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A two-cd set of spiritual fervor gracefully channeled into compelling music, Jai Uttal’s Kirtan! succeeds both as an introduction to the fundamentals of devotional chanting and as a melodious example of its sincere practice. A familiar name in the international yoga community, Uttal is also an accomplished professional musician with roots in jazz and Indian music and a sophisticated command of a huge variety of instruments. He and coproducer Ben Leinbach make up a virtual world music orchestra, between them playing guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, banjo, harmonium, harmonica, mandolin, bass, the guitarlike dotar, and more. Manose adds bansuri (flute), Bhima-Karma Saragrahi plays mridanga (temple drum), and Daniel Paul adds tabla. Instead of forging an overwrought wall of sound, however, they subtly blend instrumental textures and hues with an angelic vocal choir into a warm, flowing stream that buoys Uttal’s pleasingly reedy lead vocals.
Disc one opens with a child’s voice introducing “Ganesha Sharanam,” a clarion expression of kirtan’s fundamental innocence, vulnerability, and simplicity. Disc two ends with “Kali Bolo,” a long, reggae-tinged and electronica-tweaked track that invokes Shiva’s ferocious consort, Kali Ma, who vanquishes ignorance and ego. In between, Uttal explores the heart and soul of kirtan, making spiritual transformation sound like the most amiable process in the world.
Derk Richardson is a YJ contributing editor who also writes about popular culture for SFGate (www.sfgate.com) and Acoustic Guitar magazine.