Attending a Jai Uttal kirtan, or call-and-response devotional music event, feels like being led by the hand of your beloved into a communal celebration of the Divine. He gives unrestricted access to his heart. We feel a deep, exposed inner truth, rather than a mere performance. At one point, he encourages us to sing with him in this communal devotion. The result is phenomenal: we feel included as we are, without walls, barriers, or masks. Every mantra, every note echoes in our innermost of hearts and melts away any resistance.
I first saw Jai perform about 15 years ago during a kirtan evening at Sacred Movement in Venice. The second time I saw him live was in 2017 at Wanderlust Hollywood, where he shared songs from his new album, Roots, Rock, Rama! to a packed crowd. The energy completely blew me away. People young and old swayed, danced, smiled, laughed, sang along and hugged each other. The evening was saturated with devotion and bathed in tenderness.
When Jai and I connected via Skype, he smiled from across the screen as he sipped his latest concoction, bulletproof chai. “I was a little drowsy and didn’t have time for a walk, so I decided on chai instead. This is actually an experiment,” he laughs, “ginger, cardamom, goat’s milk, MCT oil and a little maple syrup.”
Laughter and lightness pepper our interview, which dives into Jai’s past, his journey into kirtan, how marriage and love brought sobriety into his life, and the uncertain future of being an independent artist in today’s digital world.
A Grammy-nominated performer, Jai has released 19 albums throughout his career as a kirtan artist. He describes the double CD Roots, Rock, Rama! as a culmination of “Fifty years of kirtan singing, not all of it public.” CD1, or Rama Sun, sounds like fun and energetic Jai, kirtan infused with Jamaican beats. CD2 is Rama Moon; an introspective compilation drawing on the mellower sounds of Brazil.
Kirtan for Jai is, as he says, “The doorway to the Divine connection. It’s the way my spirit, my soul, my mind, [and] my heart, most easily and immediately connect with my Guru, with God, and with infinite Spirit. I know and trust that my Guru is always with me and God is always with me and in me, but in my consciousness I don’t feel that most of the time. Kirtan allows me to feel it a little more strongly. It allows me to get into a space where the walls are not so tightly shut. I started singing kirtan when I was about 16 or 17, not to say that I was leading kirtan, but I was part of a group and enjoying it a lot.”
Jai was introduced to kirtan at the age of 15. “I just happened to be in Central Park when I heard the Hare Krishnas singing kirtan. It was a great first look into kirtan and it really affected me.” Four years later, Jai traveled to India and kirtan became the background to his adventure. “The chanting of kirtans, prayers and Sanskrit mantras was everywhere. Indian music finally made sense to me.”
The time span between hearing the Hare Krishnas at Central Park, participating in devotional kirtan in India, and the creation of the 2017 release Roots, Rock, Rama! is a lifetime saturated with experience. The true spirit of this album lies not in the technical how-to’s, collaborations, or production, but in travel, adventure and soul searching.
Jai’s musical journey began long before India—or even that meaningful day in Central Park— in his childhood. He grew up in New York City with a dad who worked in the music business. “Every week, my dad, my sister, and I would sit down and with a stack of the top 20 top singles and analyze them.”
More than analyzing music, Jai began playing. First, the piano. A few years later, he discovered what he called “old-timey Appalachian music” and he took up the banjo, which he played as part of his admissions process to The High School of Music and Art in NYC. The banjo continues to make an appearance in nearly every CD Jai has released, including in “Madhava Mystic” on Roots, Rock, Rama! He says, “Then, during my psychedelic phase, I was heavily into Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. I got into electric guitar, not acoustic, which is what I play now. I wanted to make the craziest sounds.”
Jai’s childhood did not offer a spiritual practice. “I was born into an alcoholic, artistic family. We were Jewish, but not devout. The gifts my parents gave me were equal to the difficulties and challenges.”
One of Jai’s deepest challenges—and most profound journeys – was his path to sobriety. “Sixteen years ago, I met Nubia and after a long distance relationship, we finally got married. Aside from everything else that she brought into my life, sobriety was one of the most important. At the time, I was in my late forties. I was embracing the Bhakti (devotional) path and sharing that music. There was no hypocrisy in my heart about singing devotional songs and using substances to get through the performances. I was drinking and taking a lot of substances just to make it to the stage. The levels of my being were completely out of sync. Nubia brought healing of that inner space. I don’t know if that healing came from her, or if suddenly I wanted to be sober because the love that we were experiencing was unlike anything else I felt in my life.”
