World musician Jai Uttal weaves together music and meditation
The Chico yoga and meditation communities will likely be gathered together in one place next week as one of the leaders in spiritual world music will be visiting Friday, Nov. 6, at Manzanita Place. Jai Uttal will be in Chico to perform songs from his latest album, Thunder Love, an album he says is about “opening up to love—finally.”
Uttal’s recording career has spanned two decades. He’s a master of the 25-string Indian instrument the sarod, and has played in a variety of styles—rock, jazz, electronic, reggae—in addition to traditional Indian music, creating, according to his Web site, “a sonic landscape that is always shifting, eminently relatable at every turn.” His often soothing, contemplative music includes kirtan, a classical Indian call-and-response singing.
Speaking by phone from his Marin County home, Uttal said that, for him, music is the “most amazing tool of self-healing and self-discovery,” and he likes to share with people his belief that each of us can use music and singing in our own inner journey.
CN&R: How has your music evolved over the past couple of years?
Uttal: I’ve been studying and learning a lot of Brazilian music since marrying a Brazilian woman, so my recent work combines Brazilian and Indian styles. I am going more and more into complete improvisation within the kirtan form—I sit down to play without having any idea of what I’m going to do, and I proceed from there. It’s like taking a jump into the unknown—without a net!
What can the Chico audience anticipate from your performance?
I’ll be leading kirtan, a practice from ancient times in India. People don’t need to know anything about spirituality or Hinduism to enjoy kirtan. They can anticipate a night of high energy and loud singing and wild dancing, as well as deep invocation—it’s a way of calling in the spirit. Even though it’s great music and lots of fun, it’s a way to ask the divine spirit to come and be present.
How did you first learn about kirtan?
I first heard it in New York, in the ’60s. I was very moved by it—the emotional content was super-charged, and I liked the repetitiveness of it. When I went to India, my guru immersed me in it. In the ground of all of my creative output, kirtan is the heart of my inspiration.
Where do your songs come from?
I don’t know! The melodies flit in and out of my head all of the time. I just pray they keep coming.
How do you go about composing your songs and writing your lyrics?
Gosh, I’m all over the place. I travel a lot, so a lot of my composing and lyrics are done on the road. I choose the Indian lyrics from ancient words—that part is pretty easy. The English words are a little harder to come by. The melodies are the easiest. I have a 4-year-old at home, and our house is very busy, so sometimes I have to get in my car with a notebook and go drive someplace and just write. It’s different all the time.
Have you had a mentor or model?
On a musical level, Ali Akbar Khan [Hindustani musician instrumental in popularizing Indian classical music in the West], who passed away this past June, has been the greatest mentor I’ve had. I started working with him when I was about 18, so I studied with him for about 40 years. There’s a big sadness that he left—but he was ready to go.
What’s next on the musical horizon for you?
The musical transformation I started with in creating Thunder Love is something I am very intrigued with continuing. My next album will have even more Brazilian influence and guitar, more banjo, with lots of call-and-response chants. Thunder Love opened up a whole new door that I haven’t fully explored yet.