ROOTS, ROCK, RAMA!
Love is the strongest medicine -Neem Karoli Baba
“I’m here to sing kirtan, to lead kirtan, to share kirtan, sing the names of God, play music,” says Jai Uttal. He’s talking as he loads his gear into the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, for sound check. His performance will be the culmination of a three-day workshop called “Love in the Time of Chaos.”
Vital at 67 years old, Jai Uttal is nimble. “There are no sings of stopping anytime soon,” he laughs, and then laughs again. “Traveling is really hard for me,” he sits behind his harmonium center stage on a makeshift meditation cushion, sorting through a tangle of cords with his guitar on his lap. A big statue of Hanuman on the floor in front of him oversees the proceedings.
Moaning for God
“Being in front of an audience is really hard for me,” he says earnestly. “Because every time I’m about to go on a trip I’m moaning. During the kirtan, I’m moaning. Moaning for God!” he laughs, then laughs again. “I’m being honest,” he says.
Music and spiritual practice became concomitant when Jai met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, in 1971. The Indian saint and teacher Neem Karoli Baba was a proponent of Bhakti Yoga through kirtan (call-and-response chanting of sacred mantras). This practice would become the center of Jai’s musical and spiritual life.
Jai Uttal and the Field of Grace
Jai Uttal navigates in a field of grace, leaving a river of smiles in his wake as a general course of action. He has cleaved his legacy in devotion over the last five decades. Over these years, he has been chanting in small rooms and on big stages at festivals around the world, raising our vibration one mantra at a time.
He has released an endless stream of music since his first offering, Footprints, in 1990. With an acquired magnetism, he’s cultivated a substantial global following.
ROOTS, ROCK, RAMA!
His most recent release to date, ROOTS, ROCK, RAMA! (2017 Mantralogy) is smooth magic. It’s not the kind of record a person could make in their 20s. (Or even their 60s for that matter.) ROOTS, ROCK, RAMA! is a decidedly cultured, discernably devotional, aged to perfection offering that speaks from a haloed heart. In short, it isn’t just another Western mantric masterpiece from Jai Uttal. It’s his White Album, and he goes wide. Stylistically it’s a unification of reggae, bossa nova, pop, jazz and classical Indian raga. Lush to say the least, the two CD set release (titled Rama Sun and Rama Moon) will be around for a long time.
For the several hundred providential souls who fill the pews at the First Unitarian Church in Portland, the contained magic will incite an group activation; a recalibrating to the love and light and compassion, to bhakti or devotion. Everyone will leave in a better place.
The lineup includes his kirtan road dog of over four decades: tabla player, musician, and singer Daniel Paul. “Daniel, how long have we been playing together?” Jai asks, tuning his guitar while Daniel tunes his drums.
Also on stage with him tonight are Heather and Benjy Wertheimer. Jai describes the couple, “In another context they are known as Shantala, a great kirtan band with many records.”
Kirtan as Service
Jai Uttal’s contribution this far is formidable, although he abides the diadem lightly. “It’s my service. It’s what I’ve been given and told to do to help in the world,” he says plainly.
“To0 many people have told me that my music has helped them in hard periods of their lives for me not to listen to it anymore,” he says. “I’m slowly, slowly, slowly learning that it is my service.”
His private practice is now public service as part of what looks like a good arrangement from out here. “I pray to serve purely,” he says. “I can’t say that it comes completely naturally to me, but it’s my intention.”
The Melodies of Devotion
“The universe is filled with colors and melodies,” Jai says. “They’re just everywhere, if only we could see and hear them more clearly. I feel that all art exists to enhance devotional practice and devotional expression. So I just try to hear the melodies.”
Award-winning journalist, documentary director and long-term LA Yoga contributor Sam Slovick is the director, writer and producer of the Radicalized documentary, currently working on the Kirtan Road Dogs documentary.