Music: Spirit Rocked

Music: Spirit Rocked

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Jai Uttal creates a divine blend of musical styles

Jai Uttal, who combines kirtan with world beats, says that he was one of the first musicians to blend Indian music into the world music scene. Photo by Jeffery Newbury.

By Lily O’Brien

“My musical path has been a journey of dichotomies,” says world music artist, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer Jai Uttal. Having just completed his 17th CD (one was nominated for a Grammy), Roots, Rock, Rama!, a blend of reggae, jazz, Indian, samba and rock ’n’ roll, Uttal will be celebrating its release with a performance at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on Saturday, March 18.

“I feel like it’s an expression of everything I’ve done–50 years of the practice of singing kirtan,” Uttal says of his latest work, by telephone from his Marin home. Kirtan, he explains, is the call-and-response practice of chanting ancient Sanskrit mantras, accompanied by music. “Every new musical color opens up an emotional color, which opens up the spiritual connection.”

Uttal, the son of a record company executive, grew up in New York. As a teenager, he got “deeply turned on” to Appalachian banjo music, but during high school, in the ’60s, was drawn to psychedelic rock—particularly that of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. Hanging out in Greenwich Village record stores led to the discovery of Indian classical, folk and devotional music. On the guitar, Uttal would jam along to recordings by Indian sarode master Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Hearing Khan live at a concert in Portland rocked Uttal’s world. “That concert just turned me inside out and blew my mind and blew my heart and everything that I felt that I knew about life and about music just got turned upside down,” he says.

In 1969 Uttal moved to the Bay Area and began studying sarode and voice with Khan at the Ali Akbar School of Music. Around 1971, he began playing with a reggae band (on guitar), and eventually formed his own world fusion band, the Pagan Love Orchestra.

“We really had an amazing reputation because in a lot of ways I was the first one to be blending this Indian music into the world music scene,” Uttal says.

These days, Uttal divides his time between performing at festivals, running kirtan camps with his wife and leading kirtan workshops at yoga studios-turned-venues all over the country.

“We’re going to raise the roof at Spirit Rock,” Uttal says of the upcoming CD release party. “It’s going to be a full-on dancing and singing experience.”

Jai Uttal, Saturday, March 18, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, 5000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Woodacre; 8pm; sliding scale, $20-$100; 415/488-0164; spiritrock.org.

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