It is a love that was delivered through devotion, through travels, through challenges as well as triumphs. Earlier in his life, Jai experienced a spiritual disillusionment that actually served as the catalyst for him to meet his lifelong Guru, the Indian Saint, Neem Karoli Baba, known as Maharaj-ji. Jai traveled to India at the age of 19 to meet another Guru he had been following, but the meeting never happened, and he became disillusioned with the idea of a Guru. “I was over the Guru thing. Been there, done that.”
Jai opened himself up to adventure instead. “I heard that Ram Dass was also in India and found him in the village of Vrindavan, where Ram Dass was meeting with his Guru, Neem Karoli Baba. At the time, I was open to experience, but wasn’t seeking a Guru anymore. I didn’t feel anything like, ‘Oh, this is my Guru and I made it.’”
“But I did feel very strongly that I had gotten to this place and there was nowhere else I wanted to go. I was so completely magnetized, intrigued, confused and just drawn to him and his energy.” Then one day, Maharaj-ji left, without word and without any notice of when he’d return.
“It was only then that I realized how incredibly attached I’d become to Maharaj-ji. I walked over to the Hanuman temple and just started singing. I recall this incredible outpouring of longing that I know was inside of me, probably since I was really little. It’s that longing that drew me to India.” He pauses, “In retrospect, Maharaj-ji drew me to India.”
After Maharaj-ji’s unexplained and sudden departure, Jai decided to stay in India until his funds ran out. He was living in a little village outside Benares (also known as Varanasi), when a friend from high school dropped by and offered to bring them bhang, an edible form of marijuana. The next morning at 4am they ate the bhang and walked over to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Sarnath (outside of Varanasi proper) to climb up to the top of the Stupa.
Laughing, Jai explains, “People walk around stupas. They don’t climb to the top of Stupas. We climb to the top of the Stupa and start meditating, because we were very yogic stoners. The bhang became very strong, almost like an LSD trip, and I’m meditating and sweating, and meditating and sweating, when I suddenly hear this sonic BOOM! inside of my head, and I hear Maharaj-ji’s voice, whispering, “Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram…”
“With each repetition of that word, I felt like all of the spiritualness of my rigid yoga practice just drained out of me. At the time, I was committed to doing this very complex meditation sadhana (personal practice), and I was filled with ego because the sadhana was like a mountain you had to climb. But all of the willfulness just drained out of me, and in its place was the word, RAM. Maharaj-ji used to chant RAM all the time. He would fill books, just writing RAM. He used to say, ‘When you say RAM, the impossible becomes possible’.”
Roots, Rock, Rama! is dedicated to Rama (RAM) and created in a collaborative field that spanned several continents and musical styles.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this album is Jai’s collaboration with a cellist and music producer in India, who recorded a chamber orchestra in India in two formats: direct to digital, clean and pristine—as well as onto a tape. The tape was left out in the sun for three days to age. In the end, Jai received two versions of all the string parts, “One clean, digital recording, and one crazy, degraded one…it sounded like a very warped reel to reel from the 1920s. A few weeks later Ben Leinbach (the album’s co-producer as well as drums/percussion performer) and I are in the studio and we listen to the degraded tracks. I love the way they sound, except they make you a little seasick, because they are so warped, so extreme. So we made a blend of the two and I think it sounds awesome.”
Jai’s life adventure from artistic teen to devotional singer and father has taken many twists and turns. The overriding impetus for Jai has been to share and invite us into a ritual of devotion and journey to the Divine through music.
Roots, Rock, Rama! is available on all formats and platform. For every album sold, the nonprofit organization One Tree Planted will plant a tree. Become a patron of Jai in his mission and learn more about his album and to join his August kirtan camp, visit: jaiuttal.com/events
Read more about Jai and his prophetic dream about the Maharaj-ji here.
Jai Uttal will be headlining the Saturday night main stage at Shakti Fest in Joshua Tree Retreat Center May 12-14.