Jai Uttal On Kirtan, Human-ness, And Letting The Energy Fly
SF Yoga Magazine caught up with Jai Uttal, the Grammy nominated musician and world music pioneer, before his upcoming performance at Bhakti Fest, September 7-12, 2016. Since 1990, Jai Uttal has released nineteen albums, fusing Eastern and Western traditions in eclectic and transformative ways.
AS: You grew up in a musical family in New York City, playing classical piano, banjo and guitar. What was your first exposure to kirtan?
JU: My first good exposure to kirtan was with the founder of the Hare Krishna movement and the first group of disciples in Central Park in New York City, in the first Human Be-In. It was a big hippie thing, and I was a young teenager. That was the first time I heard powerful mantra, kirtan – it captured my insides. Between the Beatles and the Hare Krishnas, they were the first to bring this West.
AS: Can you tell us a little about your guru, how you found him and what it was like in his ashram?
JU: I went to India in 1971 to dive into this other yoga group, but you get to India and suddenly you’re in the spin dryer and nothing you plan ever happens. (laughs). I found myself with Maharaj-ji [Neem Karoli Baba], and my inner life completely changed. At that time, Westerners didn’t live in his ashram, but we stayed close and went every day to see him. And the background music of every visit was kirtan. I had actually been singing kirtan since I was about 16, but not leading it. I was very shy about singing in front of people. My teacher, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan [the great classical Indian musician] had insisted we study Indian singing, but being with Maharaj-ji gave me the experience of the incredible emotional depths of kirtan singing.
In these temples, they hire singers to sing 24-hours a day, or in the mountain temples, 18-hours a day, and the singing, particularly back then, was so filled with feeling and musicality. I was sitting with Maharaj-ji, and just by his glance, layers and layers of protective, karmic residue was peeled away, and while that was happening, I was listening to the most incredible kirtan music. Maharaj-ji would always tell the Westerners, when he was tired of us sitting in front of him, to go off to the corner of the ashram and sing kirtan. I became imbued with that. And the gradual awareness of what the guru-disciple relationship means – the understanding of it is expanding every day, even now.
AS: How did you begin performing kirtan in the United States?
JU: After some time, I began my first band, the Pagan Love Orchestra. The idea was to bring together Indian devotional music, reggae and jazz, and we had a really good run, making three or four cd’s. At the time, there was nobody doing this. It sort of initiated the Western kirtan movement. There is something wonderful about being ahead of your time and something frustrating about being ahead of your time – there was nowhere to play but nightclubs. I did that, but I became frustrated. We finally had to put the band on the back burner. I was in a depressed place, and I started getting calls to come lead kirtan at people’s places. With a band, I had a support system of eleven musicians, plus I was drinking a lot. But after going to a drug and alcohol treatment center and getting sober, I couldn’t do that anymore. I was nervous singing kirtan, but the key to being able to do it was honesty. It really changed my whole concept of performing. Previously I felt like I had to be as perfect and as good and as great as I could be and not let anyone know about the inner terror and anguish that I was going through.
AS: How did you deal with the perfectionism? It’s such a tough affliction, making it so hard to be vulnerable.
JU: Perfectionism is a two-sided coin, but the self-criticism is so toxic. I ended up being honest with people, telling them that I was really nervous, and it turned out that people don’t want to sit in front of a perfect person – they want to sit in front of a real human. People admire perfection, but people love human-ness and we love love. We want to love and be loved. It’s sort of the bottom line. But making a living as a kirtan singer was a totally odd, crazy, wonderful reality, which brings us to the present.
AS: Speaking of the present, we’re so excited about your performance at Bhakti Fest in September. How did you first begin participating in the festival?
JU: I’ve known Sridhar [the Executive Producer of Bhakti Fest] for a long time; I think we became friends in 1973. When he started Bhakti Fest, some of the first people he called were Krishna Das, Deva Premal and me. The concept sounded amazing and I said, yes, of course, I’ll come, and then it grew to Shakti Fest and the Bhakti Fest Midwest.
AS: What are your favorite parts about Bhakti Fest?
JU: I have so much fun performing at Bhakti Fest – one of the reasons is the audience is so completely energetic. People are singing kirtan for 24 hours for three days; the energy is really high and the audience is so into it and so enthusiastic -- immediate ecstasy. Another thing I love is that the stage is huge and I invite all my friends to come up with me. I’m always trying to recreate the feeling of the village. In India, even if someone is leading kirtan, they aren’t any more special than anyone else; they’re another spoke in the wheel. I’m always looking for the place where we feel like a village again, and I invite the village on stage at Bhakti Fest. That’s the most fun part: having this beautiful stage filled with friends and fellow Bhakti yogis. Letting that energy just fly.