Thursday, November 22, 2007

Jai Uttal : the Enchanter

Until a few days ago if someone told me there was this singer called Jai Uttal, I would have shrugged it off. But today I am enchanted by this american man whose voice has enthralled me during the past few days.

I have listened to many of these american singers and preachers who have devoted most of their lives singing Hindu hymns and chants and have made a name for themselves in this special branch of hindustani classical music popularly known as bhajan, kirtan (or keertan) or chant as it is popularly known worldwide.

Krishna Das (not to be confused with Krishna Prema Das) is a well known name. Others are Bhagavan Das and Ram Dass to name a few. Some female voices are also known in India like Deva Premal and Jaya Lakshmi. Most of them are americans by birth (one of them is Irish as far as I remember) and all of them have made singing and teaching Hindu practices and Yoga as their profession. Most of them are also composing and singing 'Yoga Music' (as they call it) with the recent spurt in the popularity of Yoga worldwide notwithstanding.

But Jai Uttal is a little different from the other singers I have mentioned. He is Indian to the soul. Whereas other singers still retain their 'foreign' (or american) accent in their singing and inadvertently sound similar to ISKCON chanters, Jai Uttal sounds perfectly Indian. In fact due to his Indian sounding name and total sub continent accent I mistook him to be an Indian. Moreover his is a 'classically-trained-sounding' voice.

Incidently all the above mentioned male singers including Jai Uttal are known to be the disciples of Neem Karoli Baba, a revered saintly figure belonging to Akbarpur, Firozabad a town near Agra in India.

Jai Uttal has played Motown songs in cover bands and busked for change on the streets. Both of those experiences have stood him in good stead for his musical career, which finds his music straddling the divide between world and new age.

Born in New York City in 1952, Uttal grew up in the music business - his father worked for a record label - and at the age of seven he began piano lessons. Those were followed by banjo, guitar, and harmonica as Uttal began to discover American roots music, most especially the old-time banjo picking of Appalachian musician Roscoe Holcomb.

But his true spiritual epiphany came when he was 17 and first heard Indian music, which "touched my heart like sounds of my home," he said. "Then I got all the Indian albums I could, and jammed along on guitar with Ravi Shankar records."

His obsession became so great that at the age of 19 he headed for the West Coast, to study sarod and voice with the legendary Ali Akbar Khan. Eighteen months after that he traveled even further - to India itself, to experience the music and the culture first-hand. Renting a house in the Bengal city of Bhopur for $15 a month, he came to know singing street musicians the Bauls of Bengal, and started playing and traveling with them.

On his return to the U.S., he became more diligent in his study of Indian music, while supporting himself by playing guitar in bands whose material ranged from Motown covers to punk to blues.

His break came in 1991 when Triloka released his debut, Footprints, which included an appearance by jazz and world music innovator Don Cherry. With his band, the Pagan Love Orchestra, Uttal continued to mine spiritual, Indian-inflected music two years later on Monkey, which hit the Top Ten on the world music charts. Uttal also found himself producing his mentor, Ali Akbar Khan, for two records, Journey and Garden of Dreams, which found the maestro working with a Western orchestra for the first time. Uttal's next release, 1994's Beggars and Saints was his tribute to the Bauls of Bengal, in thanks for his formative time in Bhopur.

Three years later came Shiva Station, which was mixed by innovative producer Bill Laswell. After that he concentrated on touring with his band rather than recording. A compilation of his four Triloka albums appeared as Spirit Room in July 2000, shortly before the self-released Live Kirtan and Pagan Remixes, which, along with remixes of three Pagan Love Orchestra tracks, was comprised of chanting by Uttal recorded live in a yoga studio. It was followed by another remix EP, Guru Brahma/Malkouns, which included two cuts mixed by Asian Underground star Talvin Singh.

Courtesy : Chris Nickson

Listen to Jai Uttal singing Guru Brahma in his ever enchanting voice :

I also urge you to listen to this captivating song Bajrangi which he has rendered in Raga Durga (please correct me if I am wrong) :

Find more music of Jai Uttal in my new music folder at eSnips : Indian.Raga.New.Age.

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