An Intimate Concert And Interview With Jai Uttal
By Nikita Mehta
Bay Area yogi alert! Our amazing local superstar, Jai Uttal will be performing his first ever solo acoustic concert at The Showcase Theater at Marin Center at 7pm on Sunday, October 29th. In order to get you really excited for this unique experience, SF Yoga Mag sat down with Jai to talk about his journey in yoga and why this concert is so special!
If you have never seen Jai perform in person, or even if you have but want to see him in this intimate setting, act soon, tickets are selling fast! Now without further ado, we give you…. Jai Uttal.
What makes this concert so different than anything you have ever done before?
This is just going to be me, an acoustic guitar, a harmonium, and a banjo, which was really my first love! I‘m still working on the set list. The reason this concert is so different is that I've never done a whole performance just accompanying myself, with no other musicians or singers I spent a lot of my career with very large bands. My first five albums featured my 12 piece band The Pagan Love Orchestra, which combined hip hop, reggae, jazz Indian and African music. It was pretty wild and before its time. And still at the big festivals, like Bhakti Fest, I perform with a big band - 2 drumsets, electric guitar, bass, keys, horns and a bunch of singers. Many of the gentler songs that I've written for my albums have never been performed live because my band was geared towards this big explosive sound and these songs are very introverted. Plus I was super shy to perform them. I've actually had to go back to all my albums in order to learn how to play these songs and, in so doing, re-inhabit and rediscover them musically and emotionally. That’s the big difference of this concert; I‘ll be alone onstage and singing many of the English songs from my albums. Of course, I‘ll sing a bunch of mantras and kirtans as well. I‘ll perform at least one song from every album, and there have been about 20!!! There are a lot of songs that I've never performed for anyone outside of the recording studio, It‘s challenging for me in a beautiful way to learn how to make this music rich and colorful without all of the orchestration in my CDs. It‘s also a bit nerve-wracking! But Im finding that the heart space that birthed these songs between 10 and 35 years ago is still very present inside of me.
Let’s talk for a second about why yoga is so important in the current state of events; politics, violence, natural disasters. Why is it so important that we roll out the mat and come to the practice with intention?
Well for me I don't roll out a mat, I roll out my harmonium! I practice Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of Devotion, which connects me to a higher, eternal spiritual energy and reality. These days it's so most important and significant that we all deepen our practices, whatever they may be. And we need to ACT! There‘s so much suffering in the world and we each need to do whatever we can, large or small, to alleviate the sufferings of others. At the same time, the practices keep us connected to God, to that which is unchanging, to that which is constantly loving and protecting us and giving us strength and perspective from which to serve. That’s why when Nubia and I did the live stream [on Facebook] during the worst of the fires, soooo many people responded and sang with is. We were feeling everyone‘s terrible fear and seeing so much destruction so, in that moment, we wanted to share our prayers and heart-strength with others. We sang to Hanuman and asked that his father, the Wind God, to please calm down. Hanuman also is the master of fire, and we begged him to contain Agni‘s flames. But mostly we were just trying to share this strong connection and feeling from our hearts with everyone to help bring some peace and hope and light.
There is such a call for Bhakti Yoga in these times. Can you talk about Bhakti and what it has meant to you?
Bhakti is usually translated as the yoga of devotion, but it’s a funny word because in the West we have a very narrow concept of what devotion is. The essence of Bhakti is reawakening and nurturing our eternal connection to God, which has always been our true, inherent nature. What I do is a combination of mantra and singing and creating music - basically the art and practice of prayer - and continuing, on a daily basis, a life time of longing to be closer to God. The other hand of Bhakti is sharing, helping and serving others. Increasing my ‘bliss‘, staying home and doing nothing is not Bhakti. Doing whatever we can to help others while we nourish our own spiritual connection is what Bhakti Yoga is all about. Everyone has their own unique spiritual path. And whatever that path is,, during these times, when the world is so harsh and troubled, it’s our job to intensify and deepen our practices. All the spiritual paths can be seen as yoga, the quest for love and wholeness. You know, I did something cool with my new album, Roots Rock Rama. I created a partnership with an organization called OneTreePlanted, so that for every CD sold a tree is planted. I know that’s just a little thing, but if everyone does little things then it adds up to a big thing.
Let’s backtrack a little and talk about how your journey began.
In High School I became aware of the whole incoming wave of yoga into America. From the start I was much more drawn to the devotional side of yoga. So, I spent some wonderful time with the Hare Krishnas, though I never joined the movement. Even as a young person I was listening and really getting enraptured by Indian music, both classical and devotional. I went to Reed College in Oregon but I very quickly failed music and failed religion and dropped out to come to the Bay area to study with Maestro Ali Akbar Khan. After several years of intensive study and practice, I wanted to go to India and that’s where I met my guru, Neem Karoli baba, who is also the guru of Ram Das and Krishna Das. Let me back up! When I first came to California, I joined an Indian yoga group where we were taught kirtan and Ashtanga Yoga. When I was 18 I actually went down to Bakersfield and started a yoga center there. My friends and I did kirtan and asana and taught Hatha Yoga. I look back and I'm a bit embarrassed because I didn’t know anything! Then I went to India when I was 19 and I heard the chants and prayers and even the ragas sung in the temples and holy places where they'd been sung since ancient times. Most importantly, I met Maharajji, Neem Karoli Baba, and that meeting turned me inside out!
When I came back to the states I resumed my studies with Ali Akbar Khan, which continued on and off for many, many years, But, after India, my inner perspective had changed a bit. I was a musician and I was learning from the greatest master of all time and he was teaching us such beautiful ancient music and I was trying to receive it from a devotional standpoint. How can I use this music to strengthen my connection to God and to myself and to other human beings? Another thing about Ali Akbar Khan is that he said that anyone who studied an instrument with him had to also study voice because he believed that all music comes from the voice. That’s when I first started to get a glimpse of what singing did to my heart and my soul. But for many years I was super shy about it. One day I realized I was either going to sing or die on the soul level, so I decided to sing. I continue to study music. For about five years I've been taking Brazilian guitar lessons from a wonderful musician names Jose Neto. My wife, Nubia, is Brazilian and, over 18 users, I've fallen in love with Brasilian music.
This event is produced by Lloyd Barde Productions.
Jai Uttal’s new double album, ROOTS ROCK RAMA! was just added to the Grammy ballot for the best World Music album of the year!