Beneath a bronze Shiva Nataraja flanked by candles, Jai Uttal sits on a low stage in front of some 25 people gathered at the Phoenix, Arizona, Yoga Pura center. A wiry figure with close-cropped hair, Uttal establishes a meditative note on his harmonium, a small Indian pump organ. He sings an ancient Sanskrit mantra, "Radhe, Radhe, Radhe, Govinda," a distillation of the divine between Krishna and Radha. At Uttal's right, percussionist Daniel Paul kicks into a slow, expansive beat on the tabla drums. The crowd picks up on the simple melody and chants back—tentatively at first, then with increasing confidence as Uttal leads them deeper into the kirtan, a call-and-response musical meditation. A young, dreadlocked woman jumps to her feet and starts dancing. Others remain quiet with their eyes closed, hands pressed to their hearts.
Uttal has been leading kirtan as a world-beat pioneer since 1971. As the son of record executive Larry Uttal (who fostered the careers of Al Green, Frankie Valli, and Blondie, among others), Jai experienced a wide range of music growing up in New York City. In 1969, at the age of 19, he moved to California, where he studied devotional music with Ali Akbar Khan. Less than two years later Uttal headed to India and became a disciple of Neem Karoli Baba, guru to other kirtan artists such as Krishna Das and Bhagavan Das. Uttal then returned to the United States to pursue a pop and rock career, backing reggae artist Earl Zero and starting the Pagan Love Orchestra, a world fusion group.
"Kirtan was my private and personal practice," he says, "but there was really no place to do it publicly."
That is, until the early 90s. Uttal was asked to perform at New York's Jivamukti Yoga Center shortly after the release of his first kirtan record, Footprints. "That was a pivotal moment in yoga and music," says Jivamukti cofounder Sharon Gannon. "When Jai came to play, he was surprised that the place was packed and everybody could sing along."
After Uttal's performance, the center held weekly kirtans led by Krishna Das. At first attendance was low, but then it grew. And not just in New York.
"All of a sudden, it seemed like the older yoga teachers, who had been to India and knew about kirtan, started to pass their love of kirtan on to their secular yoga students. It was like a grassroots circuit for the music," says percussionist Paul. "I notice that people don't like to sit passively and listen to a concert all night . . . All of a sudden, here's music that can be totally ego-less. In many cases, people don't even know what they're singing. But they can feel the power of it."
Today, after thousands of kirtans, workshop tours, and 13 records, Uttal says he sees the music spreading from its Indian roots to mantra electronica and pop in Top 40 radio hits. For example, careful listeners can find Kundalini instructor Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa chanting on Red Hot Chili Peppers' One Hot Minute and Sting on Krishna Das's Pilgrim Heart
Western music—pop and otherwise— has always been a part of Uttal's repertoire. His early love of American folk can be heard in the banjo and dobro backgrounds on his 2003 album, Kirtan: The Art and Practice of Ecstatic Chant, while his vocals combine the plaintiveness of Art Garfunkel with Steve Winwood's blue-eyed soul. Uttal is currently working on a new album, which, he says, adds Brazilian flair to the kirtan mix. It's scheduled to be released sometime this year.
"One of the great things about kirtan is that it can take any form as long as the mantras are treated with reverence and respect," Uttal says. "But the real life of kirtan is a personal practice."
Alan di Perna wrote "Phone Om" (Aug. 06). He lives and practices yoga in Arizona.