Jai Uttal: In the Footsteps of the Minstrels
Grammy-nominated kirtan master Jai Uttal describes his journey from Manhattan to India—and beyond.
Walking through Jai Uttal’s northern California home, I pass more than 20 instruments. He introduces each one—the one-stringed ektar and the five-string fretless banjo, the droning tamboura and the wailing soprano 12-string guitar. “Each instrument has a different song, a different world that emanates from it,” he tells me.
Like his instrument collection, Jai’s musical repertoire is vast, spanning everything from rock to the Ramayana, an ancient epic Indian poem that he set to music and performed with the Chicago Children’s Choir. His CD Mondo Rama (one of dozens he’s produced) contains Brazilian influences, Hebrew prayers, Appalachian blues, Beatles psychedelia, along with Indian music and chants. Jai tours with his band, Pagan Love Orchestra, drawing audiences well beyond the New Age or yoga crowd.
He’s lived in India among the Bauls, the wandering street musicians of Bengal. He’s led kirtan in countries as diverse as Israel and Fiji. He has sung with great singers and those with no musical ability at all. To Jai, this is the epitome of kirtan. “Sometimes kirtan is gorgeous and sometimes it’s super rustic. It’s all kirtan. The heart of kirtan is the prayer—the repetition of the mantra, of God’s names, and the intention—being sung. But that singing can be two screechy notes or a gorgeous classical raga. Whether it’s sung, screamed, or cried, it’s all praise.”
Jai, who grew up in Manhattan, began studying classical piano at the age of seven and went on to learn old-time banjo, harmonica, and guitar. He was a musical experimenter from the beginning. At 18, he moved to California to become a student of India’s “National Living Treasure,” Ali Akbar Khan, from whom he received traditional voice training. You can detect this influence in Jai’s trademark vocals which, the first time I heard them, sounded to me like the yearning of my own soul. Says Jai: “I honestly feel that, since I was a teenager, all my music has been directed—even if not totally consciously—toward inner healing, finding a place of wholeness.”
At 19, Jai traveled to India. As with many of his generation, the journey was transformational. He met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. (Jai Uttal’s Sanskrit name, Jai Gopal, was given to him by a yoga teacher before he met his guru. “I guess that’s why I’m not a ‘Das,’” he jokes, referring to the fact that Krishna Das, Bhagavan Das, and Ram Dass were also devotees of the Maharaj-ji.)
"Whether kirtan is sung, screamed, or cried, it’s all praise.” –Jai Uttal
Jai also steeped himself in the spiritually ecstatic music of the Bauls, an experience that has shaped his life. “Before I ever went to India, among the albums of Indian classical music I had was one called The Street Singers of Bengal,” he says. “This record was so moving, I had to meet the Bauls.”
The origin of the name Baul is debated, but one interpretation is that it comes from the Sanskrit word batul, meaning “divinely inspired insanity.” Jai tells the story of going to Shantiniketan, a town in West Bengal, where he heard they were living: “After several days of asking around and not getting anywhere, I was in a chai shop when this old man, wearing a patchwork dhoti and bells around his ankles and carrying a one-stringed instrument in one hand and a little drum in the other, came in. He played and asked if anyone had any money. Afterwards I followed him. We came to a little mela (a gathering): Onstage was this big family, all sitting down except the lead singer, who was dancing. On the floor were all the grandmas and grandpas, the little babies, all generations, playing cymbals and singing with him. It was just great. And the guy gets off the stage and it turns out he’s Lakshman Das Baul, one of the two well-known Bauls on the cover of one of Bob Dylan’s albums!”
Jai met him and then others. “We really connected with one guy, Baidyanath Das Baul, who started coming to our house and then gave us lessons four times a week. We knew no Bengali and he knew no English, but we began to have this amazing relationship over music, singing, chai, a little food, all kinds of instruments.”
Jai became friends with other Bauls, too, and traveled around with them. “I had written some Baul-style songs with English words, and I would play some of them. What a rich and beautiful time it was.” It was also inspiring musically. “The music of the Bauls is simple but full of passion,” says Jai. “The words are very metaphorical. The imagery is rural, rustic. But their tone is one of busting out, breaking through the rooftops of heaven.”
Adapted from Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Path, by Linda Johnsen and Maggie Jacobus. Published by Yes International Publishers. Reprinted with permission in September 2008.