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East-West Fusion

Kirtan master and multi-instrumentalist Jai Uttal blends the sacred and secular in his latest musical creation, "Mondo Rama".

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.

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