I’d just like to add, so I’ve been singing with the choir since 2012, and I’ve been speaking since ‘15, ‘16? There is not a year that has gone by that ,at the end, people haven’t come up to me, some of them in tears, saying that this is the best part of their burn.

Madi, there’s something you used to say a lot, and I haven’t heard you say it in a while. You would say at the end, “I’m Madi. And this is my art project.” We are psyched to be your canvas. 

MADI: Thanks for doing it. 

STUART: Well, I’m just going to thank you all for your time, and I look forward to hearing some music out there. 

TORY: Yeah, come and see us. Come and sing.

MADI: Yeah, come by.

LEUT: Come join us. 

KBOT: Thank you all. I can’t wait to see you out there.

MADI: Thank you so much for this.

KBOT: Burning Man Live is a 100% nonprofit production of the Philosophical Center of the 100% nonprofit Burning Man Project. Donations certainly help. Wander on over to donate.burningman.org and kick us over a few bucks. It is fun and it feels good. And if you live in the U.S. it’s also tax deductible. Ding!

And while you’re in the neighborhood, check out live.burningman.org. That’s where the podcast lives. There you will find a treasure trove of shows, show notes, transcripts, and who knows what else. 

Thank you so much for listening and thank you for subscribing. You are the reason why we do any of this. And maybe you’re also the reason why we exist at all. 

Thanks to everyone here on this side who made the episode possible: Stuart, Vav, Actiongrl, Allie, Tyler, DJ Toil, the whole Burning Man Project communications team. Thank you to the Playa Choir. And of course, thanks Larry.