Jai Uttal: The Search For Bengali Street Musicians, The Ancient Art Of Patronage And Kirtan Camp!
By Ashley Shires
Jai Uttal, the Grammy nominated musician, is a pioneer in the world music community. He began studying classical piano at age seven and later learned to play old-time banjo, harmonica and guitar. At eighteen, he dropped out of Reed College to become a student of Ali Akbar Khan, India’s National Living Treasure and one of the greatest classical musicians in the world. In 1971, he traveled to India where he first met his Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and became deeply absorbed in the practice of kirtan, the ancient yoga of chanting. Since 1990, he has released nineteen albums, fusing Eastern and Western traditions in eclectic and transformative ways. SF Yoga Magazine was thrilled to talk to him about his musical and spiritual influences and his deep connection to the yoga community.
Can you tell us a little about your experience traveling to India in the 1970’s in search of the Bengali Baul street musicians?
Baul is the name of the sect, and it means God Intoxicated, or Mad for God. I had been listening to their albums since I was 12 or 13 years old. And then, on Bob Dylan’s album, 'John Wesley Harding', there were some Bengali Bauls on the cover. I thought, how in the world could they be with Bob Dylan?
In 1975, I traveled to Calcutta with some friends, and we set out in search of the Bauls. We heard that there was a Baul Mela, meaning festival or gathering, and we took a train to Bolpur, which was a quite close to another small town, Shantiniketan, the former home of Rabindranath Tagore. We went to a cool little hotel and asked, “How to do we find the Bauls?” We were told that you just walk around, and if you see someone in patchwork robes playing in the street, follow them and try to talk to them.
This was a little town with no cars, dirt roads, a Bengal desert kind of place. We rented a little house and walked around and stopped at a roadside chai shop, a little tent where you sit on a bench and get some Indian tea. Coming down the road was an old man, with a drum tied around his waist, a one-stringed instrument in his other hand and bells around his ankles and clothes made out of patchwork and super long, oily gray hair and beard. He was dance walking, singing at the top of his voice, and his singing was terrible, but his vibe was completely other-worldly. He sat down at the tea shop and we bought him tea, but we couldn’t speak to each other because of the language barrier. We followed him two miles to a festival of Baul singers.
You have to imagine Bhakti Fest, but scaled down so that there was one stage with a lot of Christmas lights and a canopy, one microphone and sitting around the stage in a semicircle were about 30 people, grandmas, grandpas and babies. Standing in the middle was one super charismatic singer dressed in patchwork quilts, playing a one-stringed instrument and singing super devotional Bengali songs. When he finished, he sat down and someone else would pass their baby over and then she would stand up. The audience was maybe just 50 people, all villagers. It was so small but so magical, and when they were done, I walked up to these guys, and lo and behold, two were the ones on Bob Dylan’s album.
They spoke a little English and we somehow set up lessons with another musician who would come to our house three times a week and teach us music. I later traveled with the Bauls a couple of times. Their living was begging, but it was different in India than here. In India, there is a tradition of patronage to spiritual people.
Along those lines, can you tell us about your involvement with Patreon, the online platform that supports artists?
Most people listen to music now through streaming, but streaming doesn’t give back to the artists. Most people don’t really know that. Patreon is asking for the opportunity to create more and giving people the opportunity to join and be part of that creative process. It is a completely beautiful circle. The whole platform is just 3 years old, and it’s trying to create an option. It is reinventing the ancient concept of patronage.
In the past, all the artists and writers and scientists in the fields of higher learning had benefactors. My teacher, Ustad Ali Akbar Kahn, was a court musician, or else he would not have been able to study Indian classical music. Shakespeare couldn’t have written his plays without patronage. Leonardo DaVinci is another example. And then there are people who didn’t have patronage, like Vincent Van Gogh or Modigliani, who died alcoholic. It even goes back to the Bauls and the holy people in India, where it is an ancient tradition to give alms to the people holding up the spiritual side of society. We’ve lost that in the West.
That concept has been lost, but that system of giving and patronage is such an opportunity to both sides, to grow and love together. It is an old system but a new alternative. There are so many artists on Patronage- scientists, photographers, cartoonists, asking for the opportunity to create more and for people to give them the opportunity to create more. It has the potential to be a life-changer and life-saver.
Can you tell us about your Kirtan Camps, where people come together to sing with you?
My wife, Nubia, and I held the first one about fourteen years ago at the Open Secret Bookstore in San Rafael, California. We put out fliers, booked the back room for ten days, and people from all over the world started signing up. My old friend, Daniel Paul, offered to join us – he has traveled all over the world as a tabla accompanist. I was nervous the first day, but we got into such a flow and all the gurus and invisible angels of everyone who came took over and guided the kirtan camp and it was really beautiful, blissful -- uplifting for all of us, me included. It was just wonderful. Since that time we decided to do it twice a year.
On a musical level, there are people who just want to get into the feeling of kirtan to people who are more trained musicians who want to lead kirtan. Our intention is to fill everyone’s needs, to fill everyone’s cup – their heart cup – including our own. I teach beginning harmonium, a lot of kirtan, and Nubia teaches about gods and goddesses and Daniel teaches rhythm work, and we sing and we share. Every kirtan camp family becomes more extended. And the winter camps have been in Guatemala, Costa Rica, India, and Brazil. This coming winter is in Sayulita, Mexico, a beautiful yoga retreat right on the ocean.
What is your favorite part of Kirtan Camp?
One of my favorite parts is when a group of people gets together to sing for multiple days in a row, and everyone feels so safe, so vulnerable, and the kirtan lifts off so beautifully. My other favorite part is that we get to fall in love with 40, 50, 60 people, twice a year.