Jai Uttal On The Power Of Kirtan: Join Him At Summer Bhakti Kirtan Camp, Aug 8-13
By Ashley Shires
Jai Uttal, the Grammy nominated musician, is a pioneer in the world music community. At eighteen, he dropped out of Reed College to become a student of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, India’s National Living Treasure and one of the greatest classical Indian musicians in the world. In 1971, he traveled to India where he first met his Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and became deeply immersed in the practice of kirtan, the ancient yoga of chanting. Since 1990, he has released 20 acclaimed albums, fusing Eastern and Western traditions. I was thrilled to talk to him before his upcoming Summer Bhakti Kirtan Camp, August 8th – 13th in Fairfax, California.
Can you tell us a little about Kirtan Camp?
My wife, Nubia, and I held our first camp 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 extensively as a tabla accompanist and performer. I was quite nervous that first day, but we quickly got into such a deep and effortless flow, and I felt that all the gurus and invisible angels of everyone who came took over and guided the kirtan camp. 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.
Is it open to all levels of kirtan experience?
YES! We have people who just want to immerse themselves in the feelings and many moods of kirtan, and we have 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, lead a lot of kirtan, tell stories, and Nubia teaches about gods and goddesses and Daniel teaches rhythm, and we sing and we share. This summer we'll also have our dear friend Prajna Vieira guiding the harmonium classes. With every kirtan camp our family becomes more extended. And the winter camps have been in Guatemala, Costa Rica, India, Brazil, and Mexico. Last winter we were at Haramara, in Sayulita, beautiful Mexican yoga retreat right on the ocean. This coming winter we'll be back at the awesome Blue Spirit retreat center in Costa Rica.
Can you talk about the transformative power of kirtan?
My guru, Neem Karoli Baba, always said the impossible becomes possible by repeating the name of Ram. I was 19 when I met him, and that single holy name has been the anchor of my spiritual life ever since. I received the mantra along with a great love for the Ramayana, one of the epic stories from Ancient India. At our kirtan camps, I spend considerable time telling the story – one chapter a night - of Rama, Sita and Hanuman.
Chanting is a practice, really, a nonstop practice, that I've done even in the worst years of my life. I’ve been doing it for a long time now (laughs). My spiritual evolution is like a snail, but still it’s been years and years of investment of my heart. At Kirtan Camp we sing many different mantras to many different deities - everyone seems to have their favorite - but the cumulative effect is often life changing. I'm so humbled to be part of this process and to watch people light up with joy and grace.
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. I feel super relaxed, 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 new people, twice a year
Can you tell us about your involvement with Patreon, the online platform that supports artists?
Most people listen to music now through streaming, but the music streaming services give almost nothing to the artists. Most people don’t really know that. Patreon is creating the opportunity for people to give back to the artists they love and be part of that artist's creative process. It's a completely beautiful circle. The whole platform is just three years old, and it’s trying to create a new option. It is reinventing the ancient concept of patronage.
In the past, most the artists and writers and scientists in the fields of higher learning had benefactors. My teacher, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, was a court musician in Rajasthan and was supported by the king. Without this patronage he wouldn't have been able to raise his art to the heavenly heights that he achieved. Shakespeare couldn’t have written his plays without patronage. Leonardo DaVinci is another example. And then there were those who didn’t have patronage, like Vincent Van Gogh or Modigliani, who died an alcoholic. It even goes back to the sadhus and the holy people in India, where it is an ancient tradition to give alms to those people holding up the spiritual side of society.
That concept has been lost in modern times, but the system of patronage is such an opportunity for both sides to grow and expand together. It is an old idea but a with a new approach. There are so many different artists on Patreon - scientists, painters, photographers, cartoonists - asking for the opportunity and support to create more and have less stress in their lives. It has the potential to be a life-changer and life-saver!