East-West Fusion


By Derk Richardson  |  

After a decade of tinkering with an original world music fusion that
incorporates elements of traditional Indian music, African rhythms, jazz,
rock, and pop, Jai Uttal has finally gone off the deep end with Mondo Rama
(Narada/Virgin), the new album featuring his Pagan Love Orchestra. The San
Francisco Bay Area composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist has culled
sophisticated and playful programming, sampling, and turntable effects from
electronica and hip-hop and spliced them into an already eclectic
instrumental and vocal mix. Factor in Uttal’s richly emotive singing as he
shifts between devotional chants (to Vishnu, Krishna, Kali, and Shiva) and
English language lyrics (addressing heartbreak, loneliness, and personal
redemption), and you have a magnum opus that realizes Uttal’s vision as
never before. Indeed, Mondo Rama raises the bar for others aiming to fashion a world beat sound more profound than warmed-over disco exotica.

Uttal makes his mission clear from the outset of Mondo Rama, his sixth CD of new music. “Narayana,” the first of 12 tracks, begins with a melodica (the
windblown keyboard that sounds something like an accordion) stating a jaunty
theme over a loping rock drumbeat. Uttal intones, “Hey Govinda Radhe Radhe,
Hey Gopala Radhe Radhe,” while a female chorus “ooh-ooh”s behind him. After
a few choruses, harmonized trombone and cornet come in with a svelte bounce,
as if Burt Bacharach had arranged a horn section for a Jamaican ska band.
Then the song makes a left turn into a soulful bossa nova that recalls Donny
Hathaway’s “Where Is the Love?” and finally morphs into a Beatles homage
with “Penny Lane” brass and multitracked slide guitars.

Two tracks later, after a traditional kirtan (devotional chant) rides into
the twenty-first century on DJ Quest’s turntable scratching (as well as Jeff
Cressman’s Miles Davislike muted cornet and Will Bernard’s funky electric
guitar), the importance of the Beatles in Uttal’s artistic worldview
manifests itself even more explicitly. On the Fab Four’s pivotal 1966 album
Revolver, “Tomorrow Never Knows” brought Eastern metaphysics into the rock
realm of the British Invasion. By seamlessly stitching a Sanskrit prayer
into that 35-year-old pop classic, Uttal brings the Lennon/McCartney song
full circle. To his credit, Uttal does not attempt a note-for-note
recreation of the Beatles’ original. Instead, he and coproducer Ben Leinbach
(who plays nearly as many instruments as Uttal on Mondo Rama) succeed in
making the track stand on its own in a fresh, reinvented incarnation.

That has been Uttal’s modus operandi for at least the past 10 years, since
the 1991 release of his debut CD, Footprints (Triloka). A New York native
and son of a record industry executive, Uttal grew up on a baby boomer
musical diet that included Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and, of course, the
Beatles. But his personal muse led him on a path that took him to study
sarod with Hindustani master Ustad Ali Akbar Khan; to live for a time in
India with the mystical, street-singing Bauls of Bengal; and into a
long-term collaboration with West African influenced, avant-garde jazz
saxophonist-pianist-drummer Peter Apfelbaum, in a variety of settings that
include Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble and Uttal’s Pagan Love Orchestra.
In recent years, when he is not leading the eclectic band that recorded the
albums Monkey, Beggars, and Saints and Shiva Station (all on Triloka, now
anthologized on the collection Spirit Room), Uttal has been traveling the
globe as a kirtan singer and chant workshop leader.


From its wry, evocative title to the meticulously defined musical details
embedded in every track, Mondo Rama makes it clear that Uttal recognizes no impermeable barrier between the sacred and the secular. Some might focus on
the unwavering devotional content of such songs as “Shri Krishna,” “Kali
Mata,” “Bom Blenath,” and the Hebrew chant “Shalom,” which Uttal adapted
from a prayer on a medallion he received while visiting a Kabbalistic center
in Israel. Others might just as easily hear Mondo Rama as a pop album, not only because of the modern instrumentation and production wizardry but also
by virtue of Uttal’s confessional songwriting. Indeed, one could imagine
such tunes as “Exile” and “Mood X,” which express the angst of “walking the
highways late late late at night” and seeing “a world that’s crumbling
’round me stone by stone,” being sung by pop icon Sting.

“This is the first album I’ve done that has a little humor in it,” Uttal
admitted in a telephone conversation last November. Most of Mondo Rama‘s
lighthearted moments pop up in the margins: “Tomorrow Never Knows” begins
with some jagged plucking on an out-of-tune acoustic guitar, with Uttal
growling like an old Delta blues man; a minute-and-a-quarter-long track
called “Mondo Rama???” creates a partylike discussion of the whimsical album
title, culminating in a “Mondo Rama will rise again” sing-along.

The title came to Uttal when he was traveling around in Central America. He
was reading a book called Mondo Desperado and was reflecting on the notion
of “the world is Rama,” which he had gleaned from a translated scripture.
“I was thinking Everything is God,’ but that sometimes it’s really weird
and hard to see as God,” he explained. “The word mondo,’ as in Mondo
Desperado
or [the controversial 1963 Italian film] Mondo Cane, has this
subtext of over-the-top craziness. So those two streams of thought joined in
my head.

“To me, Mondo Rama is a combination of a really profound spiritual
concept–everything is God–and the attitude that this world is so weird it
just blows my mind,” he says. That gives a psychological and philosophical
grounding to the recording’s mind-boggling blend of psychedelic and
atmospheric trip-hop sound effects (including Beatlesque “backwards” guitar
parts), sampled sounds from everyday life, authentic instrumentation from
deeply rooted cultural traditions (from Hindustani sarod and African drums
to Appalachian banjo), and inspired devotional singing.

Largely inspired by the Beatles’ ambitious experimentalism on Revolver,
Uttal and collaborator Leinbach managed to create their own kaleidoscopic
masterwork by recording Mondo Rama almost entirely on computers in their
home studios. “This was a big production,” Uttal notes, “and we were in way
over our heads, technologically. From the very beginning we both felt that
this entity Mondo Rama had a life of its own. Every time either one of us
tried to push to make it go faster, something would happen, like the
computers would break and the process would just abort. Whenever we would
get into that space of surrender, all this great creativity would come
through, and things would go smoothly.”


The true source of Mondo Rama‘s brilliant dialectical synthesis of myriad
musical and metaphysical elements can be found not on hard-drives, however,
but in hard times. While making the record, Uttal went through traumatic
upheavals in his personal life. “I was dealing with a lot of emotional
issues,” he said, “and there’s a lot of angst on this album, even in the
happier songs. I was surprised when it was done that it has a quality of joy
and celebration to it as well. While we were making it, I was feeling the
quality of death, but now I really feel the quality of rebirth in the music.
It’s great to be so surprised by the end results of the work.”
Having recently incorporated yoga practice into his daily routine, Uttal
senses an overall “move toward connectedness” in his life, and that may be
the most defining characteristic of Mondo Rama. The devotional elements
still play a huge role, as does brainy musical eclecticism. But by
unleashing more of his personal feelings than on any previous recording,
Uttal has made his warmest, most human album to date. “It’s what my life is
about,” he said, “being really human and knowing that humanness is not
contrary to the spiritual life.”


Contributing Editor Derk Richardson writes about popular culture for Yoga
Journal, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Gate (www.sfgate.com/columnists/).