Ann Arbor Kirtan and the Crazy Wisdom Bookstore are co-sponsoring Jai Uttal in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at two public events: a kirtan on Saturday, June 6 from 7:30–9:30 p.m. at Temple Beth Emeth located at 2309 Packard Road and a half-day workshop at 2608 English Oak Drive on Sunday, June 7 from 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m. For more information, please contact kirtanannarbor.org or crazywisdom.net.
Recently, Glenn Burdick and Dennis Chernin had the pleasure of interviewing Jai Uttal about his spiritual and musical influences. Two years ago, Ann Arbor Kirtan brought Uttal to Ann Arbor for an evening of kirtan and a day-long workshop. More than 200 participants were treated to Uttal’s extraordinary devotional singing and musical gifts. Accompanied by his talented drummer, Dharma Dev, it was a ‘great chant,’ the kind kirtan lovers long for and continue to experience for days after.
Jai Uttal is one of the most well-known and talented kirtan singers in the Western world. He was nominated for a 2002 Grammy Award in the Best New Age Album category for his CD, Mondo Rama. Uttal continues to travel internationally, where he performs and leads kirtan and teaches Indian-style music. He is also a wonderful storyteller, mixing his deep knowledge of Indian mythology with his talent for weaving stories with humor and humility. Uttal plays many instruments, including the guitar, bass, harmonica, fretless banjo, and the Indian instruments ektara, harmonium, and sarod. His beautiful and haunting voice helps the audience and participants experience the harmony of the individual and universal soul.
Ann Arbor Kirtan: You were instrumental in introducing kirtan to the West as a recording artist. How did you, the son of a music company executive, come to embrace kirtan and Indian music as your life’s work?
Jai Uttal: I had a strong affinity to Indian music even as a child, like a karmic connection. As a teenager, I had been studying with Ali Akbar Kahn in California, living in a yoga ashram. We would do kirtan there and I would play guitar and make up melodies. At age 19, I decided to go to India, and that’s where I met Neem Karoli Baba, my guru. I encountered many incredible kirtan singers in India, especially at his temple. On my second trip to India, I found the incredible Baul singers and studied with them. For me, kirtan and music are completely my spiritual path, with its graces and its challenges.
Ann Arbor Kirtan: You continue to be an incubator of kirtan, conducting your Kirtan Camps in the San Francisco area in the summer and the winter camp in places like Costa Rica. People from all over (including our own Dennis Chernin) gather for a week to chant together, study Indian music, and further develop their singing and musical skills. What is your intention in conducting the camps?
Jai Uttal: Kirtan Camp brings people with different needs and expectations, but the current of the kirtan creates a family by the end of the week and there are some beautiful kirtans. I am delighted if people leave and lead their own kirtans. There’s a loving warmth that allows people to be uninhibited. Of course, there’s always an element of this at the public kirtans and workshops. It happens exponentially more at the Kirtan Camp as people become more comfortable with their vulnerability.
Ann Arbor Kirtan: How do you feel about the ‘mainstreaming’ of kirtan into a contemporary musical idiom, versus its traditional form as purely a spiritual practice?
Jai Uttal: Some of the modern kirtan music I don’t care for, but I can’t really know about the depth of another musician’s intention. I have great reverence and respect for the mantras and therefore feel it is good they are being repeated in any case. And for the participants, some have a calling to sing the Holy names and mantras, and others are there for something else, but they are there at the kirtan — everyone’s experiences are different. And I want to honor that something.
For myself, I focus on my own alignment with the deeper spirit of the chant, my own longing for God. There are challenges while leading a kirtan, such as balancing the purity of my intention with the need to have a certain amount of ego. Even in the studio I’m working my craft but still trying to make the most beautiful offering that I can with the deepest heart space possible.