Jai Uttal On Inspiration, Engagement, And His New Album, Roots, Rock Rama. Catch Him Live At Shakti Fest, May 12 – 14, 2017.
By Ashley Shires
Jai Uttal is a pioneer in the World Music Community, a Grammy-nominated musician who brings together Indian devotional music with reggae, samba and more, a truly eclectic, ecstatic sound. SF Yoga Magazine caught up with him before his upcoming performance at Shakti Fest in Joshua Tree, May 12 – 14, 2017.
You’ve said that your new album, Roots, Rock Rama, was influenced by Bob Marley’s breakout hit, Roots, Rock Reggae. Can you tell us more about that?
I first went to India in 1970, and when I returned from studying with my guru, I was living in Berkeley. One of my roommates toured with Earl Zero, a reggae musician from Jamaica. Most of the people in his band were Jamaican, but they needed another electric guitar player and I got the job. That was right around the time that Bob Marley’s first album came out. He was just making an impact on the United States and I loved, loved loved him.
I had never played reggae before, though, and I was out of practice with electric guitar, and they looked down on me a little: I was 20, white, younger. And I probably I wasn’t that good (laughing). But it was so great for me – a huge education. It opened up my insides to the amazing musical and spiritual place from which reggae returned. It was my first love upon returning from India; it helped my entry back into the Western World. We all hear about culture shock. I didn’t have any culture shock going to India, but I had extreme culture shock coming back from India. In India, I felt for the first time in my life that I was home – when I got back, I didn’t know where I fit in.
You recently traveled to India to perform a concert and make a video for the album. I understand that it was big deal for you to go.
The last couple of years, I began to experience a terrible anxiety about traveling. It got more and more extreme, where I was completely dragging, even on small trips to Los Angles. And it wasn’t the concerts – I get stage fright in a normal, human way, but this was different. We had planned two or three other trips to India over the last few years, and each time I canceled at the last minute because I thought my nervous system couldn’t handle it. But when we decided we needed to make a beautiful video to go with the album, all the longings woke up again. My wife, Nubia, had the suggestion to go to India, and my first thought was absolutely no, I can’t do that. But there was such yearning and energy around it. Even though I wanted to say no, I couldn’t say no.
I won’t say that all my travel phobia is gone, but the trip was beautiful. Every piece of it fell together. It was short – we spent a little time in Delhi and the rest of the time in Rishikesh. We did have a crazy mishap right before we left; our friends who were going to India with us to film the video had a medical emergency the day before we were to fly, and it was as a mad scuffle to find someone to video our concert. We got a film crew from Rishikesh who specializes in videoing weddings. They couldn’t speak English and my Hindi is not good – it was the luck of the draw.
What a crazy adventure– how did it all come together?
(Laughs) I haven’t seen the footage yet. But the the day was so beautiful – we were on a stage that jutted out on the Ganges, right on the water, and we played from 3:00 into the sunset at 5:00. It was an incredible confluence of people, including Gaura Vani, one of the producers and musicians on the album, and Gui Vitali, a percussionist from Brazil -- all these friends who happened to be in India at the same time. When I first said yes to the idea, I thought I’d get local musicians from Rishikesh, but all these dear friends I’ve played with hundreds of times were there. It was beautiful, so much fun. Now I want to go back next year.
Can you talk about how the songs on the album evolved from your live performances?
A lot of this album was recorded in a studio live with the same musicians from Bhakti Fest and Shakti Fest, and the first question was, “What tempo is this song?” (Laughing) We’ve played it so many different ways. I feel like so much of the live performance of the songs wrote the songs. All the energy from all the audiences should be listed as co-writers.
I wanted to bring some of the tracks to India and record there, too, but I was too anxious to make the trip. So I did some research and I found an American who had been living in Mumbai for many years, providing strings for Indian recordings. He had studied with the son of my musical guru, so we had the same musical language. I asked him to arrange a string orchestra to open up my new songs, but there was so much logistical craziness. His name is Jake, and I called his orchestra the Melodious Strings of Mumbai; all the players are Indian except for him. He asked what kind of style I wanted (fusion, pop, strings orchestrated in western style). I said I wanted old-school Bollywood string sound.
When it was completed, they sent a pristine digital recording. I said that I wanted it to sound a little old. Jake spoke to his engineer, and they recorded some tracks digitally and some to analog tape and they left it in the sun for three days to degrade the tape and then they transferred that. I said, “What if a cow comes and eats it? What if a monkey poops on it – what happens then?” (Laughing) And it was awful sounding, very mangled, so we ended up making a blend of the clean, pristine sound of the orchestra with that of what sounded like a 78 rpm disc from the 1970’s – and the blend came out amazing. I only wish, the one thing I regret: I wish I had asked Jake to take photos of the musicians. And the tape – where was it baking in the sun? On the roof? In my mind’s eye, I just see the tapes on the street (laughing). But monkeys are everywhere – how could you protect them from monkeys?
This new album is such a force of hope, so creative and upbeat, which is so inspiring right now, in the face of the current political situation in the United States.
Now is a unique time – we need our practices now even more than ever. And the music that I make is my practice. I hope that people will see it as part of their practice, too. In terms of what is going on in the country, we have to see how devotional music and the opening of the heart, the spiritual connection, is not outside the rest of the world – it is inside the rest of the world.It’s not really the time to escape. It’s the time to be engaged. But we need to be engaged with spirit, with inner space, with heart opening, and music and mantra can help in this process.